Between the Inflation Reduction Act’s landmark measure to address the climate crisis; CHIPS and the Science Act’s unprecedented strengthening of American manufacturing, supply chains, and national security; and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s historic investments in community resilience and competitiveness, President Joe Biden has delivered a series of legislative wins. But the president has yet another ace up his sleeve for addressing the climate crisis that is both popular and bipartisan: bold action to advance his “America the Beautiful” initiative by conserving and designating new public lands and waters for permanent protection.
Recent analyzes of media and public opinion show that executive conservation actions are highly popular, cut through public mistrust of Washington, are accessible to broad and bipartisan audiences, and receive incredibly positive media coverage. These studies also suggest that further use of executive conservation measures by President Biden would be well received by the voting public and result in ownership of the media narrative.
At a time of deep partisan division on most central issues of public policy, acting to preserve public lands is one of the most unequivocally positive actions a president can take.
Now is the time for President Biden to build on his conservation legacy by designating national monuments such as Camp Hale-Continental Divide, Castner Range and Avi Kwa Ame; complete the protection of critical sites such as Bristol Bay; and stricter rules to preserve intact landscapes. Bold action to conserve our lands, waters, and wildlife is not only necessary to prevent biodiversity loss and climate change, but it also enjoys near-universal support in America’s increasingly divided political sphere.
Public opinion consistently supports conservation measures
According to a comprehensive opinion poll by FM3 Research, executive actions to preserve public lands are consistently and overwhelmingly popular, and specific conservation measures taken by President Biden — both completed and anticipated — are also supported.
The analysis examined 30 opinion polls on public land issues conducted over the past eight years. These surveys span a wide range of political and economic contexts, including both Democratic and Republican leadership, various states of the economy, and before, during, and during the waning months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The data clearly show that the public has widely, strongly, and consistently positive attitudes toward large landscape-level preserves, the agencies that manage them, and proposals to increase conservation on public lands. Furthermore, the popularity of these actions cuts across all major demographic groups within the electorate, gaining support across party lines, including strong support among independents.
Support for increasing conservation on federal public lands — including the president’s America the Beautiful initiative — has averaged 76 percent since 2016, with the vast majority of Americans expressing “strong” support. Likewise, support for specific proposals to designate or expand federally protected lands is broad, with 76 percent of voters expressing consistent support since 2014—again, the vast majority of whom list their support as “strong.” Specific proposals include actions already taken by the Biden administration, such as restoring protections for Bears Ears National Monument, as well as potential future actions, such as the proposed Caja del Rio and Avi Kwa Ame national monuments.
Public support for conservation measures: By the numbers
Average percentage of Americans who support the concept of increasing conservation on federal public lands since 2016
Average percentage of Americans who support specific proposals to designate or expand federally protected lands since 2014
Average approval, favorability, and trust ratings for federal land management agencies since 2016
Federal land management agencies—including the National Park Service, Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management (BLM)—are also exceptionally popular, with approval, favorability, and trust ratings averaging 71 percent since 2016. However, it’s worth noting that positive rating is slightly reduced by the sizable number of voters — nearly a quarter — who are unfamiliar with the BLM. Notably, these approval ratings are significantly more favorable than those of Congress and both the Trump and Biden administrations over the same time period, demonstrating the unique ability of conservation to cut through the remarkable decline in Americans’ trust in government.
In short, there is intense, consistent, and bipartisan support for the preservation of public lands. At a time of deep partisan division on most central issues of public policy, acting to preserve public lands is one of the most unequivocally positive actions a president can take. Indeed, these results make clear that bold conservation actions by the Biden administration would be met with broad, strong, and sustained support from the American public.
Conservation efforts drive overwhelmingly positive media coverage
According to a comprehensive media analysis conducted by the Center for American Progress and the Center for Western Priorities, executive branch announcements about national monuments, national parks and large-scale conservation initiatives consistently drive positive media coverage in outlets across the political spectrum.
The analysis reviewed print and television media coverage of federal public land conservation, including approximately 3,100 news and opinion pieces from January 2021 to July 2022. About half of the coverage reviewed for tone was neutral, which is the standard for environmental reporting. However, the positive coverage overwhelmingly outweighed the negative by a ratio of 5 to 1. And nearly half of all positive coverage specifically mentioned President Biden or the Biden administration.
Positive monitoring of national monument designations
National memorial designations in particular provide the opportunity for positive news coverage.
In October 2021, President Biden’s use of the Antiquities Act to restore Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monuments was a unanimous communications win. Coverage of the decision was overwhelmingly positive, with positive coverage outweighing negative coverage by a ratio of more than 10-to-1 and all positive coverage directly mentioning President Biden or his administration. Much of that coverage noted that President Biden was keeping a promise he made during the 2020 campaign, and only 10 percent of the coverage was neutral — a significant departure from the usual 50-plus percent neutral trend in media analysis. Furthermore, the restorations of the national monuments accounted for 25 percent of the print coverage identified about public lands during the time period reviewed and more than 50 percent of the positive public lands coverage.
Notably, this positive media coverage spread widely on social media, with more than 300,000 engagements from the top three articles alone. Biden’s campaign also received 548 local TV segments in 40 states. Overall, television coverage developed positively, with positive coverage outweighing the number of negative stories. Opinion coverage following the president’s announcement also developed positively.
It should be noted that media coverage of conservation and public lands often reinforces narratives central to the Biden agenda. The primary themes of coverage include:
- The positive economic impact of national monuments, national parks, and other public lands on local communities
- A direct link between public land protection and combating climate change
- The public health benefits of nearby nature, including improved access to green spaces for communities of color
Both of these analyzes show that executive conservation actions are undeniably popular, bipartisan, and a bright spot at a time when public perceptions of government and its operations are increasingly bleak. These results should both bode well for bold future conservation efforts by the Biden administration. Preserving public lands is a policy option that both speaks to people’s values and is central to the way of life of Western voters, highlighting the best parts of America’s history to the public.
The authors would like to thank Nicole Gentile, Steve Bonitatibus, Drew McConville, Aaron Weiss, and Lilly Bock-Brownstein for their contributions to this column.
Read more about CAP’s conservation policy team