Why Republicans and Democrats in the Mountain West campaigned on conservation

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., celebrates with his family after his race was called by The Associated Press, early Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020, in Bozeman, Mont. | Tommy Martino, Associated Press

In Montana and Colorado, Republican candidates touted the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act.

When people think of the West, they think of its open spaces. Deserts and red rock, snowcapped peaks and redwood forests. Those open spaces not only provide joy to residents, but jobs.

Outdoor recreation — and access to public lands — is a big economic driver in the region. This election year, with two key Senate seats up in Montana and Colorado, conservatives and Democrats alike worked hard to tout their support for the outdoors.

Between 2012 and 2017, the outdoor recreation industry’s contribution to the Mountain West’s economy grew by 24.05%, according to a study done by the University of Nevada.

In Montana alone, outdoor recreation generates 7.1 billion and provides over 70,000 jobs. Not only do Montanans benefit from the money that pours in, but many in the state also enjoy the outdoors themselves — more than 80% of residents participate in outdoor recreation, according to a report from HeadWaters Economics, a Montana based nonprofit.

In Utah, more than 72% of state residents participate in outdoor recreation, and the industry brings in roughly $5.5 billion each year.

A poll conducted by Colorado College found that 80% of voters in eight different Western states considered a public official’s stance on “water, air, wildlife and public lands” important.

Some have argued that if you want to win in the West, support for the outdoors is crucial.

In Montana’s hotly contested senate race between Republican incumbent Steve Daines and Democrat Steve Bullock, public lands became a key talking point for both candidates. Daines ultimately held his seat in a race that turned into one of the most expensive contests in the country.

“Public lands remain at the heart of Montana politics, and we proudly made sure conservation stayed front and center this election cycle,” Whitney Tawney, deputy director of Montana Conservation Voters told E&E News.

Passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, which permanently funded the Land and Water Conservation Fund, was one of Daines’ key talking points. 70% of voters in the West supported funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses funds from offshore oil and gas leasing to in part support upkeep and maintenance of national parks.

“In the midst of a very polarized and divided Congress, we found an issue that brought Republicans and Democrats together,” Daines said.

His website features pictures of the senator hiking, and describes him as a “lifelong sportsman,” and notes his commitment to “managing and protecting our public lands.”

In ads, Daines called himself a “conservative conservationist.”

However, Daines’ critics accused the senator of green-washing his record.

Much of that criticism surrounded his initial support of William Perry Pendley, who held the role of acting director of the Bureau of Land Management until a federal judge ruled that he was serving unlawfully. The judge said Pendley needed to be confirmed by the Senate. Steve Bullock, Montana’s current governor and Daines’ opponent in the race, brought the lawsuit that resulted in Pendley’s removal.

Daines, who initially voiced his support for Pendley, later hesitated on whether or not he would support Pendley if he was officially nominated. Pendley’s nomination would have been contentious — he has a history of advocating for the sale of public lands. Under his reign at the BLM, he approved plans to open federal land to oil and gas development, the Colorado Sun reported.

Daines’ spokeswoman later told E&E News that the senator had “not made a final decision” and would “have some very tough questions” for Pendley.

In one advertisement, Bullock pointed to a lawsuit Pendley worked on that challenged Montana’s laws giving people access to rivers and streams for recreation, “Twenty years ago, this man sued the state of Montana, trying to get rid of the public’s right to access our rivers and streams. I took him on in court and won.”

Ultimately, Daines won over the Montana people and remains senator.


Chelsea Self, Associated Press
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., takes photos with supporters at a rally for Lauren Boebert, the Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives seat outside of Shooters restaurant on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020, in downtown Rifle, Colo.

However, in Colorado, another vulnerable Republican senator, Cory Gardner, was not successful. Gardner also co-sponsored the Great American Outdoors Act. “Today the Senate passed not only the single greatest conservation achievement in generations, but also a lifeline to mountain towns and recreation communities hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Gardner said in a statement.

However, the League of Conservation Voters rated Gardner’s lifetime voting record at 11%. Daines scored an even lower 6%.

As one voter told Colorado Public Radio, “For what our state has to gain from environment initiatives and just how important public lands and environmental initiatives are to Coloradans, 11 percent is kind of comical.”

Gardner ultimately lost to Democrat John Hickenlooper. While Hickenlooper was criticized for his ties to the energy industry, he also stood against issuing new oil and gas leases on public lands, the Colorado Sun reported.

No matter the winner, this election cycle made one thing clear: public lands aren’t a clear cut conservative or liberal issue. In the Mountain West, no matter which side you’re on, love of the great outdoors is unanimous.

Sofia Jeremias

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