2012-04-22 08:00:00

Summit Sheds Light on Voter, Candidate Disconnect Over Environment

PHOENIX, Az. -- Voters across the Southwest and Arizona say this election year they want to see action on conservation and preservation of the environment, though the issue doesn’t appear to be high on candidates’ list of priorities.

“This is really something that unifies people across this region, a basic belief that there’s a value to the region's natural resources which is worth protecting,” said Dave Metz, one of the authors of the 2012 Colorado College State of the Rockies Conservation in the West poll. “That sentiment plays into their view of how the environment and the economy interact on the West,” added the pollster.

Metz spoke at an environmental media summit convened by New America Media to shed light on attitudes among minority and mainstream voters on issues like environmental protection and conservation.

The new poll shows that Latino voters in six inland western states have strong pro-conservationist views, in some cases stronger than their white counterparts.

Of the 336 Latino voters polled, 87 percent said they believe it is possible to protect land and water while still preserving a strong economy and good jobs, compared to 78 percent of the general public. Most of those polled agreed that enacting preservation measures and laws protecting the environment would not have a damaging effect on the economy as suggested by politicians that oppose such regulation.

“The poll is a call to action from the audience saying we care about these issues, and we as journalist have to respond as to how we want to cover it,” said Sandy Close, executive director of New America Media.

Despite the poll’s results, several panelists highlighted the disconnect between public opinion and action coming from the federal and local level.

“From the armchair people think environmental issues are important: ‘Yes, we can have jobs and we can have our wildlife and our protective areas,’” said Matt Skroch, executive director of the Arizona Wilderness Coalition, which focuses on the protection of public lands. “Those opinions, for whatever reason -- money and politics, special interests, and lobbying -- aren’t actually making an impact on the way our decision makers are doing their job.”

Skroch said that the result of that disconnect has posed major “threats to our natural heritage here in Arizona today” through bills in the Legislature like HCR 2004.

If the measure goes to the ballot and wins, all public lands and parks would be under the exclusive authority of the state’s government.

Skroch said the bill was “clearly unconstitutional” but that he welcomed the debate if it goes to the polls.

The issue of renewable energy was also a key part of the summit that was attended by over a dozen members of the ethnic media representing Latino, Vietnamese, Chinese, Native American and African-American communities across Arizona.

Andy Bessler, the southwest regional organizer for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal to Clean Energy & Community Partnerships said renewable energy is becoming a campaign issue, but is not being framed appropriately for conservative voters.

Rather than focusing on efforts to curb global warming, says Bessler, the issue needs to be framed in the context of energy security and diversity.

Dave Richins, program director for the Sonoran Institute’s Sun Corridor Legacy Project, spoke about the importance of maintaining habitable communities in urban areas in states like Arizona.

“It’s important to tell the story about land tenure in Arizona," he said. "[And to] understand the difference between national parks, and the bureau of land management lands, between wilderness areas and state trust lands”

Also at the summit were a variety of stakeholders on the issue of environmental preservation, from groups focused on the preservation of the Colorado river to water rights in the Navajo and Hopi nations.

“Latinos are concerned about these issues,” said Sal Rivera, from Nuestro Rio, a 1,300-member strong organization working to protect the Colorado River. Rivera acknowledged, however, that there are challenges, especially in Arizona, where most of the debate has focused on the polarization over immigration legislation and enforcement.

“We are focusing on the importance of job creation and thousands of jobs that depend on the river, focusing on the fact that the river is changing dramatically,” he said.

Most panelists agreed about the need to connect the larger issue of preservation to the daily health and well being of voters.

Wahleah Johns, co-director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition Transition, gave the issue immediacy.

Johns said there was growing concern among members of the Navajo Nation about Senate Bill 2109, introduced last February by Arizona senators Jon Kyl and John McCain. The bill includes three water projects that would bring drinking water to the Navajo and Hopi reservations in exchange for the tribes waiving their water claims to the Little Colorado River.

“They’re pushing this bill on our nation in exchange for keeping the Navajo generating station open to keep more coal mining for the next 50 years or more,” said Johns. “Looking into the future, I feel our generation is going to be dealing with the debt of the decisions that are being made today and 40 years ago.”

The Little Colorado River is considered a major source of life for Native-Americans in the area and also a sacred site. Currently, while there is a power generating station on these lands, over 18,000 homes in the Navajo Nation do not have electricity and 50 percent are without running water.

“When I come to Phoenix I can’t help but think about what we traded in for you all, for this city to grow 30 years ago. There’s an inequity in this state that is built on the resources of our communities,” Johns said. “It needs to be recognized by leadership in the state. How do we move forward to a path that is sustainable, that is equitable? Whether you are Latino, Navajo or Hopi.”

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