Red or Blue, Montanans Love the Outdoors

Poll shows 82 percent of Montanans consider themselves conservationists and 87 percent say they are outdoor recreation enthusiasts

By Rob Breeding

Montana is a classic purple state, albeit one that leans red. Montanans elect Republican majorities to our Legislature, and Democrats as governor. And our congressional delegation in D.C. has long been a mix of both parties.

When it comes to conservation and the love of the outdoors, however, there is no divide. Montanans support conservation of the Treasure State’s unparalleled natural resources. This was reconfirmed recently by Colorado College’s annual Conservation in the West survey.

Among other things, the survey showed that 82 percent of Montanans consider themselves to be conservationists, and 87 percent say they are outdoor recreation enthusiasts.

Montanans are pragmatists about the outdoors. Seventy-nine percent of respondents told pollsters outdoor recreation is “very” important to the state’s economic future, and another 17 percent said it was “somewhat” important. And 76 percent say the presence of public lands and outdoor recreation give Montana an advantage in luring jobs to the state.

Interestingly, the poll suggests Montanans are almost evenly divided on the way President Trump is handling issues related to land, water and wildlife, with a slight 46-45 approval edge. The poll shows stronger support for Trump’s handling of the economy, and an unrelated poll released last week showed 52 percent of Montanans viewed the president favorably overall. The differences aren’t huge, but the dip on conservation issues suggests some of the initiatives of the administration aren’t going over well.

The poll showed Montanans support and appreciate national monuments, both those in state and out as well. There’s strong support in the poll for Montana’s monuments: the Little Bighorn Battlefield, Pompeys Pillar and the Upper Missouri River Breaks. Also, a majority of those polled disagreed with the decision to reduce the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah.

The passion Montanans have for public lands and our ability to access them continues to be a factor in the voting booth. I think public access was key in Gov. Steve Bullock’s successful reelection campaign in 2016. As governor, as well as in his previous role as attorney general, Bullock has been a clear advocate for public access. Challenger Greg Gianforte, on the other hand, sued the state in an effort to close a public access to the East Gallatin River next to his property back in 2009.

Fair or not, the perception Gianforte was anti-access may have been the difference in an otherwise close race.

Bullock’s Democratic predecessor in the governor’s office, Brian Schweitzer, also played an important role in another access case. Shortly after he was elected, Schweitzer authorized Fish, Wildlife and Parks to join the legal fight at Mitchell Slough on the Bitterroot River. Up to that point, the battle was waged entirely by citizen activists, but FWP’s involvement helped push the case toward an access-friendly decision.

The result is some Montanans have come to view the governor’s office as the last line of defense against attacks on the state’s Stream Access Law. The Legislature, a more polarized branch of state government due to the concentration of like-minded voters in smaller legislative districts, hasn’t always been as friendly to access laws.

Hopefully, pols will consider the results of the Colorado College survey in the future. If 82 percent of Montanans consider themselves conservationists, that may very well translate into majorities in even the reddest of legislative districts. You don’t have to be a flaming liberal to want to protect the rights of Montanans to hunt and fish on public lands.

Protect it, and make sure we can access it. Red or blue, that’s the Montana way.

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