Lessons from Montana Inform Elections Across West

The biggest untold story this election cycle was the rise of public lands and the outdoors as key issues

By Jennifer Rokala

We almost certainly will never see an election quite like 2016’s presidential race. Lost among the national spectacle was an emerging trend around public lands issues in the Mountain West. With Montana’s special election on the horizon, candidates would do well to heed the lessons from last November and listen to what voters are saying about public lands, access, and outdoor recreation.

In the Center for Western Priorities’ recently released Winning the West report, we found that the biggest untold story this election cycle was the rise of public lands and the outdoors as key issues in Mountain West races. In Montana, for example, public lands were arguably the defining issue in the governor’s race.

In examining six of the highest-profile contests in Colorado, Montana, and Nevada our report found that protection and management of public lands played an outsized role across the region. Advertising and media coverage shaped the discourse of the campaigns, and candidates of both parties highlighted pro-outdoors positions, designed to demonstrate a respect for the Western way of life.

At the same time, Mountain West voters consistently rejected extreme views on public lands issues – shying away from Ammon Bundy and land seizure proponents represented by Montana Sen. Jennifer Fielder and the Americans Lands Council – in favor of a balanced and commonsense approach, which is becoming the consensus position for winning in the West.

In race after race, candidates won in part by using their commitment for public lands as a wedge issue. At the same time, candidates who took an extreme position in favor of giving away public lands and putting them at risk of private development – a growing “third rail” in Western electoral politics – faced stunning defeats. For example, Idaho politicians Sheryl Nuxoll and Jim Chmelik, both high-profile advocates for transferring national public lands to state ownership, lost their re-election bids in the primary election.

Questions on how we balance conservation with recreational use and energy development on public lands have long been a topic of debate in the region. But 2016 marked a key turning point in which standing up for protection and access to American public lands became a prerequisite for electoral success. And that momentum isn’t going anywhere, especially in Montana where over 1,000 people turned out for the Public Lands Rally held earlier this year in Helena with Gov. Steve Bullock.

When Montana Representative Ryan Zinke ran for re-election last November he quickly pivoted away from the GOP platform supporting the disposal of American public lands. He even took the unusual step of resigning his position as a party delegate, citing his disagreement with his party’s position. During a debate, then-Representative Zinke defended his record on the issue, saying: “Let me make it clear. I am not in favor of selling or transferring public lands” – something he repeated in his recent confirmation hearing to become Secretary of the Interior.

As Greg Gianforte and Rob Quist vie for the House seat vacated by now-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke there will certainly be fierce policy debates. But what shouldn’t be up for debate is the role American public lands play in Montana’s economy, the importance of providing sufficient resources to our land managers, the importance of stream access for all in Montana, and the need to permanently fund America’s most important conservation program—the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

I look forward to watching how the candidates for Montana’s congressional seat demonstrate that they understand the importance of accessing and protecting our public lands. If 2016 is any indication, outdoor issues will play an even more decisive role in future elections.

Jennifer Rokala is the executive director of the Center for Western Priorities.