Montana voters believe climate change drives the increase in wildfires and that their public lands are great for the economy but too crowded, according to the latest Conservation in the West survey.
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The Colorado College poll found a steady increase in concern about climate change throughout the eight-state region it has studied for the past 11 years. And while Montana voters last November elected a slate of statewide officials who campaigned to reduce investments in public lands, the poll found strong support for such investments throughout the West.
“We are seeing strong voter concern for nature, which is translating into calls for bold action on public lands in the West,” said Katrina Miller-Stevens, director of the State of the Rockies Project and an assistant professor at Colorado College. “If federal and state policy leaders are looking for direction on public lands, the view from the West is clear.”
Over the decade, the slice of Western people who think climate change is an extremely or very serious problem has grown from 27% to 54%. In Montana, 43% of respondents put climate change in the extremely- or very-serious category.
Poll analyst David Metz of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin Metz and Associates said he was struck by the wide support for expanding and conserving public lands. Montana voters produced the second-lowest favorable nod — but even that was 71%. Nevada was highest with 82%. That could boost momentum for President Joe Biden’s “30 by 30” commitment to protect 30% of the nation’s land and ocean space by 2030.
“This really is an area, in a time when we’re talking about unity, that members of all three parties are strongly behind something,” Metz said. The poll found 63% of Republicans, 80% of Independents and 92% of Democrats support the idea.
Fellow poll analyst Lori Weigel of New Bridge Strategy added that while most respondents were concerned about government budget deficits, they were willing to back more spending to protect public lands.
“That’s one issue that really crosses the political spectrum,” Weigel said.
Metz's polling firm concentrates on Democratic political clients while Weigel's focuses on Republican clients. The two have teamed up on the Conservation in the West poll for most of its existence.
The 2021 results leaned strongly in favor of protecting wildlife habitat over energy development. More than nine of 10 respondents supported requiring energy companies to pay for clean-up costs and land restoration after drilling operations. Four out of five backed protecting wildlife migration corridors from oil and gas drilling. And almost three-quarters supported energy development on public lands halted or strictly limited.
“This poll confirms what most of us already know: Wildlife and our public lands and waters are integral to our very identity as Westerners,” said Tracy Stone-Manning, associate vice president for public lands at the National Wildlife Federation. “Whether we are hikers, campers, anglers, hunters, or bird watchers, we want to make sure these lands and waters are responsibly safeguarded for future generations. Elected officials from both parties should heed this call from Western voters: protecting public lands, waters and wildlife is a top priority.”
The annual survey took place from January 2 to 13, and reached 3,842 registered voters. It was weighted to give correct representation from each of the eight states. For region-wide responses, it has a margin of error of 2.2%. At least 400 participants were from Montana, giving state-level answers a margin of error of 4.8%.
The respondents were also chosen to get representative groups of Republicans, Independents and Democrats. This year, pollsters also made extra efforts to reach voters from Native American, Black, Latino and other demographic communities.
Weigel said one overriding conclusion from this year’s poll was the sense of pessimism over the condition of the natural world.
“Western voters are far more likely to say they’re worried,”Weigel said, observing that 61% believed the natural world was in poor condition compared to 36% that thought it was doing well. “One of the dynamics that really stood out was that younger voters were most pessimistic. We saw 70% of the 18-34 age group there, while seniors were most optimistic.”