Montanans across the political spectrum think federal public lands benefit the state’s economy and quality of life, according to a new poll released by the University of Montana.
“We found that support for national parks and conservation is about as popular and bipartisan an issue as you can find these days,” UM geography professor Rick Graetz said Wednesday. “There’s agreement in the state, on all sectors of politics.”
The poll of 500 registered voters throughout Montana took place on May 7, 9 and 11 by wireless and landline telephone interviews. It used the bipartisan team of Republican pollster Lori Weigel and Democratic pollster Dave Metz, who have cooperated on numerous other opinion surveys in the Rocky Mountain West. The poll had a margin of error of 4.38 percent.
Respondents believed parks and public lands had positive impacts both as national treasures and personal income. When asked the same question in 2014, 62 percent said national parks produced a positive impact on jobs. That number jumped to 77 percent in 2016. Those saying protecting public lands had a negative impact fell from 14 percent in 2014 to 6 percent this year.
“That’s a full 15 points,” Metz said. “Some of the other questions were within the margin of error, but all were moving up. In each case, more respondents were telling us that parks have a positive impact than they did two years ago.”
Michael Jamison of the National Parks Conservation Association said the finding backs up other research showing public lands are transforming Montana’s economy. Tourism-related jobs have evolved from entry-level hotel and restaurant jobs for locals to a new wave of activity driven by newcomers opting to bring their business to the state. That translates to both increases in real estate and construction markets around popular public lands and new companies that attract employees who want to live here.
“The Columbia Falls Chamber of Commerce used to have the motto ‘Industrial Hub of the Flathead Valley,’ ” Jamison said. “Now they’re using ‘Gateway to Glacier.’ We’ve gotten better at telling the story of economic impact from the parks.”
However, on the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, the poll takers had some criticisms to lodge. Two-thirds of them considered the national parks “overcrowded,” and four out of five said they were “in need of additional resources to manage and protect.”
The poll found three-to-one support for the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project, which would add about 85,000 acres of new wilderness along the edges of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex while creating new places for snowmobile riding and maintaining timber harvest. Republicans favored the project by 74 percent, Independents by 75 percent and Democrats by 73 percent.
Similarly strong majorities opposed plans to drill for oil and gas in the Badger-Two Medicine region between Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, with an overall 70 percent against the idea. On the partisan scale, 50 percent of Republicans opposed it, along with 71 percent of Independents and 93 percent of Democrats.
East of the Continental Divide, a proposal to dig two new gold mines in the Paradise Valley north of Yellowstone National Park also drew opposition. Just 34 percent of respondents were in favor (16 percent strongly so) while 61 percent were against (41 percent strongly opposed).
Survey takers also listened to editorial opinions about the Paradise Valley mine proposal. The argument that gold mines have a bad track record of leaving toxic waste and the state should not risk allowing more industrial mining drew 56 percent support, compared to 40 percent who agreed with the proposition that new mines would bring good jobs using safe technology to protect the environment.
Montanans are somewhat out of step with the rest of the region in their opposition to state takeover of federal public lands. This poll found 55 percent opposed the idea while 41 percent supported it.
Weigel said in other regional polls, she’s found people’s general inclination was that states do a better job than the federal government.
“It’s pretty significant that a majority oppose that in Montana, given the historically low ratings for the federal government and Congress,” Weigel said. She added it was surprising to see twice as much strong opposition (38 percent) to state takeover, compared to strong support (19 percent).
While the political split in the poll was 30 percent Republican, 24 percent Democrat and 44 percent Independent, the totals were different when party labels were removed. About 42 percent called themselves “conservative,” 36 percent chose “moderate” and 21 percent said they were “liberal.”
Three-quarters of the participants considered themselves “conservationists.” That was up from 67 percent in 2014. One out of five objected to that label.
Asked what kinds of outdoor recreation they enjoyed, 64 percent said hiking, followed by camping at 61 percent, kayaking/canoeing/boating at 43 percent and bird/wildlife watching at 42 percent. Off-road vehicle/snowmobile riding was chosen by 28 percent, while mountain biking drew 17 percent. Survey takers could offer multiple responses. Snowshoeing/skiing got 39 percent, while hunting/fishing got 4 percent. Eight percent did not choose any of the outdoor recreation options listed.
UM’s Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone Initiative commissioned the survey.
“We don’t take positions at the university,” professor Graetz said. “Our purpose is to get information out to the public.”