Arguing Over America’s Best Idea: Examining the Congressional Partisan Divide with Regard to Public Lands Policy

April 30, 2020   /  

Students: Anna Medema
Major: Political Science
Minor: Environmental Studies
Advisors: Dr. Bas van Doorn, Dr. Angela Bos

Anna Medema

This Independent Study investigates the effect of political party on Congressional roll-call votes on public lands policies and how this effect changes over time. The results of my study show that, beginning around the 1990s, Senators began to divide along party lines on public lands policies. Democratic Senators voted increasingly in favor of public lands policies, while their Republican counterparts became less likely to support these policies. However, there are Republicans today who vote in favor of public lands policies. I found that, when talking publicly about public lands, these Republican Senators frequently make appeals to their constituency by referencing the lands in their state.

Anna will be online to field comments on May 8:
2-4pm EDT (PST 11am-1pm, Africa/Europe: evening)

112 thoughts on “Arguing Over America’s Best Idea: Examining the Congressional Partisan Divide with Regard to Public Lands Policy”

  1. Great presentation! It’s really interesting to see the impact constituents can have on policymakers.

  2. Nice presentation. Just a couple of questions about your study: What impact does regionalism play? Is there a correlation between the votes of those from the West (where most of these lands are located) and those of the East? Considering that in terms of acreage, when we are talking about public lands (NPS, USFS, and BLM) the overwhelming majority of those lands are in the sixteen (Texas excluded; its public lands are a whole other strange story) western states, does that fact play a role? A western senator from say Montana, where recreation and travel on those lands play such a major part of the economy, would have a different responsibility than say a Senator from Kentucky. On a related note, did you notice a difference in approach when talking about different kinds of lands: creating new national monuments under the 1906 Antiquities Act, or redefining use on USFS or BLM lands, or funding for NPS?

    1. Thank you for your thoughts, Dr. Roche! I did encounter a bit about regionalism in my literature review. While anti-public land sentiment has certainly been the highest in Western states (ie the Sagebrush Rebellion), data shows that citizens in Western states still overwhelmingly support public lands. One recent poll asked members of Western states if more emphasis should be placed in Congress on “ensuring we protect sources of clean water, our air quality and wildlife habitat while providing opportunities to visit and recreate on our national public lands” or “ensuring we produce more domestic energy by maximizing the amount of national public lands available for responsible oil and gas drilling and mining.” 65% of total respondents answered that preservation was more important, while only 24% answered in favor of increased drilling and domestic energy practices. Of these respondents, 39% identified as conservative, 33% as moderate, and only 23% as liberal. Although Western Republican members of Congress place an emphasis on states’ rights and energy production, this emphasis is not reflected in the opinions of their constituents.

      With regard to your second question, public lands created through the Antiquities Act definitely stand out as some of the more controversial. When the President uses executive action to designate federal land in a Conservative Western state, it is often largely unpopular with the members of Congress. It is very interesting to me that Senators with the most public lands in their states and the most constituents who use public lands are often the most against the policies that protect these lands.

  3. Congratulations, Anna! This is an excellent project, and a really great presentation. [I’m a huge fan of the NPS and public lands, too! 🙂 ]

    1. Thank you, Dr. Leiby! I leave in a week to start my seasonal position at Mount Rainer and couldn’t be more excited for a summer with the NPS!

    2. Excellent job, Anna. I enjoyed your response to Dr. Roche as it was well thought out. This divide by party affiliation is disturbing to me. I hope you will be able to bring up discussions about this as you begin your work this summer at Mt. Rainier National Park. Grandpa and I are so very proud of you!

      1. Thank you Grandma! So happy to have shared my four years at Wooster with you. Love you lots.

  4. Very interesting, and very impressive methodology. What accounts best for the much lower influence of partisanship in the 111th … and was the same explanation plausible re: the smaller reversal of trend in the 101st? Thank you, Anna!

