Montanans want more protection of public lands and environment, according to new poll - TAI News
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The results of Colorado College’s 2024 Conservation in the West Poll deliver a clear message ahead of November’s election: Montana’s voters —- Democrats, Republican and independents —- want to do more to protect public lands and the environment and will vote that way in November.

“Eighty-seven percent of Montanans still really care about conservation issues and how elected officials are going to act on conservation issues, which I think is huge,” Whitney Tawney, director of Montana Conservation Voters, said in an interview. “I was looking at it again this morning, and it just got me fired up.”

The data she cites comes from responses to a specific question that asked voters to rank the importance of protecting clean water, clean air, wildlife and public lands against other issues such as health care, education and the economy. Fully 40% ranked conservation issues as “very important,” another 47%s “somewhat important.”

The Conservation in the West Poll had been conducted every year for the past 14 years by Colorado College. The poll is bipartisan in itself; the college commissions a Democratic and a Republican polling firm to combine efforts and carry out the work. Together, the firms in January surveyed 400 registered voters in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Respondents identified as 35% Republican, 35% Democrat, and 29% independent. Results in Montana generally align with those throughout the region. Montanans are a bit more conservation-oriented than the rest, but the poll results suggest these issues will loom large in all eight states.

The poll plumbs sentiment on a whole series of issues related to the environment and public lands. None of the answers will provide any encouragement to those Republican candidates who mirror the positions of former President Donald Trump. Recall that Trump’s recent promise to become a dictator for a day was couched in two issues: closure of the border and a vow to “drill, baby, drill,” meaning he’d use his imagined dictatorial powers to order oil and gas development on public lands. 

The Conservation in the West Poll measured sentiment on one of these issues, asking whether Congress should place more emphasis on protection of public lands or instead ensure “we produce more domestic energy by maximizing the amount of national public lands available for responsible oil and gas drilling and mining.” Sixty-seven percent said protection should be the priority; less than a third said production.

While opinion on this particular issue may split along the partisan divide in much of the nation, in Montana, the support for public lands is strongly bipartisan, as it is in the other seven Rocky Mountain states included in the poll.

In Montana, 41% of those polled identified as independents, while 31% said they were Republican and 27% Democrat. The pollsters did not disclose how that party affiliation played out on the various questions in Montana, but did offer some breakdown on issues throughout the Rockies. Regionwide, 74% of Republicans, 87% of independents and 96% of Democrats said conservation issues would be important in deciding their votes.

Conservationists following the last seven years of national politics suffered a sort of whiplash watching the Trump administration shrink protected areas and then cheering as the Biden administration restored protections to those areas.

Montanans have a clear favorite: The pollsters asked whether respondents supported removing protections from public lands to allow more drilling and mining. Only 25% supported doing so.

“Montanans are supportive of more land conservation whether that’s new monuments, new national parks, or new trail areas. I think that is the real story here,” Tawney said.

Results such as these give Tawney’s group a powerful lever in the upcoming fall election. While the group, an affiliate of the national League of Conservation Voters, has endorsed Republicans in the past, its work has become increasingly partisan as the GOP has abandoned conservation. Montana Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte last year earned a place on Montana Conservation Voters official “wall of shame,” reserved for a handful of politicians opposed to conservation. Gianforte is seeking reelection this year.

Sen. Steve Daines, who is not on the 2024 ballot but runs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is routinely listed by the organization as one of the nation’s “dirty dozen,” its listing of the worst anti-environmental candidates running for office.

The widespread pro-conservation sentiments in polls such as the one taken by Colorado College have forced some Republicans into interesting backflips. 

Rep. Ryan Zinke, the Republican incumbent in the state’s 1st Congressional District, was endorsed by the conservation voters when he was a state legislator but earned the group’s enmity when he was secretary of the interior in the Trump administration and tasked with shrinking national monuments and undermining protections for public lands. He is now touting a bill he has introduced in Congress that would limit the transfer of public lands to private owners.

Tawney says it is simply a bill meant to signal a message and would not do much to reverse Montana Conservation Voters’ opposition to him. The group has endorsed his opponent, Democrat Monica Tranel. 

Another interesting case is that of Tim Sheehy, the Republican businessman and the candidate anointed by Trump to run against incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in November. Sheehy has already blundered across a tripwire on the issue by saying he favors the transfer of public lands to private owners, a proposal that has almost no support in Montana. He made the statement off the cuff in a radio interview and has since kept quiet about it, but look for him to walk it back.

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