In a new poll of a selection of Montana’s registered voters, 86 percent said conservation issues play an important factor in supporting political candidates, and more than two-thirds support the North Fork Watershed Protection Act and the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act.
The University of Montana’s Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone Initiative surveyed 500 voters to gauge opinions on public land debates in the Crown of the Continent. Of those polled, Republicans accounted for 36 percent, Democrats accounted for 27 percent, and 35 percent were identified as independents or belonging to other parties. Topics included wilderness designation, the sale of public lands and the importance of public lands in the state’s economy.
Pollsters did not ask about the transfer of federal lands to state ownership.
The bipartisan poll was conducted from June 17-19 by Republican pollster Lori Weigel of Public Opinion Strategies and Democratic pollster Dave Metz of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates. The survey used both landline and cellphones and was balanced statistically by county, Weigel said. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.38 percent.
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“It’s election season and Montana voters are looking at some of these issues with conservation in the same frame as other important issues like the economy and health care,” she said.
Of those polled, 48 percent listed conservation issues as the primary factor and 38 percent as somewhat important in supporting elected officials. Conservation issues were less important for 9 percent and not important to 4 percent.
When asked if protecting public lands in Montana has generally been more of a good or bad thing, 78 percent responded “good” and 15 percent “bad.”
Support for protected lands came from urban and rural voters across regions. More than three-quarters of both eastern and western Montanans saw protecting public lands as a good thing. Protected lands were supported by 82 percent of city residents, 77 percent of rural residents and 75 percent of town residents.
A slim majority of 51 percent of voters favored protecting more lands as wilderness.
“There is remarkable support for the conservation of public lands,” Metz said, noting that support comes both in policy and a personal connection to public lands.
Federal legislation protecting public lands saw majority support across political lines, although it was greater among Democrats than Republicans. The North Fork Watershed Protection Act received votes of support from 53 percent of Republicans, 89 percent of Democrats and 67 percent of independents. An equal percentage of Republicans supported the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, while 91 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of independents supported the legislation.
When it comes to the economy, 86 percent of those polled saw conserving public lands as positive for the state by attracting tourists and by supporting jobs in recreation and on farms and ranches. Nearly two-thirds agreed that public lands such as national parks and wilderness attract high-quality employers and good jobs to Montana, and 52 percent believe Montana is in a better position than other states because of public lands and outdoor recreation to attract employers and jobs.
When asked about private development on public lands, 70 percent agreed that private companies should not be allowed to develop if it would limit the public’s enjoyment or access, while 25 percent disagreed.
The job of the university is to provide information and science to the public, and the poll would have been published regardless of the results, said Rick Graetz, co-director of the Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone Initiative.
When asked how the poll could impact politics in the state, Graetz said he could not speak for the university, but he believed it probably will not affect how state legislators vote because politics is way too local. But it may shape the dialogue surrounding public land management, he said.
“I’m not surprised by the results, but we needed to validate our feelings,” he said. “Conservation with Montanans goes back more than 100 years and continues today.”