    1. Thank you, Ari! When I noticed the outlying 111th Congress, I looked back at the five policies I had chosen for that Congress to get an idea of why they might have had more bipartisan success. Two of those five policies had to do with the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which provides funding for public lands in every state in the country. LWCF policies may have a better chance at Republican support, because they directly impact the lives of citizens in every state.

      To see if this idea held up, I removed those two policies and re-ran my data for the 111th Congress. It was as I had expected, the mean Republican vote score dropped significantly and the data point lined up with those on either side of it. However, while it is clear that those two LWCF policies in the 111th Congress were more successful with Republican Senators, there were several other LWCF policies throughout the Congresses I chose that did not get bipartisan support. A further area of research that my IS suggests is why some public lands policies are able to be bipartisan, when so many are not. What components do those popular bills have?

      1. Thank you, Anna. Reading your reply here, and to Prof. Roche above, leaves me deeply impressed with your mastery of this entire domain. It’s inspiring.

  5. This is awesome! Go Med! We love national parks and politics!

  6. I loved working with you on this project, Anna. You should be very proud of what you’ve accomplished!

  7. Interesting presentation albeit sad that partisanship plays such a role. I think it would be interesting to map campaign donations by industry to voting record. Best of luck.

    1. Hi Jennifer, thank you! It certainly is disappointing to see how polarization has infiltrated even the most popular areas. I agree that campaign donations, particularly by the extractive industries, would be very interesting to compare with public lands voting record.

  8. Yay Anna!! This is an awesome presentation. So so proud of you girl! You’re going to do amazing things.

  9. Great work, Anna! Do you think environmental issues like water quality and climate change could influence roll-call voting as these issues continue to gain public interest? Thanks!

    1. Thank you Eva! I definitely think that as environmental issues such as climate change and water quality continue to adversely affect national parks, and it becomes clear that our nation’s most beautiful places are being ruined by our actions, that people will be more passionate about public lands policy. Whether that will translate to action in Congress is the most important question!

  10. So happy to see all of your hard work is finally paying off!! So excited for you and all of the GREAT opportunities you will and already have encountered. I will miss you so much and you bet I will be visiting you!! Love you and I am so proud of you!

    1. Thanks Maley! I’ll miss you so much too! Come see me at Mount Rainier 🙂

  11. Anna, this was a great study and so relevant to the current political climate. If Republicans who cited their constituents’ pride in public lands were more likely to support and protect those lands, does that mean that the NPS should work especially hard to instill that pride in citizens? Thanks for sharing your research.

    1. Thank you Dr. Bostdorff! The material from Environmental Communication was certainly useful as I thought about my content analysis. I definitely think that one of the best ways to get more Congressional support for public lands policies is to get more active support from constituents. While many Conservative voters are hunters, fishers, hikers, and outdoor rec users, they may not be as passionate about public lands on the policy level. Conservative voters will need to hold their representatives accountable, or I fear that change in Congress will be slow to come.

  12. Nice Research- I followed your dad’s Facebook post to the Wooster site (excellent Ohio school). If you don’t mind, I was thinking about referencing your findings (with acknowledgement of some of the above questions) in our seasonal training course. The trend and data that you point out has been a growing and troubling trend for me in most of my career. Congratulations and thanks for the hard work.

    1. Hi Paul, thank you so much! You are more than welcome to reference my findings. If you’d like, I can pass along a copy of my IS so you can have the data in writing.

  13. Thanks Anna for picking this great topic. It leads to the intriguing question of how trading of votes on different issues, and a largely unaware electorate, distort policies that senators and reps otherwise might talk about. Your finding that congress members who don’t vote pro-public lands also don’t typically write or talk about them shows how “airtime” to empower their favorite issue distorts their ability to even acknowledge that other issues exist. Do you have insights on this proposition: that the power struggle for attention and the inherent long-lived political technique of swapping support to win a favorite issue, when the internet defines an imperative of purity, makes it unlikely that a rep or senator could risk speaking about an issue that is not one of his/her top 3. (The art of debate and discernment is thus to be lost. )

    1. Thank you Karen for your thoughts! One of the biggest takeaways I had from my study is that public lands policy is simply not a high-saliency issue, and that members of Congress can get away with voting against their constituents’ opinions without consequences. With all the important policies today on healthcare, immigration, foreign policy, etc, public lands policies have remained under the radar. Members are not called upon, or expected to, talk about their vote choices on public lands, meaning they are largely unaccountable for these votes.

