A new survey commissioned by the University of Montana shows voters from every political leaning support national policy that protects and expands public land access in the state.
The third biannual survey from UM’s Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone Initiative says voters support for public lands includes the Land and Water Conservation Fund, new wilderness designation, and a new National Monument designation near Glacier National Park.
Here’s Rick Graetz with the University of Montana.
"Some of the results over the years have been very consistent, in fact, if anything, they’ve been going up in favor of public lands. And we’ve had some surprises since 2014, and we’ve seen a huge number of people who recognize the economic benefits of public lands."
Five hundred registered Montana voters were surveyed in the study conducted by both Republican and Democratic pollsters.
Eighty two percent of Montanans say public lands help the state’s economy; and people tended to associate that value with outdoor recreation opportunities rather than opportunities for natural resource extraction.
Along with asking the survey's usual questions about the perception of federal public land’s impact on the state’s economy, pollsters also asked about several recent land policies issues that have come into the spotlight.
Lori Weigel is a Republican pollster with Public Opinion Strategies. She asked voters what they think should be done about Montana’s Wilderness Study Areas.
Voters’ responses appear to run contrary to legislation proposed by both Republican members of Montana’s congressional delegation, Senator Steve Daines and Congressman Greg Gianforte.
The bills sponsored by Senator Daines and Congressman Gianforte would remove Wilderness Study Area designations on 29 locations in Montana, totaling more than half a million acres.
But Weigel says the Public Lands Survey results show most Montana voters have other thoughts about Wilderness Study Areas.
"The majority, 57 percent, indicate that they prefer to keep things as they are now. With one in four telling us that they would examine these and add protections in some areas while eliminating those in others."
On the floor of the U.S. House in early March, Congressman Greg Gianforte called for federal action to change Wilderness Study Areas on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land.
"These bills will release nearly 700,000 acres of lands found to be not suitable for Wilderness designation and return them to Forest Service and BLM management," Gianforte said. "County commissioners, state legislators, and impacted communities support this overdue action."
Gianforte has stated that his and Senator Daines’ legislation would increase access to public lands. Gianforte’s House website says he’s received support for the legislation from the Montana Association of Counties, Montana Stockgrowers Association, and the Montana Farm Bureau Federation.
But some conservations groups are pushing back on the proposed changes to Montana's WSAs.
Last month, on a small six-seater plane run by EcoFlight, John Gatchell with Montana Wilderness Association pointed out a window to the West Pioneers, a Wilderness Study Area along the Idaho border west of Dillon.
According to the Montana Wilderness Association, the West Pioneers is the largest remaining roadless area in southwest Montana.
Through a scratchy-sounding headset, Gatchell says the currently proposed legislation isn’t nuanced enough, and it was drafted without enough collaboration to do justice to what he called a fragile landscape.
“I think our biggest concern is that it opens it up to oil and gas, mining, unlimited motorized recreation," Gatchell says. "There’s motorized recreation now, but it’s limited by the requirement to protect wilderness character that's historic."
According to the survey released by the University of Montana on Monday, keeping all 29 wilderness study areas as they are now is supported by a majority of people in rural areas of the state, as well in towns and cities.
In total, 74 percent of Republicans surveyed said they would like to add new protections in some Wilderness Study Areas and eliminate protections in others, or keep all 29 areas as they are now. Those ideas had support from 94 percent of Democrats.
Eleven percent of Republicans, Democrats and independents were supportive of eliminating protections in all 29 Wilderness Study Areas.
Another topicial question in the survey asked Montana voters if they support the Trump Administration's proposal to name the Badger-Two Medicine area of the Lewis and Clark National Forest as a National Monument.
Here again is pollster Lori Weigel.
"Just over three quarters of Montanans indicating support for that particular designation. Two in five indicating strong support," she says.
The survey results also indicate 76 percent of Montanans support the re-authorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which ensures that a small portion of federal offshore drilling fees are dedicated to conservation spending.
Dave Metz, a Democratic pollster with FM Research who helped conduct the survey, says Montanans visit national public lands at one of the highest rates in the country, which he credits to the survey's results.
“These national public lands are a part of people’s day-to-day lives," Metz says. "They’re a major source of recreation. Their support for it comes not just from sort of an abstract principled belief that this is a good idea, but because they secure direct benefits from it.”
Rick Graetz with University of Montana’s Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone Initiative, says the group does not take positions on its survey results or public land policy. He says this poll is meant to inform the public, the media, and elected leaders.
After MTPR published this story Thursday, a spokesperson for Senator Daines said the survey is not credible, and it pushes arguments made by radical environmental groups. 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's 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.
05/08/18, 5:35 p.m.: This post was updated to include the reactions of Sen. Daines and Rep. Gianforte to the poll.