Editor's Note: This op-ed has been updated to correct an error regarding the percentage of respondents who said they would oppose adding additional Wilderness in Montana.
A poll on public lands from the University of Montana generated quite a bit of controversy recently. In fact, most of the poll was a yawner—it found Montanans really like our public land, want more public input on its management, and recognize that it benefits our economy. In other news, Montanans strongly support mom and apple pie too.
Really only one question generated all the controversy. It had to do with Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) has been criticized as being slanted and misleading. I have to agree.
The question revolves around legislation sponsored Senator Daines and Congressman Gianforte that would release several WSAs in Montana. These areas have been studied by federal scientists and deemed “not suitable” to be declared full-blown Wilderness.
Though the study phase of this process was completed, because the WSA status of the areas was never released by Congress, they’ve been treated as de facto Wilderness, some for as long as 40 years. Being treated as Wilderness means that these lands are not actively managed and public access into them is limited.
The poll question leaves those critical facts out, which in of itself invalidates this question as a reliable measure of public opinion. But it gets worse.
The pollsters actually claim that releasing the WSAs would “expand motorized recreation, oil and gas drilling, or industrial development” on these lands.
Seriously—oil and gas development? Did the pollsters even bother to look at a map of where these WSAs are located? No one is interested in drilling for oil in Ravalli County, or Beaverhead or Judith Basin, or most any of the other counties in which these WSAs are located.
Furthermore, these areas are remote—that’s why they were studied for potential Wilderness in the first place. They are in no way candidates for “industrial development”. Including these sorts of boogeymen no doubt skew the results.
But perhaps most misleading was the conclusion of the question, where respondents were asked whether Congress should “eliminate protections” for the WSAs. That mirrors the language used by the extreme environmental groups lobbying against the legislation, but it’s not an accurate description of those proposals.
The legislation would not “eliminate protections” for the public lands in question. If the WSA’s are released, they remain public land and will continue to be protected. Any proposed use of those lands would still go through federal review, including input from local stakeholders, and could be rejected by federal land managers.
With such a misleading question it’s no wonder that the poll found support for WSAs. I wouldn’t want protections eliminated in those areas either—fortunately that’s not what’s being proposed.
Like any poll released to the press, Montanans should take this one with a grain of salt. The group sponsoring the poll has an agenda and it should come as no surprise that they found support from the public that matches that agenda.
Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, is the majority leader of the Montana Senate.