MISSOULA — A new poll of voters in Rocky Mountain states found significant bipartisan support for conserving public lands rather than developing their natural resources.
“We saw stronger support than expected among Trump voters in terms of proactive conservation efforts,” said Lori Weigel, one of the survey analysts for Colorado College’s annual “Conservation in the West” poll. “We did see more support for oil and gas leasing, and coal mining on public lands among trump voters than Democratic opponent or third-party voters, and that’s to be expected. But it was more striking how often we saw agreement than where we saw big differences.”
For example, 68 percent of those polled in the seven states along the Continental Divide wanted the Trump administration to protect clean water, air quality, wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities, compared to 22 percent who wanted emphasis on domestic energy development, responsible oil and gas drilling and coal mining.
Fellow poll analyst David Metz said there was at least a plurality in every state favoring public lands protection over resource extractions. In Montana, the split was 63 percent in favor of conservation while 24 percent wanted energy development.
Metz and Weigel represented Democratic- and Republican-affiliated polling firms, and designed the questions to reflect a bipartisan approach.
“Public lands drive our economy and define our way of life in Montana and in surrounding states,” said Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who participated in the poll press conference by phone. “We have too much to lose if we allow these national treasures to be put at risk.”
Bullock noted that 82 percent of respondents supported improving access to public lands for anglers and hunters. He also highlighted the finding that 94 percent of respondents supported improving and repairing infrastructure in national parks and outdoor destinations.
Montana’s outdoor recreation economy support 64,000 jobs and nearly $6 billion of economic activity in the state, Bullock said. About 11 million people a year visit the state’s public lands.
After being told that Trump had pledged to manage public lands in the footsteps of President Theodore Roosevelt, who was credited with creating national parks and monuments, 63 percent of the respondents said they approved of that approach. Weigel said when looked at by party, 67 percent of the Republicans agreed with Trump’s Teddy Roosevelt approach while 57 percent of Democrats did so.
Trump also pledged to undo former President Obama’s moratorium on federal coal leasing, which was imposed last January. The poll found 63 percent opposed more coal mining on public lands, while 33 percent spoke in favor.
An average 81 percent among the seven states favored continuing Obama’s restrictions on methane gas flaring and leaking, including 84 percent in Montana. The Trump administration is expected to attempt rolling back the methane rules.
“The results of the new Colorado College poll showing broad, bipartisan support among Western voters for keeping public lands public and responsible energy development certainly reflect the wide support we see among hunters, anglers, rafters and wildlife watchers, regardless of political party,” National Wildlife Federation western sportsmen’s campaign manager Aaron Kindle wrote in an email. “Sportsmen in the West and across the country are united in our passion for our American outdoor heritage and proponents of selling it off, carving it up or giving it away should take heed.”
The annual poll found 70 percent of the residents in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico considered themselves conservationists. That was up from 63 percent in 2016. In Montana, the share jumped from 71 percent last year to 78 percent in the current sample.
Pollsters called 2,800 people by cell phone and landline in December and January, reaching 400 registered voters in each state. The final results had a 2.74 percent margin of error region-wide, and a 4.9 percent margin for individual state results.