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Oregon Wildlife Refuge
Mike Keefe

In a week when the president of the United States, the governor of South Carolina and the speaker of the U.S. House rebutted divisive views on the national stage, results of a Rocky Mountain poll indicated that opinions here also are less extreme than the loud angry voices regularly in the news.

Montanans, Wyomingites and their neighbors in Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico tend to value their public lands, enjoy the outdoors and want their elected leaders to seek common ground to solve problems. Those are some takeaways from the Conservation in the West Poll released last week by Colorado College in Colorado Springs.

Now in its sixth year, this conservation issues poll was conducted by a Republican pollster from Public Opinion Strategies and a Democratic pollster with Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz and Associates. They conducted telephone interviews by cellphone or landline last month with 400 people in each of the seven states. The results are scientifically valid with a margin of error of 2.74 percent regionally and 4.9 percent statewide.

With those caveats, let’s look at what Montana and Wyoming folks had to say.

Asked how well they think presidential candidates understand issues of public lands, waters and wildlife in the West, 81 percent of Montanans and 71 percent of Wyomingites answered “not very well” or “not well at all”.

Asked the same question about congressional candidates, less than half or respondents in any of the seven states said House and Senate candidates understood these issues “very well” or “somewhat well”.

The candidates better study up. Three in four registered voters surveyed said public lands, water and wildlife issues are important in their voting decisions. In Montana, 37 percent said these issues are “a primary factor in deciding whether to support an elected public official” and 80 percent said these issues are very or somewhat important. Similarly, 35 percent of Wyomingites, said public land, water and wildlife issues are primary factors in their voting decisions, and 79 percent said these issues are important to some degree.

Too much partisanship

“Too much partisanship and division in politics” was considered a serious problem by 83 percent of respondents in the region. Only drought was considered a serious problem by that many respondents, followed by “low levels of water in rivers” with 82 percent saying it was a serious problem. Low rivers were a serious concern for 68 percent of Montanans and 53 percent of Wyomingites.

Solid majorities in every state want their “elected officials and state leaders” to “work together and seek to find common ground” on public lands, water and wildlife issues. In Montana, 84 percent of respondents selected “common ground,” only 10 percent said don’t compromise. In Wyoming, 81 percent preferred seeking common ground, while 12 percent said don’t compromise.

On a question about proposals to give state governments control over national forests and other federal public lands, the poll detected stronger opposition than support. In Montana, only 14 percent “strongly supported” such land transfer while 43 percent “strongly opposed”. In Wyoming, 23 strongly supported, 33 percent strongly opposed.

Economic impact

Folks in Montana and Wyoming overwhelmingly believe that the presence of national forests, monuments, wildlife refuges and other national public lands helps their state economy. Seventy-six percent of Montanans said national public lands help the economy, 7 percent said they hurt the economy and 15 percent said they have little impact.

Asked about the idea of selling “significant holdings of public lands like national forests to reduce the budget deficit,” 72 percent of both Wyoming and Montana respondents were opposed. Only 16 percent supported the idea.

Hunter-angler opinions

A question about hunting and fishing showed why Montana and Wyoming residents care so much about public lands. Sixty-three percent of both Montana and Wyoming respondents said they are hunters, anglers or both — the highest percentage among the seven states. For comparison, consider that only 29 percent of Arizonans and 39 percent of folks in Colorado and Utah said they are hunters or anglers.

This poll provides a fascinating snapshot of public opinion. It confirms a broad Western public understanding of connections between national public lands, local business and recreation.

The Colorado College poll was taken before armed anti-government activists occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, demanding that the land be divided up and turned over to locals. The answers from statistically valid samples of residents in seven Rocky Mountain States indicate that public opinion in this region probably wasn’t on the side of the Oregon occupiers.

As Ken Salazar, former U.S. senator and secretary of interior and a Colorado College graduate, said in a statement on the poll: “Western voters see our outdoor heritage as integral to our economy and our way of life, and they certainly don’t want to see their public lands seized by ideologues or sold off by politicians in Washington.”