A survey about Montanans' opinions about public lands released by the University of Montana Monday is receiving criticism from the Republican members of the state’s congressional delegation.
Senator Steve Daines and Representative Greg Gianforte are casting doubt on the poll’s legitimacy as they work to advance legislative proposals in Congress to reduce designated Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) in the state, which they say will increase public land use.
Results of the survey commissioned by UM’s Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone Initiative show public opinion on WSA lands runs in contrast with legislative proposals from Senator Daines and Representative Gianforte.
The Congressmen have proposed bills that would reduce 29 WSA designated locations in the state, totaling around 700,000 acres.
But the poll from UM says 57 percent of respondents would prefer to keep all 29 Wilderness Study Areas as they are now. Five Hundred people were surveyed in the poll and pollsters stay they selected a representative sample of the state.
A Daines spokesperson says the poll question about Wilderness Study Areas is misleading because it does not accurately describe what actives are and are not allowed on WSA land.
Senator Daines did not accept Montana Public Radio an interview request, but sent this audio statement:
"However well intentioned the survey was, the information used in the poll is inaccurate and very misleading. Frankly, the public would have been better served by a survey that included an objective description of the actual policy. That would have provided policy makers and reporters a more accurate measure of true public opinion. Unfortunately this poll instead was a messaging test for those who oppose my bill, simply to sway public opinion.”
In emails, a spokesperson for U.S. Representative Greg Gianforte also said the poll commissioned by the University of Montana was flawed.
In an interview with Montana Public Radio Tuesday afternoon Gianforte said he’s always working to increase access to public lands.
"The only poll I care about is what folks in impacted communities want. And I’ve heard clearly from county commissioners, local officials, members of impacted communities, the entire Montana state Legislature, which passed a resolution that support the measures I’ve introduced to increase public access by restoring these lands back to the Forest Service and BLM for multiple use. That’s one example where the people of Montana have spoken and I’ve taken action based on it."
The resolution passed by the Montana state Legislature that Gianforte refers to came out of the 2017 regular session. It was sponsored by Republican Kerry White of Bozeman, and it passed almost entirely along party lines.
Rick Graetz with the University of Montana says the survey was created using scientific polling techniques, Republican and Democratic pollsters, and he stands by its results.
To emphasize the poll’s bipartisan nature, a spokesperson for the 2018 Public Lands poll pointed to the Republican component of the pollsters, Public Opinion Strategies, which lists Montana’s Republican Attorney General Tim Fox as a client as well as other Republican leaders across the country.