  14. This research is awesome, Anna! I’ve recently become super interested in articles/work on public lands, and thought yours was really insightful. Cheers!

    1. Thank you Ben! It’s certainly an interesting area that tends to go unnoticed in our saturated news cycles today.

  15. Amazing work Anna! It’s very interesting to see the public lands become a partisan issue. Was there any explanation in either party ideology or history why this disconnect occurred? I am glad to have been able to study the same major and meet you at Wooster, and I hope you have an amazing summer and life!

    1. Thank you Brandon, I hope the same for you too! I think that the “Republican Reversal” on environmental issues in the 1980s is the biggest explanation for why polarization on public lands began. As the Republican party leadership moved further to the right, emphasizing natural resource development over preservation, members of Congress felt pressure to follow suit. What is most interesting to me is that, although Congress polarized, constituents did not.

  16. Great work, Anna! You provided a strong presentation on an interesting topic. I just had a question about your roll call voting data. Did you perhaps use the Quorum Federal database through our library, or calculate by hand? Either way, a strong project, and congratulations!

    1. Thank you, Dr. Lantis! To collect my roll-call voting data, I used the scorecards done by the League of Conservation Voters on environmental policies. I chose five policies that had to do with public lands to then create my own scorecards in Excel. The data for my control variables was also collected by hand. I then ran my data through SPSS to get my results.

  17. Dear Ms. Medema,

    Your study really drew my attention, as I live literally next door to Wekiwa Springs State Park and the Wekiva River in Longwood, Florida, northwest of Orlando. The Wekiva (pronounced with a long “i”) is one of two federally designated rivers in Florida as a National Wild and Scenic River for its scenery, recreation, geology, and diverse habitats. In other words, black bear and alligator country. The Wekiva River basin increasingly is under pressure by our state legislature and other state politicians to be opened to development. As difficult as it may be to collect information, I hope in the future (graduate school?) you might replicate your study at the state level.

    1. Thank you, Mr. Harrison! It is great to hear your story; state and local parks are so important due to their accessible nature. I agree that it would be very interesting to replicate this study at a state level, and to compare findings across states as well.

  18. Thank you for sharing your research, Anna! This is such an interesting project! Congrats and best of luck in your future endeavors 🙂

  19. Awesome work Anna, I loved watching this project evolve from junior IS to now!
    What steps do you think need to be taken for public lands policy to be come a more bipartisan issue?

    1. Thank you Abby! I think the most important change that needs to happen for public lands to become more bipartisan is for conservative constituents to start holding their representatives accountable. If Republican voters do not vote with public lands policy in mind, or demand that Republican members of Congress support public lands, they will have no reason to change their voting behavior.

  20. Anna! Your analytical approach to this research is fascinating. The way in which you walk us through your findings is concise and telling. Do you have any ideas on how to improve bipartisan support for public lands?

    1. Thank you for listening Mary! Because public lands policy is not a high-saliency issue, and Republican members of Congress are able to vote against public lands policies without even discussing their vote, they are currently unaccountable for their vote choice. I think the best way to prompt bipartisan support is to encourage Conservative voters to demand that their representatives take public lands policy seriously. I also think that, sad as this may be, as climate change continues to negatively impact our public lands, constituents will begin to take the issue more seriously.

  21. What a clear explanation of a sophisticated methodological project. I particularly like how you include the more qualitatively-inflected result of how often high-vote and low-vote Republicans actually mention public lands in their public discourse. That does a nice job of letting us see “beyond the numbers”. Thoroughly enjoyed this.

    1. Thank you for listening, Dr. Mariola! Perhaps the biggest takeaway I had from my research is simply that Republican members of Congress feel no pressure to comment on public lands policies and are not held accountable for how they vote. Those who do not support public lands policies will continue to vote the way they do unless voters begin applying pressure.

  22. Excellent work Anna! I also find it fascinating and generally concerning when public sentiment and partisan ideology diverge, as they seem to do among some members of the Senate with respect to public lands. Thank you for researching this important issue and sharing your findings with us.

    1. Hi Don, thank you for listening! I also find it very interesting how different public opinion is from Congressional action on public lands. It is one of the few areas in which the opinions of representatives do not align with constituents.

  23. Interesting study and findings (although unfortunately not surprising). And you did a great job with your video! Way to go, Anna.

  24. Hi Anna,

    Well done! In addition to park work, hope you run for office or become a lobbyist to get those folks talking in the near future!

    1. Thank you so much for watching 🙂 we’ll see what comes next after my summer at Mount Rainier! Definitely could be policy work!

  25. Anna this was such a great presentation! I was completely engaged and sitting on the edge of my seat! It’s interesting to consider how such a difference of ideologies can exist between the general public vs. their senators they elect. If you could do further research what would you look into?

    1. Thanks so much Eleri! I would love to do more research on the thoughts of conservative voters on public lands. Are they even aware that their representatives do not vote to protect public lands? What will it take for them to hold their members of Congress accountable?

      1. I think that’s a great follow-up question to your study. If the data shows that people aren’t aware of their representatives’ voting practicing in regards to public lands, a strategy could be developed to make them better informed so they could hold their representatives accountable.

        1. Thanks so much for listening Claudine! A strategy like that is definitely an important next step in fighting for public lands policy.

  26. Interesting that Republicans are more likely to support public land policies based off of their constituencies. For states like Montana, with large swatches of public land, does this change how their Republican Senator votes? or do you find that the amount of public land in any Representative’s state has no effect on their vote for public land policies?

    Absolutely fantastic presentation!

    1. Thank you Isaac! I found that Republican Senators from western states are still just as likely to oppose public lands policy, in fact, the most outspoken members of Congress against public lands tend to be from states such as Utah and Arizona, with large amounts of federal land. However, I did find that these Senators were more likely to reference the lands in their states during public statements, likely because they are aware of the popularity of parks among their constituents.

  27. So much hard work!! You are going to do big things in the future.

  28. I love that you could connect your IS to your personal life and passions. Congratulations!!!

    1. Thank you Rebecca! Doing research on something I love so much definitely made it an enjoyable process.

  29. So proud of my pal <3 excited to see you do a great things in the future!!!

  30. Great presentation Anna! It is wonderful to see how your scholarship has grown since FYS. I still fondly remember your project to aid people in being able to visit National Parks. Interesting results. I wish all the best in the future!

    1. Thanks for listening Dr. Edmiston! My passion for national parks has definitely only grown since FYS and it was great to do research on something so uniquely interesting to me.

  31. Super interesting! Congrats on your hard work and fantastic presentation! Out of curiosity, you mentioned the Republican Reversal was driven mainly by the Reagan administration. What were some of the more specific economic incentives for this reversal and what ultimately caused such a major shift in the Republican party?

    1. Thank you for your thoughts Margaret! Here’s a quote taken directly from my IS explaining more on the Republican Reversal: “Beginning in the 1980’s under President Reagan, Republicans viewed public lands as visions of abundance: God-given resources to be used by the American people. Reagan appointed James Watt as Secretary of the Interior, a man with ties to the oil and gas industry who did not consider himself an environmentalist. Watt described his stance on public lands as “market oriented” and the Reagan administration set out goals to produce 85% of crude oil, 40% of natural gas, and 35% of coal in the United States from public lands (Turner and Isenberg 2018). Watt’s policies caused national backlash among the public, and membership in national environmental groups doubled from 1979-1983 (Turner and Isenberg 2018). The partisan divide continued to grow in the next two decades, as environmental attitudes flipped with each administration.”

