Adam Davis: Oregon has tough love for the environment

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Adam Davis—February 26, 2015
Portland Tribune

When it comes to our state’s future, we Oregonians often are divided (sometimes deeply) on such things as what the role of government should be, how much to tax ourselves, and what to spend the money on. There is one thing, however, that unites us: our love for Oregon’s natural beauty and its air and water. In other words, the environment.

In a 2014 scientifically conducted public opinion survey of more than 1,000 Oregonians, consensus about the importance of the environment stood out. When asked to identify what they value most about living in the state, respondents specified such things as the coast, the Columbia Gorge, the desert, the mountains, and our rivers, streams and lakes. Also mentioned were our farms and forestland, fresh air, and clean water. More general references were made to Oregon’s beauty, its scenery, nature, and wildlife.

Oregonians also value outdoor recreational opportunities — both the variety of those opportunities and their proximity. In focus groups we learn the reason why: You get to do them in a quality environment.

All these dimensions of the environment are important to Oregonians and are what they value about living in the state. We have to go way down the list to find any reference to something not directly or indirectly related to the environment. In fact, the first item not connected to the environment or to Oregon’s neighborliness or friendliness is — drum roll — no sales tax. Not having to pump your own gas also is mentioned, but such things as jobs and economic opportunity, our schools ... nope. It may seem counterintuitive, but our top values do not necessarily align with our top concerns.

Whether you’re a Republican, Democrat or Independent; liberal, conservative or moderate; urban, suburban or rural; you’re likely to greatly value Oregon’s environment. Furthermore, you’re telling us in our surveys and focus groups why it is so important to you.

Environmental quality is important to Oregonians for a variety of reasons beyond providing a great setting for outdoor activities. People link it to better health, providing a legacy for future generations and pride in our state. Importantly, Oregonians also connect the environment to one of the top issues they’re concerned about and want their government officials to do something about: jobs and the economy.

We see how Oregonians prioritize the environment in DHM’s research surveys. When asked recently what the better way is for Oregon to promote economic growth, 70 percent chose maintaining a quality environment to attract people and companies to Oregon versus relaxing environmental protection to make it easier for companies to do business (23 percent). Oregonians have felt this way consistently over the years. They answered the same question similarly in both the 1992 and 2002 Oregon Values and Beliefs studies. Again, the value of a quality environment is recognized by a broad cross-section of Oregonians. Well, almost. Note for Republicans: You’re on the side of relaxing protections while a strong majority of Democrats and (listen up) Independents are in the maintaining quality camp.

It is one thing to say you value a quality environment for the different reasons mentioned above, but it is another to say you’re willing to pay more or change your behavior to protect it. Are Oregonians willing to put their money where their mouth is? The answer is yes and no. On the one hand, they have become recyclers, say they’re willing to change their behavior to help combat climate change, and support greater regulation of the coal industry and a cap on the amount of carbon dioxide a big company can emit. Such policies could lead to increased prices for products and services, showing there are times they are willing to step up and take on some burdens to protect the environment. But, on the other hand, they’re opposed to paying a carbon tax of 25 cents a gallon on gasoline and are divided on having higher density in their neighborhoods to prevent urban sprawl.

These research findings should not be a surprise. While Oregonians greatly value environmental quality, a majority also feel that government wastes money and can’t effectively administer programs, they don’t like big business, and they are struggling financially. So, people prefer to keep government out of it, minimize regulations or make the other guy pay, and make it more about monetary incentives and volunteering than about taxes and punishing regulations.

Oregonians also want to understand fully any proposal and hear information from a credible source (a very short list of individuals and organizations these days). Otherwise, in this era of cynicism, skepticism and negativity, any doubt at all is a death sentence for most tax or regulation proposals, even ones related to the environment. Lack of information irks Oregonians.

For example, we found that quantifying (how many more units) and qualifying (what kind of units will they be and what will they look like) greatly affects support levels for a proposal to have higher density in a neighborhood. How ideas are framed matters also. Instead of “preventing urban sprawl,” how about calling it “protection of farm and forestland?”

We love environmental quality in Oregon, but considering the bigger public opinion climate these days, it is a tough love. But then again, Oregonians are tough. Don’t bet against us when it comes to our state’s environmental quality.

Adam Davis, who has been conducting opinion research in Oregon for more than 35 years, is a founding principal in DHM Research, an independent, nonpartisan firm.