Regardless of political affiliation, the vast majority of Montanans support establishing a new national monument outside Glacier National Park and reject eliminating the state’s wilderness study areas, according to a study conducted by the University of Montana.
The findings of the statewide survey, released on Monday, run contrary to legislation proposed by Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte, who want to remove protections for 29 wilderness study areas spanning 700,000 acres in the state.
“This is the third time we’ve had the opportunity to measure voter sentiment on public lands,” said UM geography professor Rick Graetz. “Support for policies that protect public lands is intensifying. It’s going up, not down. I think people are seeing the benefits of public lands on both sides of the aisle.”
According to the findings, Montanans are more likely to support new wilderness designations than they were when the question was first asked in 2014. Support for new wilderness designations increased this year to 65 percent, up from 57 percent four years ago.
The survey also found that Montanans reject legislation to eliminate protections for 29 wilderness study areas, as proposed by Daines and Gianforte. Of those polled, 57 percent prefer keeping the protections as they currently stand.
Only 11 percent of those surveyed believe that existing protections should be eliminated.
“It’s three-quarters collectively, among Republicans, Independents and the vast, vast majority of Democrats, who are rejecting eliminating protections in these 29 wilderness study areas,” said Republican pollster Lori Weigel of Public Opinion Strategies. “That really cuts across types of communities in the state. It’s not just the preference of people living in more urban areas.”
By party, 40 percent of Republicans support keeping the state’s wilderness study areas as they are, as do 54 percent of Independents and 83 percent of Democrats. Support was strongest in urban areas, with 61 percent in favor, though 53 percent of those in rural areas also favor maintaining current protections.
The poll also found that 77 percent of respondents believe community input is very important to the future of Montana’s wilderness study areas. Some believe Daines and Gianforte skirted the public process before introducing their bills.
“The majority of Montanans either want to keep things the way they are or designate new lands as wilderness,” Weigel said. “They also definitely feel the process should be informed by local communities and stakeholders.”
According to the survey, 78 percent of Montana voters also support a president’s authority to designate a National Monument. Support among Republican voters was the strongest at 85 percent, though 74 percent of Democrats also support a president’s ability to designate a monument.
That support was retained when voters were asked if they supported declaring the Badger-Two Medicine area as a national monument. If the monument were created, 75 percent felt it was very important to allow hiking, camping and hunting on the land, and 73 percent said it should focus on wildlife conservation.
“There’s really a wide range of different benefits Montanans see coming from the establishment of this monument,” said Democratic pollster Dave Metz of FM3 Research. “It underlies that broad, strong and bipartisan support.”
The poll also found broad support for the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project, with 73 percent of Montanans supporting Sen. Jon Tester’s legislation and 16 percent opposing it.
That support was consistent across parties, with 68 percent of Republicans in favor, 74 percent of Independents and 78 percent of Democrats.
“We are in the midst of several policy discussions right now about the long-term protection of various public lands and I think it’s a good thing to understand how voters are reacting,” he said. “I would encourage all of Montana’s elected officials to take these results to heart.”