      Essentially, as party leadership polarized, members of Congress were forced to follow suit. Soon enough, Republicans supporting public lands was seen as supporting Democrats, supporting the enemy. In today’s entirely polarized climate, this sense of “us vs them” makes any work across the isle hard to come by.

  32. Great stuff Anna!! You have my vote for president once you run.

    I was wondering, do you know if party polarization with respect to public lands coincides with the general party polarization we see today?

    1. Thanks so much for listening Noah, it means a lot!! What I found is that polarization on public lands policy follows the trend of general polarization almost exactly. This leads me to believe that although public lands are not partisan in nature, they have become so due to the polarization that has become so pervasive in Congress. If national parks and public lands, which are so widely used and loved across the country, cannot get bipartisan support in Congress, it makes you wonder how we may ever see bipartisan work on more polarizing issues like healthcare or immigration.

  33. Excellent presentation! This is a bit beyond your scope but as I consider your findings it occurs to me that there may be consequences if republican senators continue to differentiate so considerably from their constituents on this issue (and maybe other issues?) Again, very nicely done!

    1. Thank you for listening, Kevin! I do think that there may be consequences for Republican Senators who vote differently from their constituents, but only if public lands becomes a more high-saliency issue. Members of Congress are not called upon today to talk about public lands policies and are not held accountable for their votes.

  34. Congratulations Anna!! I’m so proud of you and all your hard work! I’ll be sure to try and visit you at Mount Rainier as soon as I can!

  35. We are so, so proud of you, Anna. We loved your presentation and look forward to following this next chapter of your life. Our National Parks are so important, and they have played a huge part in your life over the many years that your dad worked at Yosemite. We are excited for you as you head to Mount Rainier National Park to work this summer. Love you tons, and hope to visit you there.

    1. Thank you Grandma! I am so lucky to have the childhood that I did in Yosemite. Hope to see you soon!

  36. Hi Anna
    Thanks for your great work on public lands. As you know public lands have had a large impact on defining who I am. It all began in 1953 with a family vacation to Yellowstone NP when I was 13 years old. I have often wondered why there is such a divide amongst our national leadership. Thanks for the history lesson on how we got to where we are today.

    1. Thank you Grandpa! So glad that we all share such a passion for public lands. Hope to see you soon!

  37. Anna, I am going to forward the link to your study to our Republican Congressman in Ohio who does send a memo each week. Also, I will send the link to Senator Sherrod Brown. .. If I have your permission, of course.

  38. Hi Anna: Great job condensing this very impressive project to a short online version! I have so enjoyed being a part of your IS as second reader. You really blew me away in our oral exam with the story of how this project comes out of your personal, academic, and professional interests. You created a very compelling puzzle in your IS about congressional polarization and support for public lands – I was riveted by your concise literature review and analysis. And how wonderful that you will be working the National Parks Service! I really can’t imagine a more cohesive and wonderful story of a Wooster graduate. I am also so glad to have been able to have you in multiple classes – and to also have been a part of your impact on Wooster Volleyball! Can’t wait to see all the great things yet to come in your bright future. Wishing you all the best, Prof. Bos

    1. Thank you so much, Professor Bos! I wouldn’t have found my passion for politics without your Intro to US National course; I’m so grateful for that experience and for your mentorship throughout my four years at Wooster, both in the classroom and on the volleyball court. I look forward to being back to visit Wooster soon!

  39. Very nice work, Anna, and an excellent topic. I wonder to what extent some of these data reflect a larger breakdown of the idea of a “common good,” reflected in any number of other facets of our society and which runs across political and ideological boundaries. The book, Age of Fracture, by Princeton historian Daniel Rodgers, is very good on this. It leads one to wonder, then, whether a larger societal rediscovery of the idea of “common good” is a necessary precondition for changing attitudes about public lands.

    1. Thank you for listening, Uncle Steve! I’ll have to read Age of Fracture once I finish The Economics Book. I do agree that public lands are closely related to an idea of “common good,” as they are lands meant to be owned, used, and shared by all Americans.

