Groups have seized upon a recent poll that appears to show that Montanans favor federal-land transfer. But with other polls showing the opposite, the issue isn’t cut and dried.
Last week, the University of Montana released preliminary results of a poll conducted for the Rural West Conference on a wide range of issues that affect Montanans. The poll sampled more than 900 Montanans over the phone in February on major social, economic, and political issues in four main areas: natural resources, health care, housing and homelessness, and tribal policy.
Under natural resources, 59 percent of respondents agreed that “the federal government owns too much land in Montana and should transfer some of it to the state.”
This result had members of the American Lands Council crowing that a majority of Westerners now support its cause of transferring federal land to the states.
But Montanans’ answers to the rest of the survey questions make it apparent that they aren’t ready for full state control yet and they clearly don’t want privatization.
For one thing, more Montanans want federal land to be managed to “protect the land and wildlife” while only 10 percent support “development from oil, gas and mining.”
In addition, the survey was conducted while the Malhuer National Wildlife Refuge was occupied by armed protesters, raising the issue to a higher level than it might otherwise be. However, almost half of respondents agreed that the occupiers were breaking the law while slightly more than a third considered the occupiers to be protecting citizens’ rights.
Overall, majorities supported inconsistent views, and UM Political Science Professor Christopher Muste said that could have been a complication of conducting a survey with so many questions on so many subjets. Muste helped put the survey together along with Stanford University.
“One of the problems doing a large survey covering a large number of topics is you can only ask so many questions about each topic. But we think we did get an interesting finding here, that there was general support for transferring some lands. Previous surveys done by other organizations have shown that majorities of Montanans oppose the transfer of substantial amounts of public lands. So, there’s some wiggle room in there, and I think most Montanans would favor at least some transfers, but not very much,” Muste told Montana Public Radio.
Colorado College has conducted one of those other surveys for the past six years. The Conservation in the West poll, a bipartisan survey, is much more focused, dealing only on issues dealing with public lands. And for the past six years, the majority of Montanans have supported protection of federal land.
This year’s poll was conducted in January and also coincided with the Malheur occupation. So this was the first year that voters were asked specifically about transferring federal land to the states. In a complete reversal of the UM poll, 58 percent opposed giving state governments control over federal lands.
There is a slight difference in that the Conservation in the West poll samples 400 voters in each of seven western states: Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona. So the overall results are averaged over all the states
However, in just Montana, 59 percent opposed transferring land to the states.
So those pushing for federal land transfer, such as the American Lands Council, should not take the UM results at face value. Ultimately, they should note that half of respondents in the UM study said "nature and a clean environment" was the thing they valued most about living in Montana.