A poll of Montanans that asked about continued protections for Wilderness Study Areas has exposed deep fissures between the state's voters and those they have elected to represent them.
Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte, both Republicans, have introduced bills in Congress to open up areas now protected as WSAs. Daines’ proposed bill eliminates wilderness status from all or part of five of the study areas, affecting about 450,000 acres. Gianforte’s bill goes farther, affecting 700,000 acres in 29 WSAs overseen by either the Forest Service or the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
The wild country affected by Daines' bill includes the Blue Joint and Sapphire WSAs south and east of Hamilton, the Big Snowies WSA near Lewistown, the Middle Fork Judith WSA south of Stanford and the West Pioneer WSA east of Wisdom.
Gianforte's legislation includes the same areas covered by Daines' bill, but also adds BLM acreage that stretches from the 7,800-acre Axolotl Lakes WSA outside Ennis to northeastern Montana’s 59,600-acre Bitter Creek WSA, southeastern Montana’s 44,900-acre Terry Badlands and nine study areas along the Missouri River Breaks ranging from Fort Benton east to Glasgow totaling more than 71,000 acres.
The University of Montana's Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone Initiative commissioned the poll of 500 Montana voters and hired both Republican and Democratic firms to conduct the survey. It found that only 11 percent of those polled favored Gianforte's proposal to eliminate protections for 29 WSAs.
A majority — 57 percent — wanted the areas to continue to be protected, and another 24 percent said they wanted a more case-by-case review of how the areas should be used.
“They were opting for something other than what’s proposed in Congress,” said pollster Lori Weigel, who led the Republican half of the bipartisan polling team.
Among Republicans, 22 percent supported elimination of protections while 40 percent wanted the protections left in place and 34 percent wanted case-by-case reviews. Democrats and Independents overwhelmingly opposed eliminating WSA protections.
Daines and Gianforte discounted the poll, noting they had the support of local county commissions for their legislation.
"I am guided by two principles when addressing public lands issues," Gianforte wrote in an email Monday, the day the results were released. "One, we should increase public access to our public lands. Two, I trust our local communities to know what’s best for them. These two principles have guided and will continue to guide my approach as we consider how to proceed with public lands that were found unsuitable for wilderness by land management agencies and have been locked up for decades in a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.”
Gianforte cited support from county commissioners in Valley, Prairie, Powell, Phillips, Madison, Garfield, Beaverhead and Ravalli counties, all containing or bordering the WSAs he included in his bill.
Daines' staff challenged the validity of the poll.
"This was not a credible survey — it was a push poll," spokeswoman Breanna Deutsch wrote in an email. "Rather than present objective facts from two sides of an argument, the authors push polled the phony and misleading arguments promoted by radical environmental groups. The lack of objectivity and fact-checking unfortunately undermines a legitimacy of the effort."
Deutsch spotlighted the poll's Question 22, which reads:
"Here in Montana some areas of existing public lands are protected as Wilderness Study Areas, such as the Big Snowy Mountains and the Terry Badlands. These public lands are accessible to hunters, anglers, hikers, and others on foot and horse, and allow grazing and motorized vehicle use in some areas, but not mining or logging. There are proposals in Congress that would eliminate protections for 29 wilderness study areas in Montana. That would potentially expand motorized recreation, oil and gas drilling, or industrial development in nearly 700 thousand acres. Which would you prefer Congress do?"
The possible responses were: eliminate protections in all 29 Wilderness Study Areas; add new protections in some areas, and eliminate protections in others; and keep all 29 Wilderness Study Areas as they are now.
The American Association of Public Opinion Research defines a push poll as "a form of negative campaigning disguised as a political poll'' and that aims "to persuade large numbers of voters and affect election outcomes, rather than measure opinions.''
David Parker, a Montana State University political science professor, said after reviewing the survey questions, "I object to the notion it’s a push poll. It’s pretty innocuous the way it’s worded.''
Parker said the UM poll appeared consistent with other regional surveys showing strong bipartisan support for public land protection.
“I would be very worried as a public official, knowing we have a poll where people across the political divide seem one way on this issue,'' Parker said. "That public opinion could be mobilized against you. In my view, I think you lean on the side of the voters.”
According to the survey, 97 percent of those polled said it was important that a wide range of stakeholders and local communities have the opportunity to provide input before decisions are made on the level of protections on existing public lands.
In 2017, the Montana Legislature passed a joint resolution calling for release of seven WSAs affecting about 1 million acres. Congress identified those areas in 1977 for U.S. Forest Service review as potential additions to the federal wilderness system and required that their wilderness qualities, such as their roadless, undeveloped, scenic and cultural attributes, be protected. That has prohibited or restricted access by off-road vehicles and bicycles, as well as restricted oil and gas exploration.
Rep. Kerry White, the Bozeman Republican who sponsored the resolution in Helena, said the Forest Service found the seven areas unqualified as wilderness but Congress never ordered an end to the study or reclassified the areas as regular national forest land. Instead, Congress passed a Montana Wilderness Act bill in 1988 classifying most of those areas as wilderness, which President Ronald Reagan vetoed.
In addition to asking voters' political affiliation, the pollsters logged how many of those surveyed regularly used motorized recreation. Weigel said half of the motorized users said they’d keep all WSAs protected, while 35 percent wanted case-by-case review. Only 16 percent of motorized recreation enthusiasts supported elimination of WSA protection.
“This really cuts across all areas, rural and urban,” Weigel said. Elimination of WSA protection is "being rejected across the board in every type of community across the state.”
UM geography professor Rick Graetz, who helped organize the poll, said it was designed to be transparent.
"We do not take positions on any results," Graetz said. "This is for the media, academics and public servants to get ideas about the management of public lands. The results over the years have been very consistent."
Graetz also defended the credibility of the pollsters. He noted that Public Opinion Strategies, the Republican component of the team, does work for 12 U.S. senators, seven governors, and 59 members of Congress, including the Speaker of the House.
The UM poll contacted 500 Montana registered voters in mid-April, weighted for even representation by political party and state region. It has a margin of error of 4.38 percent. It was also conducted with similar questions in 2014 and 2016.