The Heat Is Online

Poll: Environment Trumps Economy

Ecology beats economy in poll

Most favor protection over jobs, land rights; Bush policy criticized

The Los Angeles Times, May 1, 2001

LOS ANGELES - Americans are growing increasingly concerned about the environment and believe that protecting it should take precedence over economic development, according to a Los Angeles Times poll.

The nationwide survey found strong sentiment that pollution is getting worse and that President Bush is on the wrong track on issues such as global warming, wilderness protection, and allowable levels of arsenic in drinking water.

The poll also found a broadly held interest in nature. More than seven out of 10 survey respondents said they had visited a national park at some point in their lives, and nine in 10 said it is important that wilderness and open spaces be preserved.

The Times poll, completed last week, compared a sampling of opinions nationwide with environmental views in the Western states, where most of the nation's public land and wilderness are situated. There were few policy disagreements, although respondents from the West tended to favor more development and greater local control.

Overall, the survey found a broad green streak across the United States, from the California coast to the hills of Vermont.

Fifty-eight percent of respondents said protecting plants and animals should take priority over preserving personal property rights - a sentiment that held true even in Alaska and the Mountain West, places with a traditional aversion to government control. Thirty-four percent said personal property rights should be a higher priority.

Despite signs of a weakening economy, most respondents tended to put a premium on preserving nature even if it means creating fewer jobs. The attitude cut across most regional lines and even income levels, although support for the environment tended to be stronger among the more affluent.

''I don't think the environment or natural things should be destroyed just to get ahead,'' said Frank Sawyer, 46, of rural Shermandale, Pa., one of several people contacted in follow-up interviews. ''There's plenty of think tanks out there that can come up with an alternative solution other than destroying the natural habitat, because once that's destroyed, it's never going to come back.''

The survey also found a deep suspicion of business and doubts that corporations can be trusted to take good care of the environment.

That sentiment might explain why Bush, who generally favors less regulation, received poor marks for his handling of environmental issues.

Since taking office, Bush has moved to review, weaken, or undo a host of the Clinton administration's environmental-protection policies dealing with global warming, air and water pollution, national forests, and national monuments.

While Bush enjoyed an overall 57 percent approval rating after his first 100 days in office, respondents were much less enthusiastic about the president's handling of environmental issues: 41 percent approved and 38 percent disapproved.

Opinions were even harsher on a number of Bush's specific decisions.

Fifty-six percent of respondents opposed Bush's move to overturn a Clinton administration ruling to reduce levels of arsenic allowed in drinking water.

By 65 percent to 24 percent, a majority opposed rolling back Clinton administration regulations protecting federal land as national monuments. Respondents in Alaska, however, opposed Clinton's move 51 percent to 40 percent.

Alaska also differed with the rest of the country on the president's proposal to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A 65 percent to 34 percent majority of Alaskan respondents supported the proposal; nationally, sentiments were 55 percent in favor, 34 percent against.

The Bush administration has also advocated oil and gas drilling in the northern Rocky Mountains, but respondents opposed that proposal, 57 percent to 32 percent. Only 4 percent favored an outright ban on all drilling.

The Times poll interviewed 813 adults nationwide plus 512 Californians, 332 Oregonians, 322 Alaskans, and 317 Washingtonians from April 21 to 26. In addition, the survey sampled 553 residents in seven states of the Mountain West: Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada.

The margin of error for the national sample was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

This story ran on page A02 of the Boston Globe on 5/1/2001.
Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.