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New Mexico State University

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Positive Environmental Attitudes Dominate in New Mexico

LAS CRUCES - Ask most New Mexico residents what they think about environmental issues and you'll find striking unanimity: Green is good. That's according to a statewide survey of public opinion on environmental attitudes by New Mexico State University.

Rhonda Skaggs, a New Mexico State University agricultural economist, reviews results of a new statewide survey of public opinion toward the environment, agriculture and the government. (03/29/2004) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

"Everybody is really pretty green," said Rhonda Skaggs, an NMSU agricultural economist. "We didn't see a huge difference in terms of environmental attitudes among state residents. In fact, people who are involved in crop production didn't have markedly different environmental attitudes from other people in the state."

Respondents were asked their opinions about agriculture as an industry, and agriculture's effect on water resources and the environment. Other portions of the study delved into attitudes on governmental policies and environmental protection.

For instance, those surveyed were asked to rank whether they agreed or disagreed with statements such as, "Agricultural landowners will voluntarily reduce water pollution." Under the government portion, an example included, "Water quality laws are a threat to private property rights in New Mexico." Environmental attitudes were measured with statements such as, "All species have a right to co-exist on the planet."

People in the study were then scored for their attitude toward agriculture, government and the environment. Those scores for environmentalism revealed few statistical differences based on location, age, education, ethnicity and gender.

But the professor was quick to note that public perception of environmental issues - like the controversial and far-reaching provisions of the Endangered Species Act - are apparently colored by overriding feelings toward agriculture in general and the government specifically.

"Support for environmental issues, which applies regardless of who we are or where we live in the state, can be superseded by our attitudes towards agriculture, as well as our expectations about the role of government and government regulations in our lives," she said. "For example, if you believe that farms and ranches must be preserved because they are a vital part of our heritage, then you are likely to be concerned about the costs of increased environmental regulations."

Funded by the New Mexico Environment Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the survey of 1,100 actively engaged community residents across the state was completed in 2001. The mail survey included New Mexicans who previously participated in community development activities.

Social policy experts have been gauging attitudes toward the environment for decades, Skaggs said. In that time, one change across age, race, income, education and location has been a growing recognition that there can be a more harmonious relationship between humans and nature, she said.

"In other words, there is value in not destroying or using the environment as a tool to produce something else," she said. "And, while some of these endangered species may not mean that much to us personally, they still have existence value in terms of their possible extinction."

Conflict comes when environmental beliefs are matched against policies that seem to negatively affect a resident's business or industry. "Sometimes people are accused of being antienvironment when they simply have other core beliefs that need to be recognized," Skaggs said.

Irrigated crop production and range livestock have traditionally been the Southwest's most extensive land and water users, she said. But agricultural interests are under pressure from rapidly growing urban areas and a rising number of rural residents who aren't involved in agriculture, as well as environmental activists and recreation interests.

In the study, there were sharp difference in scores between those living in small towns and residents of cities over 100,000. Rural residents markedly support agriculture and the government more than their big city neighbors, Skaggs said.

The Southwest has become a hot spot for population growth with much greater economic diversity, coupled with increasing competition for limited natural resources. Ten of the fastest growing U.S. counties are in the West, as are 10 of the 15 fastest growing cities, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In New Mexico, some of the most urban counties are also home to intensive crop and livestock production.

If you would like to measure your own attitudes toward the environment, agriculture and the government, NMSU has developed an electronic, self-administered test, which is available either on compact disc or at http://cahe.nmsu.edu/eai. "This is a spreadsheet tool that helps people communicate," Skaggs said. "You'll quickly find out what group you fall into." In the study, groups are divided among broad categories of deep green, middle of the road and environmental skeptics.

Skaggs described individuals with deep green attitudes as having more classic environmental opinions, including the belief that environmental protection will always be worth the cost. Environmental skeptics tend to believe that environmental protection should be balanced against the cost of the policy.

Recognizing that differences exist among persons with varying backgrounds is the first step, she said. True communication is more likely to happen when all parties have a better understanding of each others' attitudes, particularly when it pertains to the environment, agriculture and government.