DENVER, Jan. 18, 2017—The Center for Western Priorities today released its Winning the West: Election 2016 Report, revealing the biggest untold story in the Mountain West this election was the rise of public lands and the outdoors as a wedge issue.

The report examined candidate positions on the use, protection and management of public lands in six high-profile Colorado, Montana, and Nevada races where the issue played an outsized role in the campaign’s discourse, advertising, and media coverage. In each contest candidates—irrespective of party affiliation—highlighted positions designed to align themselves closer to an emerging outdoors voting bloc.

“Candidates in the most-watched Mountain West races certainly heard the call of outdoors voters in 2016,” said Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities. “Questions of how we balance conservation with recreational use and energy development on public lands have long been a topic of debate in the Mountain West. But this year marked a key turning point in which candidates standing for public control of American lands became a prerequisite for voter support and electoral success.”

Among the races highlighted in the report was the contest for Montana’s only seat in the U.S. House of Representatives between Democratic challenger Denise Juneau and Republican Representative Ryan Zinke, who was recently nominated to be the next U.S. Secretary of the Interior. In the race, Zinke distanced himself from the state and national GOP platforms, citing his disagreement with language supporting the transfer of national public lands to state governments.

Public lands played an influential role in the other races examined in the report. Some candidates won their races in part by using their support for public lands as a wedge issue. Others outpaced expectations in terms of financial support and votes by focusing their platforms on the outdoors. Candidates who took an extreme position in favor of giving away public lands and putting them at risk of private development—a growing “third rail” in Western electoral politics—faced stunning defeats as a result.

During the 2016 election cycle, the Center for Western Priorities’ Winning the West effort studied the views of Mountain West swing voters through polling and focus groups in Colorado, Montana and Nevada.

As detailed in the report, public opinion research showed a growing outdoors voting bloc as a balanced approach to how public lands are used and protected became a consensus position in the Mountain West. Democratic, Republican, and independent voters were all more likely to support a candidate committed to protecting access to outdoor spaces (84 percent in Montana, 82 percent in Nevada, 74 percent in Colorado). Voters were also more likely to support a candidate who prioritized job creation in the outdoor recreation economy (79 percent in Montana, 78 percent in Nevada, 74 percent in Colorado).

“The numbers didn’t lie. Voters want candidates who demonstrate a respect for the Western way of life and take a common sense, balanced approach to public lands issues,” said Rokala. “The candidates who took notice of this, and campaigned on these issues, improved their chances of electoral success.”

As a new administration takes office, the trends and outcomes examined in the report have implications for upcoming policy debates and future elections.

“Efforts out of step with Mountain West values, including privatizing public lands and reversing the designation of popular national monuments and parks, may lead to an electoral backlash,” Rokala added. “If that is the case, outdoors issues could play an even more decisive role in 2018 elections.”

The Center for Western Priorities’ Winning the West campaign is intended to educate candidates and campaigns about how important it is to show strong support for public lands and access to outdoor spaces, particularly among swing voters in battleground Mountain West states. Findings from public opinion research were disseminated through ads that demonstrated the emotional impact of outdoor issues and imagery.

The Center for Western Priorities is a conservation policy and advocacy organization focused on land and energy issues across the American West.