A new survey suggests conservation and national parks are as close to a bipartisan issue as you’re ever going to find in Montana.
"This is a time when things are politically divisive, but what’s really important when it comes to support for national parks and conservation, there's an agreement in the state, it’s an area of agreement on all sectors of politics."
That’s Rick Graetz, the director of the University of Montana’s Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone Initiative. The Initiative is designed to gather and report research about activities within the Crown region. Its partners include The Nature Conservancy of Montana, Flathead Valley Community College and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
The Initiative commissioned the first biannual Public Lands Survey back in 2014. Its follow-up was conducted about three weeks ago.
Graetz says the poll’s meant to gauge how much value Montanans place on their outdoor heritage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out Montanans really like their wild outdoor places. Democratic pollster Dave Metz says it’s something politicians should keep in mind.
"As Montana voters look to November, they tell us, when they’re making their decisions about whether or not to support an elected public official, nearly 9 in 10 – 88-percent – say it’s at least somewhat important what that official’s positions are on issues like clean water, clean air, open spaces and public lands."
Metz adds that more than two in five voters rate those positions as a primary factor in deciding whether to support a candidate.
Metz and Republican pollster Lori Weigel recently took a representative sample poll, using both landlines and cellphones to gauge voter attitudes about various public lands and resource issues.
Among their findings:
55 percent of respondents oppose proposals giving state government control over national public lands. Those include refuges, parks, and monuments. 41 percent support state government control. Lori Weigel calls that a noteworthy result.
"Because we’ve seen that on, especially any issue, when you ask people, ‘Boy, should the state do something the federal government’s doing?’, they’re far more inclined to feel their state would do a preferable job. But on this specific issue given the cost implication, that’s something that we’ve seen voters in many states – not just Montana – actually rejecting once they understand the cost implication."
Those results differ from a separate survey conducted earlier this spring by the University of Montana and Stanford University. That poll found a majority of respondents wanted at least some federal lands in Montana transferred to the state.
Meanwhile, 61 percent of respondents to this new poll oppose proposed mining projects near the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park.
"That opposition really was throughout the state. While there was some differing levels of opposition, it was really a majority throughout the state that were offering that type of opposition to that specific proposal."
Democratic pollster Dave Metz reports three in five of Montana respondents visited a national park within the last year. That rises to 79 percent when that question’s expanded to include all public lands.
"Of that subset who say they’ve visited a national park, we asked them to tell us what their experience was like there; 95 percent reported that it was positive. This is something where there’s real shared experience of the land among Montanans, and it’s something they value highly as a part of their quality of life."
That’s not to say the public sees no challenges facing the National Park Service. Four in five of respondents say Montana’s national parks are in need of additional resources. More than three in five felt Yellowstone and Glacier are too overcrowded.
This public lands survey was first conducted back in 2014. At that time 62 percent of respondents thought public lands had a positive effect on local jobs and the economy.
"Today that figure has risen to 77 percent – a full 15 points. The appreciation of the economic benefits of public lands has broadened and deepened significantly over the course of the last couple of years."
See the full results of the 2016 Public Lands Survey here.