BILLINGS – It’s hard to watch network television for more than a few hours this election season without seeing a campaign ad referencing public lands.
Public lands have become a go-to issue for Democrats who associate their opponents with attempts to transfer ownership of federal lands to states. A recent Lee Montana poll suggests that only a third of Montanans would support such a transfer.
Asked whether they believed federal lands in Montana should, or should not, be turned over to the state, 37 percent of state residents supported the move. Of the 1,003 registered voters questioned, 46 percent said the lands shouldn’t be transferred. Another 17 percent were undecided.
The poll’s margin of error was 3.2 percent and was conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research of Florida.
Other polling firms that have worked on the public lands issue in Montana and the West told the Billings Gazette that Montanan’s low level of support for the transfer was notable and indicated that political messaging on public lands is getting noticed.
“What that tells me is that people have been thinking about this issue,” said Lori Weigel, of Public Opinion Strategies, the Colorado research group that does polling for Republicans.
Weigel knows the pulse of Montanans on the public lands because earlier this year, she and Democratic pollster Dave Metz collaborated on a poll addressing the issue for University of Montana.
Knowing little about federal land transfer burdens, such as the management costs that states would incur, many voters would likely support a transfer, Weigel said. That’s because people consider local government better than federal government.
Voters have a bigger say in local government decisions. And public approval of Congress is in single digits, much worse than public opinion of state government, even in Montana, where according the Lee poll 48 percent of voters say state government is on the right track.
“Usually, the complications are not at the top of people’s minds,” Weigel said. “When we say that would mean the state would have more ability to make decisions over the use on these lands, but they would also have to pay for wildfires, things change.”
Montana has 25 million acres of federal land. Democrats argue that a land transfer eventually would result in a sale to private owners.
Republicans say they don't want to sell federal lands, but want to keep Montanans working in the woods, drilling for oil and gas, mining coal.
Both presidential candidates have indicated they won't support a lands transfer. Republicans say those positions make lands transfers a nonstarter.
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In the University of Montana poll, more of the costs associated with a lands transfer were added to the equation. Consequently, more people opposed the transfer.
Concerning state takeover of public lands, Montanans were opposed. The UM poll found 55 percent opposed the idea, 41 percent supported it, or were undecided.
Campaign ads about public lands this election cycle focus mostly on lost recreation opportunities. Most people think of recreation first when considering public lands and want those recreation opportunities protected.
But Montanans were already more aware of public lands issues than voters in other Western states, said Aaron Weiss, of the Center for Western Priorities. The left-leaning group discovered Montana voters to be very tuned into public lands issues during polling last spring.
In Western state elections this year, there are only two areas when congressional candidates are making public lands a priority campaign issue, Montana and the Western Slope of Colorado.
Montana voters didn’t need much political ad coaching on public lands. Voters were already watching news of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge standoff in Oregon. There were Montana supporters who traveled to the edge of the standoff. The occupants of the refuge, who decried government overreach, are now on trial.
The Cliven Bundy standoff in Bunkerville, Nevada, which in 2015 stemmed from a rancher's refusal to end years of illegal cattle grazing on public lands, also drew support and criticism from Montanans.
“I’d say particularly in Montana, probably more than any western state, it’s a top-of-mind issue,” Weiss said.
But those opinions change when the public lands are presented as environmentally insensitive, or so says a spring Montana survey for the Center For Western Priorities. That survey found that 72 percent of voters supported mining and logging on lands considered insensitive.
In its poll, the Center for Western Priorities found that Montana’s responses to public lands issues were nuances. Seventy-five percent of voters told pollsters that there wasn’t too much public land in Montana.
Respondents didn’t support a federal lands transfer, but 69 percent said Montana should prioritize collaboration over conflicts with the federal government when it came to public lands.
The strongest level of support for a federal lands transfer to the state was among Republicans, 51 percent of whom favored a transfer. Among independent voters, 41 percent were supportive. But only 14 percent of Democrats supported a transfer.
By gender, 47 percent of men said federal lands should be transferred to the state. But, 52 percent of women opposed the move.