MISSOULA — Montanans of all stripes value their public lands more than most and not even a pandemic can change that.
On Monday, the University of Montana’s Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone Initiative released the results of its fourth biennial voter survey on public lands showing that Montanans are nothing if not consistent on their appreciation of the outdoors and recreation.
About 90% of respondents said they think public lands have a positive effect on clean water and quality of life, up slightly from 80% in 2014 when the poll began. In addition, about 85% think public lands are good for tourism, wildlife and what is best about Montana.
“What we have noted in the data is a lot more consistency than change over time in voter’s opinions,” said Democratic pollster Dave Metz of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates. “We see, throughout the poll, significant – both broad and intense – support for a variety of policies designed to conserve public land.”
Metz and Republican pollster Lori Weigel of New BridgeStrategy conducted the bipartisan phone survey of 500 Montanans during the third week of March, just as COVID-19 cases began showing up in Montana. The margin of error is 4.4%.
Almost 90% say public lands help Montana’s economy, up 7% from 2018. Almost all respondents said outdoor recreation jobs are important to the economy.
“This is not just – in the eyes of voters – a minor contribution to Montana’s economy but really one that is sort of a foundation to the state’s economic strength,” Metz said.
Since 2014, the poll has included questions related to a few enduring issues such as preservation of wilderness study areas or the Badger-Two Medicine area south of Glacier National Park. Those questions in particular show that Montanans don’t change their opinions depending on what happens year-to-year.
Similar to the results in 2016 and 2018, three-quarters of those polled support Sen. Jon Tester’s Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act, which would add protection to 80,000 acres of the Swan Range and surrounding area but also provide areas for snowmobiling and mountain biking. Three quarters of Republicans and 82% of Democrats support the bill.
Almost 80% support more protection for the Badger-Two Medicine area, which is still threatened by oil and gas exploration on a lease owned by Solonex. The adjacent Blackfeet Reservation has fought against oil and gas leases for years, saying the area has ancient cultural significance. Solonex attorneys argued in January in a D.C. appeals court against lease cancellation.
Finally, wilderness study areas are supposed to be protected until Congress either releases them or designates them as wilderness. Montana has 44 wilderness study areas, but many have been waiting for decades for Congress to act and some are beginning to suffer from being in limbo. But in each of the polls, Montanans have backed WSA protection.
This year, three-quarters of those polled said they wanted Congress to increase or at least keep current protections for Montana’s wilderness study areas. That includes a majority of Republicans – 57% – and a vast majority of Democrats – 91%.
“Some partisan distinctions but still a majority lining up, no matter their political affiliation, in terms of maintaining the status quo or, in fact, increasing some of those protections in those areas,” Weigel said.
More than 80% said they wanted wilderness study areas to conserved for recreation and wildlife habitat instead of more motorized recreation or oil and gas exploration. While the poll applied to only seven larger wilderness study areas, the overall attitude toward preservation stands in contrast with the recent Bureau of Land Management plans that intend to open up smaller study areas to resource extraction.
When the 2018 poll showed similar support, some politicians questioned the poll’s objectivity. Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte discredited the 2018 version of the poll after sponsoring legislation to eliminate some wilderness study areas. In response, Montana State University political science professor David Parker reviewed the poll’s questions and protocol and found the poll credible.
UM Initiative director Rick Graetz said the poll is robust.
“Our job is to do the studies and get the information out there to help further public discourse and education. We do not take a position on the results,” Graetz said. “We put an emphasis on measuring trends to check the consistency of our results over time.”
Metz said he and Weigel conduct similar polls in a number of states, and often, the results don’t favor the outdoors as strongly as people think. But that’s not the case with Montanans, which tend use and appreciate public lands 10% to 15% more than people in other states, save maybe Alaska.
“That means in Montana, unlike a lot of other places, these issues are personal – they’re part of the fabric of people’s everyday lives,” Metz said. “It’s not an abstract, intellectual exercise about public policy that people think is happening someplace distant and remote. That gives a weight to the responses that we get in Montana that I think is not present in other parts of the country.”
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at email@example.com.