Norman Maclean’s grandson, Noah Snyder, casts into a pool offshore of the Blackfoot River during a 2017 float with several local supporters of the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act. The bill offered by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, would add about 80,000 acres to the Bob Marshall, Mission Mountain and Scapegoat wilderness areas.

The University of Montana 2018 Public Lands Survey showed wide, bipartisan appreciation for the state’s wild places.

“The takeaway for me is, support for policy to protect public land is going up, not down,” said Rick Graetz, director of UM's Crown of the Continent Greater Yellowstone Initiative, which commissioned the survey. “That’s true on both sides of the aisle. Democrats, Republicans and Independents all see the value of it. That wasn’t true even 10 years ago when we started our program.”

The poll found four out of five Montanans considered public lands an economic benefit to the state, while just 3 percent said their presence hurt the economy.

“Montanans use national public lands on a very frequent basis,” said David Metz, a Democratic pollster who co-led the bipartisan survey team. “Almost half visit their public lands 10 times or more a year, and one-third do so 20 or more times. That’s almost the highest participation of any state in the country.”

Three-quarters of Montanans backed creating a new national monument protecting the Badger-Two Medicine area south of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and Glacier National Park. That included two out of three Republicans and three out of four Democrats and Independents who participated in the poll.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke originally proposed such a monument at the same time he recommended reducing acreage in several other existing monuments such as Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, both in Utah.

Sen. Jon Tester’s proposed Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act designating about 70,000 acres of wilderness and recreation areas northeast of Missoula also got strong support from the poll. It found 68 percent of Republicans, 74 percent of Independents and 78 percent of Democrats favored the bill. That support was virtually unchanged from the same question asked in 2016, when 74 percent of overall voters approved of the legislation from Tester, a Democrat.

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When asked by the pollsters if they would support or oppose dedicating additional, existing public lands as wilderness areas in Montana, 57 percent expressed support and 35 percent said they would be opposed.

The poll also found that an overwhelming majority of those questioned — 85 percent or more — believed that enhancing and protecting public lands had a positive impact on "maintaining what is best about Montana,'' the quality of life in the state, opportunities for hunting, fishing and recreation, tourism and wildlife. 

Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed also said they would support state tourism promotion efforts aimed at telling people about less-visited public lands in Montana, such as Red Rocks Lake National Wildlife Refuge or the Terry Badlands Wilderness Study Area.

Graetz said he hoped the state’s economic policy makers would take heed of that finding.

“I want to do anything I can to develop sustainable economies in our state, especially the small communities,” Graetz said. “People will come to Glacier National Park whether the state spends a penny or not. But not to Miles City or Glasgow. Glasgow’s got 1,600 miles of shoreline (along Fort Peck Reservoir) but they don’t get any money spent on them.”

The poll surveyed 500 Montana registered voters, with equal numbers of Republicans, Independents and Democrats. It has a margin of error of 4.38 percent. Full results may be found at crown-yellowstone.umt.edu/documents/surveys/UM_Statewide-Survey_2018_Results.pdf.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.