As Montana's legislators debate bills to overrule the Environmental Protection Agency or declare climate change a benefit to the environment, a poll of voters in five Western states shows a majority of Montanans value a clean environment, support renewable energy and believe that jobs and the economy can grow without sacrificing protections for the air, land and water.
The poll, released Wednesday, surveyed 2,200 voters in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. The bipartisan poll, funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, is part of The Colorado College State of the Rockies Project.
The survey was meant to explore how views of conservation relate to perceptions of state government, budget issues and the economy in each state.
"The hope is that this will move us beyond the myths and hunches," said Walt Hecox, director of the State of the Rockies Project.
Republican legislators are seeking greater development of Montana's natural resources by reducing red tape. The poll found that 53 percent of Montanans agree that too many environmental regulations have cost jobs. Yet 73 percent of Montanans would rather maintain the laws and regulations in place rather than change them to add jobs.
Across the region, that response was divided along political lines, "with two-thirds (67 percent) of Republicans, 78 percent of independents, and 88 percent of Democrats saying they would prefer to maintain current standards that apply to industries in their states, rather than reducing them in order to boost the economy."
When asked to agree or disagree with the statement: "we need to do more to ensure oil, gas and mining companies follow laws protecting our land, air and water," 72 percent of Montanans agreed with the statement.
Colorado College attempted to make the poll bipartisan by contracting with two pollsters, Lori Weigel at Public Opinion Strategies, a Democratic-leaning firm, and David Metz of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates, a Republican-leaning firm.
Still, Craig Wilson, a political science professor at Montana State University Billings, who has conducted previous polls in which questions addressed the environment and development, said he thought the poll questions tended to be one-sided.
"Overall, despite the extensiveness of the survey, they didn't ask pro-development questions," he said.
Wilson said that by the nature of the questions the pollsters asked, there could be an overstatement of the five states' pro-environment stance. He said that in the past, Montanans have indicated support for the environment but are also strongly in favor of resource extraction such as logging, coal mining and drilling for oil and gas.
"Montanans are concerned about the environment, but they are also pro-development," Wilson said.
While Democrats and Republicans polled in the survey often agreed on environmental issues, partisan affiliation and political ideology were divisive in questions dealing with climate change. While 82 percent of conservative Republicans were skeptical of climate change, 81 percent of moderate and liberal Democrats said action should be taken on the issue.
Of top concern to more than 60 percent of the Westerners polled were clean air and clean water. The next closest concern, water supplies and drought, was the top concern for 16 percent of respondents.
When asked to rank the most serious problems facing their state, a loss of family farms and ranches topped the poll, followed by poorly planned growth and development. The two could be seen as related as agricultural lands are sold and chopped up into subdivisions.
On the topic of renewable energy resources, two-thirds (67 percent) say "increasing the use of renewable energy sources like wind and solar power will create new jobs" in their state, five times more than believe it will cost their state jobs (12 percent). Eighty-eight percent of Montanans were even willing to pay more to increase renewable energy use.
Given Westerners' active lifestyles, it's no wonder that the poll found that people who live in the five Rocky Mountain states value the outdoors, clean air, water and wildlife and a majority (88 percent) would rather spend a day outdoors than in the city. That feeling was even stronger among Montanans and Wyoming residents, where 91 percent preferred a day in the outdoors. The stronger relationship with the outdoors in Montana and Wyoming was also reflected in the finding that three in five residents in Montana (60 percent) and Wyoming (63 percent) identify themselves as a hunter, an angler or both.
To protect that valued part of their lifestyle, the poll found that "one of the most resounding affirmative responses in the survey is agreement that 'even with state budget problems, we should still find the money to protect' their state's land, air and water. Fully 84 percent of Western voters agree with this view, with four in five in every state agreeing."
That tie to the land would also explain why three-quarters of respondents agreed that undeveloped public land should be kept in its natural state; "43 percent" agreed strongly with the statement.