  40. Anna, I am very impressed with your project and I love that your passion truly showed in your presentation. I hope you continue to follow your passion because I strongly believe you have the ability to have a positive effect in the world. Mount Rainier is lucky to have you!

    1. Thanks so much for listening Claudine! Can’t wait for Mount Rainier, but will miss my awesome neighbors!

  41. Great presentation, Anna! I’ve heard wonderful things about you and you research from Cami. I look forward to reading your I.S.! Best wishes

    1. Thank you Dr. Thomas, I have heard wonderful things about you as well. Your research sounds very interesting! I know my dad was excited to meet you at Symposium when it was planned to be on campus. If you ever want to get in contact with him, please let me or Cami know!

  42. Anna,
    What a great presentation on your topic and methodology. I liked hearing how your summer internships impacted your research! Nice job.

    1. Thank you Ryan! My internships were such an integral part in the development of my IS. So grateful to Wooster for providing so much support for experiential learning.

  43. Awesome job, Anna! I remember when you described what you hoped to study for your IS to a prospective student last year, and so it is incredible to hear your results now after a year of hard work and commitment!

    1. Thanks for listening Stephanie! I have loved sharing my IS process with prospective students throughout the year. I’ll miss you and the rest of the admissions office lots, hope to be back to visit soon.

  44. Nice job Anna! Of course thanks for mentioning climate change in your last bullet of your conclusions. We do need bipartisan support for climate and public lands action.

    I hope you can get this information out…

    1. Thank you Amy! Glad to join you as Wooster alumni. The effect that climate change has on public lands is so important, and will only continue to be more so.

      1. YES – there should be some jobs in this field in the years to come… Congrats on Rainer too.

  45. Awesome work Anna! That was so interesting and well presented. Thank you for taking the time to share your I.S. with us. So proud of you! Cheers!

    1. Thank you for listening Mel!! I’ll miss you and the rest of admissions so much. Hope to be back to visit soon!

  46. This is such an important question! Thanks for doing the research.

  47. Well done Anna!!!!! I know you will bless the world with your wisdom! Thank you for sharing!!!

  48. Congrats Anna! This was an amazing project!

    I know that you have plans to start working as a park ranger in Washington State in a few weeks. Do you plan on utilizing any of this research during your new job? If so, what parts exactly?

    1. Thanks Marina! I think the biggest takeaway from my IS that I will use in my job at Mount Rainier is the knowledge that national parks are meant to be owned and shared by all of us. While polarization may exist in Congress, public lands are widely loved by the American people. Being able to share that love with visitors this summer will be a highlight for sure.

  49. Anna I couldn’t be prouder of all you accomplished in your time at Wooster. Your involvement with athletics, student government, admissions, and countless other organization have demonstrated the meaning of Excellence in the Classroom and on the court. Thrilled you were able to explore a topic of public lands that was so near to your heart. Do you think you will have opportunities to continue your inquiry in your job with the National Park Service? Thank you for representing Wooster Volleyball is such a positive manner. Congrats!

    1. Thanks for listening Coach Davis! Being a student athlete has certainly defined my time at Wooster and been a highlight. I am very excited to see national parks through the eyes of a ranger for the first time this summer and I definitely think my perspective will change and evolve!

  50. Anna, I’ll echo the comments of others. Thanks for taking the time to put together this wonderfully concise presentation of your research. I know we’ll have a public lands warrior working for us soon.

    1. Thank you, Jenni! I look forward to many more years of working to protect public lands.

  51. Congratulations, Anna on such an amazing I.S. project! You are going to do such amazing things at Mt. Rainier. I am so proud to be your friend and a fellow ranger! I love you!

    1. Love you so much! Grateful for you! Cuyahoga Valley is lucky to have you too.

  52. Great job, Anna! Your presentation was well done! It is awesome to see how your project came together. I wish you the best of luck and congratulations!

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