A new poll of those living in the Mountain West indicates the Republican officials in charge of Montana’s state government are out of step with voters’ conservation priorities, largely ignoring the most critical issues, and in many cases are exacerbating those concerns by doing exactly the opposite of what voters think should be done.
For the 12th year in a row, Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project has conducted and recently released its Conservation in the West Report. As noted in their press release: “The survey polled registered voters in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Voters responded to questions concerning conservation of public lands, energy, water, wildlife, wildfire, and other pressing challenges in the Mountain West.” Unlike many polls intended to benefit one political party or the other, this one is conducted by both right-leaning and left-leaning polling firms that sought opinions across the political spectrum.
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Over the eight states the overwhelming majority — 69% — expressed serious and “pessimistic” concerns for the future well-being of the natural amenities — land, air, water, and wildlife — which so many in the West have long taken for granted.
Climate change tops the list, but voters have “serious concerns” about drought, extreme heat, lack of snowpack, wildfire, air pollution, and extreme weather events such as floods and storms. As noted in the report: “Against that backdrop, 86% of Western voters now say issues involving clean water, clean air, wildlife and public lands are important in their decision of whether to support an elected official, up from 80% in 2020 and 75% in 2016.”
Those who may think the poll is biased toward higher population states and doesn’t reflect Montana attitudes will want to check the state-specific breakout of the results. For Montana, the results do not reflect any diminution in concern by voters for what’s happening to our state.
• 87% say “issues involving clean water, wildlife, and public lands are important in deciding whether to support an elected public official.”
• 95% “support requiring oil and gas companies to pay for all clean-up and restoration costs after drilling” while a whopping 73% “think oil and gas development on national public lands should be stopped or strictly limited” — not expanded.
• 73% support “creating new national parks, national monuments, national wildlife refuges and tribal protected areas.”
• 86% are concerned about drought and reduced snowpacks and inadequate water supplies.
• 59% support “transitioning to one hundred percent clean, renewable energy in the next ten to fifteen years” while 58% believe “there’s enough evidence of climate change that action should be taken.”
• 92% are “concerned about more frequent and severe wildfires.”
Since 80% of the Montanans polled had visited public lands more than twice in the last year, these are people who are actually getting out on the landscape and taking note of the visual evidence of the continual degradation of our environment and publicly held resources.
Comparing those results with the policies of Montana’s current political leadership begs many questions. Why is so much time, energy, and money being spent trying to save Colstrip? Why, after 40 long years, do the Butte and Anaconda Superfund sites remain unremediated? Why is Sen. Daines still trying to get rid of Wilderness Study Areas? Why does Gov. Gianforte want to emulate Texas and privatize our elk herds and public lands? And why did the governor and Republican-dominated Legislature weaken our water quality laws when water quality is visibly declining?
Montanans deserve answers — but unfortunately, the silence from our elected leaders is deafening.
George Ochenski is a longtime Helena resident, an environmental activist and Montana's longest-running weekly columnist.