(INDYSTAR.com) - Hoosiers are known for many things: racing, basketball and, of course, fried pork tenderloins.
But protecting or prioritizing the environment? Not so much.
Indiana consistently ranks near the top of many lists of the worst states in the country when it comes to air quality, water quality and pollution. Those smoke stacks that dot the skyline of Lake County and the coal mines that hollow the land in the southwest corner of the state seem as much a part of Indiana as its cornfields and the turning of the leaves in Brown County.
That said, a new statewide poll suggests Indiana residents are trying to shake the state's eco-not-so-friendly reputation. The poll, commissioned by the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, sought to determine just how important environmental issues truly are to Hoosiers.
The results? Widely important.
So important, in fact, that the majority of the survey's 800 respondents — all registered voters — would prioritize protecting the environment even if it slowed economic growth. Another 70 percent of those polled agree the government needs to do more to tackle environmental issues such as climate change, which 75 percent believe is primarily the result of human activity.
Anne Laker, spokeswoman for environmental advocacy group Indiana Forest Alliance, wished such results didn't surprise her.
"I would like to say that I was expecting that, because I'm really rooting for people, but that's really great to hear," Laker said. "I would expect Hoosiers to not want to be made sick by their environment."
Among the various topics — including air quality, wildlife and greenhouse gas emissions — Hoosiers expressed the greatest concern about pollution to Indiana's rivers, lakes and reservoirs, according to the Pulliam Trust's poll. With Lake Michigan to the north, the Ohio River to the south and rivers such as the White and Wabash running through the center, 90 percent of those polled are "very concerned" or "somewhat concerned" about the water they drink, swim and fish in.
Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed agree that Indiana's waterways are polluted and need to be cleaned up.
Clean water is at the root of public health, Julia Whitson of Indiana's Water Environment Association told IndyStar.
"It’s no surprise that water quality is top of mind for many people — especially with recent incidences like the drinking water crisis in Flint, Mich. and the drought in California," said the association's executive director. "Hoosiers face a variety of challenges daily, but clean and healthy water shouldn’t be one of them."
A 2016 report by the Political Economy Research Institute ranked several industry giants with plants in Indiana, such as American Electric Power and AK Steel, among the 20 worst water polluters in the country.
The state's air quality doesn't fare much better. Personal finance site WalletHub ranked Indiana the fourth-worst in its 2017 Greenest States report released in April. And Hoosiers seems to have taken notice: Six in 10 of those surveyed believe the governor and legislature need to require further regulation to reduce greenhouse gases. An equal percentage say the state needs to do more to develop alternative energy sources.
The Morrison Institute for Public Policy compiled and analyzed the data — collected in March through phone interviews — for the Pulliam Trust, which funded the poll. The 800-person sample of registered voters was selected based on party, age, gender and race to match Indiana's political and demographic characteristics from the most recent voter data.
A born-and-bred Hoosier, Crawfordsville Mayor Todd Barton was surprised that his fellow Indiana residents would call for further government involvement — something he noted that rural communities, in particular, have historically opposed.
However, he believes that opposition is generational — and lessening.
"It was viewed as this bureaucratic thing in the past and the EPA was a dirty agency, but I am seeing us go through this cycle and now people are saying, 'No, we need to take care of these things,'" Barton told IndyStar. "I think we are even more sensitive to it because my generation is spending a lot of time and money trying to clean up the past for the present and future."
The Hoosier Environmental Council said it has seen much greater public awareness and engagement in the past six months, including increased attendance at its volunteer meetings and large crowds at legislative hearings on environmental topics. Nearly one-third of those surveyed were motivated to sign a petition or donate money to an environmental cause, according to the Trust's survey.
Hoosier Environmental Council Executive Director Jesse Kharbanda attributes that involvement largely to the current political climate and developments coming out of Congress.
"If a sufficient level of the public is mobilized in Indiana and that mobilization is across the political spectrum, then that will lead to positive change at the state level," he said.
Yet, not all Hoosiers are listing the environment as their top priority.
Compared to other issues on Hoosiers' minds, poll results showed that protecting the state's air and water quality, land use and wildlife rank No. 4 behind education, health care and jobs, in that order – but ahead of lowering taxes. And, although few noticeable differences existed between respondents based on age or gender, there is a clear divide along party lines.
Overall, more than 40 percent of registered Democrats surveyed saw environmental issues as a "very serious" problem while only 17 percent of Republicans felt the same.
Still, Kharbanda said he sees "promising developments" and "demonstrated traction" in elected officials from both sides of the aisle starting to listen to their constituents — citing a recent vote on pro-utility legislation in the state Congress that passed, but faced strong bipartisan opposition.
Laker, with the Forest Alliance, said it is key that Indiana residents not just accept decisions that affect their quality of life, but speak up if they don't like them, which she said she is glad to see more are doing.
"I think one challenge is that Hoosiers often don't understand that they can and should expect more and demand more," the Indiana native said. "There is no separation between how we treat our environment and our quality of life. They are directly linked."
Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at (317) 444-6129. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah.