Poll finds Montanans shifting to renewable energy, more public access

While polls repeatedly show that a majority of Montanans value open lands for recreation, hunting and fishing, some have assumed that those in the east - where private property predominates - cared less. Now a new poll finds that eastern Montanans don’t think too differently from those in the rest of the state.

A bipartisan team of pollsters asked the opinions of more than 500 Montanans on everything from energy sources to public land issues between Sept. 1 and Sept. 8. They found that overall, a majority supports renewable energy; phasing out Colstrip instead of fighting to keep it open; funding public-land access programs; and protecting rivers with federal designations.

But then, they looked a little deeper into who responded in what way. They also compared this year’s responses with polls from previous years and found Montanans are shifting toward more conservation of land, water and energy.

Between half and three-quarters of the respondents said they participate in outdoor activities at least occasionally. So not surprisingly, almost 85 percent supported using sportsmen’s dollars to “improve access to public land and wildlife habitat.” That’s basically the mission of Fish, Wildlife & Park’s Habitat Montana program. The Habitat Montana program has purchased several fishing access sites and wildlife management areas over the past few decades.

But during recent legislative sessions, lawmakers angry about unrelated FWP policies or actions have threatened and then locked up the funds, preventing FWP from making any new land or easement deals. That’s caused some property with good access or habitat to be lost and it appears most Montanans don't want that to happen.

Then in June, Gov. Steve Bullock announced an initiative with other ideas to improve public land access, and it appears more than two-thirds of respondents approve of his plan, which includes creating an Office of Outdoor Recreation and hiring an advocate to work with agencies and landowners to protect access. Eastern Montana voters were slightly less likely to support Bullock’s initiative and Habitat Montana, but a majority of eastern Montanans still support all three.

Moving on to a more aquatic issue, an environmental group called Montanans for Healthy Rivers, backed by the national group American Rivers, has been working for the past year or so to encourage giving Wild and Scenic designations to more Montana rivers. In a state known for its rivers, it surprises some that only four have that designation. So recently, landowners along East Rosebud Creek in southeast Montana have been pushing hard for a listing for a couple of years but it takes Congressional action.

Montana’s delegation should take note that two-thirds of Montanans in this poll support protecting one or more rivers in the state. However, the idea is more popular in the western part of the state, with 71 percent in favor, than the eastern part, with 60 percent in favor.

Montanans stand behind one river in particular: the Smith River. When asked if they would support a mine that has the potential to pollute the Smith River and harm fish populations long term, two-thirds opposed the mine, and almost half – 48 percent – strongly opposed it.

Shifting to energy and the climate, it appears Montanans are taking greater notice of the recent drought, low algae-filled streams and snowpacks that are melted by June because the poll found that a majority of Montanans – 51 percent - now thinks at least some climate action is needed. Those who consider climate change to be a serious enough problem that immediate action should be taken has jumped to 29 percent from 23 percent in two years. Interestingly, about two-thirds of respondents said they support to some extent renewable energy and carbon-reduction efforts that would help meet the goals of the federal Clean Energy Plan.

When it comes to how Montanans would like to see that accomplished, almost three-quarters strongly support better energy efficiency, two-thirds support more wind and solar energy, and about half support more hydropower and natural gas.

Less than 45 percent support more coal and geothermal. Coal is the most contentious with about a third either somewhat or strongly opposing more coal, compared with 13 percent opposing wind.

It appears that 40-45 percent of respondents blame pressure from environmental organizations and too many regulations for the closing of the Colstrip coal-powered generating plants. Of those choosing “too many regulations” as the primary reason, most were men older than 50 who identified as conservative.

Only 20 percent agree that it is due to customers demanding cleaner energy sources, even though that's what caused the states of Washington and Oregon to pull their support of Colstrip generators 3 and 4.

But now that other states are unwilling to buy Montana’s coal-produced power, two-thirds of Montanans favor transitioning to something else – either renewable energy or retraining Colstrip employees for other work - rather than fighting to keep Colstrip open.

Montanans’ opinions of renewable energy are improving as more facilities install solar panels and wind turbines multiply. About three-quarters of respondents agreed that renewables are a reliable form of energy, a 9-percent jump over two years ago and that the state should double over the next decade the amount of solar energy it produces. They also agreed that wind and solar are a good investment and a good way to create jobs. Two-thirds also agreed that renewables are the best power sources for Montana while 54 percent said coal was best.

Most telling is that only 7 percent did not support net metering, which allows people with solar panels to get credit from the power companies for excess power that they supply to the electrical grid.

This poll was conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, a national Republican polling firm, and FM3, a national Democratic polling firm, and has a 4.4 percent margin of error. The two firms research issues behalf of political campaigns, businesses, not-for-profit organizations and public agencies in 44 states.