A new survey done by the University of Montana and Stanford University says a majority of Montana residents support transferring at least some federal public lands here to state control. That contradicts some previous polls.
The statewide representative sample poll was done over landlines and cell phones in February in advance of a conference last week at UM. UM Political Science Professor Christopher Muste helped put the survey together, and it poses lots of questions about land use, the environment and politics.
CHRISTOPHER MUSTE: First we started with what people valued most about Montana, and almost 50 percent of respondents to the survey said the environment and nature was the most important thing for them about living in Montana. Then we turned it around and asked them what’s the most important issue facing the state of Montana, and a very different issue, jobs and economic growth, came to the fore there. And that produced sort of a tension that we saw in other parts of the survey, between wanting to preserve the environment, but also wanting to have jobs and economic growth.
ERIC WHITNEY: Where did you see the split?
CM: We saw a pretty close split in opinion between people who wanted more development, and who wanted more protection of the environment. Only a very slight majority of people thought that natural resources should be developed for economic growth. There was a recognition that the environment had to be protected to some extent, and there was a sense overall that some of the issues involved in natural (resources) development involved the environment and needs to protect the environment.
We also asked specifically about public lands, and a majority, about 59 percent of Montanans wanted at least some federal lands to be transferred to the state.
There was not much support for the tactics of the people who took over the Malheur Wildlife refuge in Oregon. Only about 1/3 of Montanans supported that, most opposed those tactics.
And then when we asked people what did they want in terms of federal lands management, it was interestingly split. The most common answer among Montanans was that they wanted wildlife protection and wildland protection of public lands. Some people favored development, but in terms of farming and ranching, others favored recreation, and the least popular response by a longshot was development in terms of coal, minerals or timber.
EW: A majority of Montanans favor transferring at least some federal lands to the state, but it sounds like the details of that are unclear?
CM: Right, and one of the problems doing a large survey covering a large number of topics is you can only ask so many questions about each topic. But we think we did get an interesting finding here, that was that there was general support for transferring some lands. Previous surveys done by other organizations have shown that majorities of Montanans oppose the transfer of substantial amounts of public lands. So, there’s some wiggle room in there, and I think most Montanans would favor at least some transfers, but not very much.
EW: Do you think it’s too much to read into that that people don’t feel like the federal government is doing enough to protect those wild lands and wildlife?
CM: I’m not sure I’d read that into this survey. What I’d say, that maybe other parts of the survey can tell us about that idea, is that when we asked about whether people trusted the state government in terms of the leaders of the state, and in terms of whether they trusted the state to use money in the state surplus wisely for programs or in terms of tax cuts, people were really supportive of the state.
I found it really surprising that both our state leaders and the state legislature were viewed in favorable terms, and that most people, by a very large majority, wanted state surplus to be used for state programs. And there are other parts of the survey where you can see if people have a choice between federal and state control, state control is seen as a positive, but I don’t think we should interpret that to mean that people think the federal government is doing a bad job, but just that they may be insensitive to the needs of the state, so I wouldn’t read too much into that, and I certainly wouldn’t read it as indicating that people want lands to be transferred to the state and then used for development or privatization.
EW: Let’s talk about the questions you asked about the state of the economy. What did you find?
CM: Far and away, the biggest concern was about jobs and unemployment. Right behind that was economic growth in general, and then protection of the environment was further below, and things like health care and education were even below that. And I think this drives some of the splits we see in opinion about development and environmental damage, that there’s a pretty even split right down the middle for Montanans on those issues.
EW: Montana’s unemployment rate is below the national average, there’s been modest economic growth, but your survey says people aren’t seeing the economy in a positive light?
CM: I think they probably are seeing it in a more positive light than they would have two or four or certainly six years ago, but I think we’re seeing that even when Montana has experienced a long term economic growth period, there are still those concerns out there.
EW: In an election year, these survey results must be interesting to political campaigns. What do you think is in it for them?
CM: For people who are running for re-election, I think the news is fairly good, because people view the state going in the right direction.
EW: So that would be a positive for both Democratic Governor Steve Bullock and Republican Representative Ryan Zinke?
CM: Yes. We specifically asked about the job performance ratings of Governor Bullock, Senators Tester and Daines, and Representative Zinke, and they were all over 60 percent. Bullock’s I believe was the highest at 75 percent.
EW: How’s that compare to Zinke’s?
CM: That was interesting. Ryan Zinke as a first-term Congressman has quite positive responses. About 65 percent of people who have an opinion of Zinke, said it was favorable. On the other hand, slightly over 20 percent of Montanans don’t have enough of an opinion of Zinke to say either favorable or unfavorable. So he’s got some work to do, and there’s a little bit of room potentially for a challenger there to try to turn the 65 percent positive into a more negative number.
EW: Your survey didn’t ask about elected officials’ challengers?
CM: Right, the point of this survey and the conference is to focus on issues. We didn’t want thinking about the campaign to take space we could use to ask Montanans about their views of issues facing the state.
EW: What do you think this survey offers candidates?
CM: Some of what it offers them is confirmation that the way a lot of Montana campaigners run their campaigns is smart. Which is to talk about both environmental protection and job creation, depending on the audience. For instance, if you live in a highly Republican district, the job creation and natural resource development message resonates a lot more positively. If you’re in a Democratic district, in an urban area or even in non-urban areas, then environmental protection plays a lot more positively. Also, if you’re from the western part of the state, environmental protection resonates to some extent, a little more than in the east. Partly because, in a lot of the western communities, the economy is shifting, and one of the things that came out of this conference is the extent to which western states, including Montana, are moving from a sort of resource extraction-based approach to more of a recreation mixed with resource continued use but not extraction economy. But, that both of those things are important to Montanans in different parts of the state. So I think local conditions will determine how Montana politicians should craft their messages, and at the statewide level you have to speak to both environmental protection and job creation. You have to speak to issues like water resources and respect for the tribes.
EW: The Republican campaigns are saying they should be elected because they’ll do a better job with the economy. That’s going to resonate with people?
CM: I think it’s a two-sided coin. I think it will resonate with people to the extent that they have economic concerns. So I think people are willing to listen to economic solutions. But I think at the same time incumbent office holders, including Governor Bullock, can point to the other side of that coin, which is that people think the state is doing well, and they think the state is using their money fairly wisely. So I think he can say, we’re not doing things wrong, and sort of try to use the potential danger to the environment of natural resource development to criticize some of those proposals that are coming from the Republican side. So I don’t think the survey gives a huge amount of support to either side. Bullock can run on his record, and Gianforte can run on criticizing the economic problems, and I think that’s going to be a really interesting fight, because I think they’ll be duking it out along those lines for the rest of the campaign season.
Christopher Muste is a political science professor at the University of Montana. He helped field the survey we just discussed for the annual Rural West conference held in Missoula last week. You can find the survey results here.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This web post initially offered a link to preliminary results of the survey discussed here. Since then, revised results have been made available. See the revised survey results here.