Duke University chart; click the image to enlarge it.
Distrust of the government helps fuel the rural-urban divide on environmental and conservation policies, according to a newly published study from the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University in North Carolina.

Rural Americans have an outsized impact on environmental policy, because farmers, ranchers, and forest owners manage large portions of the nation's lands and watersheds. But rural Americans are less likely to support federal environmental policies. It isn't that they don't care: more than 70 percent of rural, urban and suburban residents surveyed said that environmental and conservation issues were important to them. Rather, distrust of the government—and scientists who may be funded by the government—was the key motivator in respondents' views on climate change and environmental policy. Even rural residents who were younger, Democrats, or highly educated tended to be more skeptical of government intervention than their suburban and urban counterparts.

The study relied on diverse data-gathering strategies, including focus groups, telephone surveys, and in-depth interviews. Among the researchers' other findings:
  • Clean water is the highest priority among all voters, but rural voters care more about farmland conservation than climate change.
  • Rural residents tend to view environmental and conservation issues through the lenses of community, environmental stewardship and a strong connection to nature.
  • Rural voters do not consider it a contradiction to identify as "pro-environment" while opposing or having strong reservations about existing environmental policies.
  • Rural voters prefer state or local action to address environmental issues because they feel their voices will be better heard.
  • The level of knowledge about the environment doesn't necessarily correlate with support of environmental laws.
  • Many rural voters may doubt the science that supports climate change because they worry about the implications of accepting it; increased environmental regulations might harm rural residents, they believe.
  • Rural residents generally see conservation groups more positively than environmental advocacy groups.
The researchers write that the rural-urban divide will not easily be bridged, and cannot be done with better talking points. It will require engagement, new partnerships with rural stakeholders, and better communication strategies.