02/26/2015 11:07 am ET Updated Apr 28, 2015

Westerners Continue to Have a Strong Connection to Public Lands

Those of us who spent our careers in the National Parks Service know full well that the allure of the American West is hard to shake off. Call it an affinity, or a closeness--but whether it's the sawtooth ridges of the Grand Tetons or the cliff faces of Dinosaur National Monument, sooner or later something will grab you and refuse to let go.

Now, a new poll released earlier this month by Colorado College gives us hard data to back up this connection that Westerners have to their natural landscape. The fifth annual "Conservation in the West" poll (hyperlink, when available)--which covers voters in Arizona, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah--shows that outdoor recreation, an active lifestyle and close proximity to public land are the greatest factors motivating people to move to--and stay in--the mountain west. A whopping 88 percent of respondents listed a "healthy, outdoor lifestyle" as a factor in living and staying in the west, and another 80 percent named the ability to recreate on nearby public lands. By comparison, only 66 percent listed quality of healthcare a factor, and public schools only registered 63 percent.

Westerners, it seems, also walk the walk when it comes to enjoying the great outdoors. A near-unanimous 95 percent of respondents used federally managed land like National Parks or National Forests at least once in the last year. Furthermore, a majority frequented national public lands at least six times, and nearly one-quarter went at least 20 times.

But beyond the findings of a single year, the poll confirms that Western voters also support stable, long-term management of our shared public lands--95 percent agreed that "protecting and conserving natural areas for future generations" is an important goal.

I, and others in the in the National Parks community, know that the power and beauty of the American wilderness alone is enough to elicit this belief; but I think there is a more practical explanation for the longsighted, clearheaded perspective of most Westerners. Studies have shown time and time again that protected areas stimulate local economies by attracting tourism, promoting recreational retail sales, creating service jobs to match demand and increasing tax revenue. The National Parks Service, for example, has meticulously followed the beneficial economic impact parks have on surrounding communities. In 2013, 273 million visitors spent $14.6 billion, which directly supported 238,000 jobs--and that's in a year when a government shutdown locked the gates for the better part of a month. As I wrote here last year, that's approximately a 10 to 1 return on the NPS funding provided by the federal government.

Westerners inherently know that long-term management of public lands is more economically sound than selling land for a one-time profit. (Unsurprisingly, only 17 percent of respondents think public land sales would be a proper deficit reduction strategy.) This explains why Westerners prioritize living near easily accessible public land above other factors like health care, education and employment opportunities: a focus on conservation ripples throughout communities, leading naturally to local economic strength.

Of course, despite these encouraging statistics, we can't afford to be complacent. A broad range of important conservation issues will be decided upon in 2015, and pressure needs to be put on Congress to take a responsible, balanced approach to maintaining our public lands. In Arizona, lawmakers are pushing the Obama administration to designate the Grand Canyon watershed as a National Monument--a move that would prevent local uranium mining and create a wildlife corridor between Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Grand Canyon National Park, where I served as a park ranger. The Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has used fees from offshore drilling to support inland conservation since 1965, is set to expire at the end of September. Last week, a bipartisan group of Senators introduced a bill to refund the LWCF, but it will be an uphill fight. Tuesday's poll showed that 75 percent of respondents favor continuing this program--now it's up to members of Congress to follow their constituents' lead.