Urban and rural attitudes split on Western issues

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The Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains on the Montana-Wyoming boarder capture the light during a summer storm. A recent survey found a wide split between urban and rural views on public land in the American West. (Photo by Martin Kidston)


A survey of Montanans on issues facing the rural West found that 49 percent of the state’s residents value nature and a clean environment. Yet when they were asked to name the biggest issue facing the state, the environment fell to fourth while jobs and the economy topped the list.

The survey results were unveiled Friday during the annual Eccles Family Rural West Conference at the University of Montana. The two-day seminar, co-hosted by UM and Stanford University, brought experts together from across the region to explore issues facing the rural West.

“We don’t have a very good handle nationally, and especially in Montana, on what the main issues are – we don’t have very good polling on rural issues,” said Christopher Muste, an associate professor of political science at UM. “Montana is a great place to do a rural West survey.”

The survey was conducted over the phone in February and sampled 923 people. Muste said the results found several fundamental tensions, many of them focused on land use and energy issues.

Among the findings, Muste said, 49 percent of Montanans named nature and a clean environment as the state’s top value. It was, he said, the most important thing to residents.

“But when we turned the question around and asked what was the biggest issue facing Montana, the answer is totally different,” said Muste. “What people are really concerned about are jobs and economic growth. A combined 37 percent said those are their principal concerns.”

The rift in opinion was greatest among rural and urban residents. The survey found that rural residents valued jobs more and the environment less. Rural residents were also less optimistic about the state’s future and held less trust in state government to spend their money wisely.

A majority of Montanans – 55 percent – agreed that climate change was a serious issue, though concerns over climate change were greater in urban areas than in rural. Opinions were nearly evenly split in the balance of environmental protection and natural resource development.

“Natural resource development emerges as the winner, but not by a large margin,” said Muste. “The urban and rural split on this area is quite substantial.”

Of those polled, 58 percent said the state didn’t have enough resource development, and 56 percent said the state’s environmental laws were too strict and hindered development.

Panelist Sally Mauk, the former news director for Montana Public Radio who worked for nearly three decades as a state journalist, said the survey results weren’t surprising.

“I think the urban-rural split is less of a split on whether they value the environment, but rather, how they value it,” she said. “A third-generation logger from Noxon values the environment as a way to make a living. A doctor in Missoula who likes to spend his weekends hiking in the Bob Marshall (Wilderness) values the environment as a way to recreate.”

The survey also explored thoughts on transferring federal lands to the state. Muste said past surveys throughout the West found no state’s where the majority of residents supported a federal-lands transfer.

But this year, the survey found that 59 percent of Montanans supported a federal lands transfer. He said the survey’s timing may have influenced the results – it was conducted at the height of the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.

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Missoula on a damp spring morning. Urban and rural attitudes on public land in the West were far apart, the survey found. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

“This was by far the most polarizing issue, and I don’t suspect it to go away in the state of Montana,” said Muste. “Legislation has been introduced in our state Legislature each of the past two sessions to pressure the federal government to turn over federal lands to the state.”

David Brady, a professor of political science at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, said statistics suggest the state of Montana is a better manager of public land, at least where revenue returns are considered.

When it comes to timber, he said, the U.S. Forest Service loses money while Montana generates a return of $60.80 per board feet of harvested timber. While the forest service receives a grazing revenue of 10 cents for every $1 spent, he said, Montana generates $1.94.

“The state trusts are fiduciary – they provide funding to education across the state of Montana,” he said. “They have reason to continue managing the land properly so that funding is perpetually done. The federal government doesn’t have the same incentives on federal land.”

Brady added that the findings surprised him.

“I had no idea what the facts were on land management, so I went in thinking the opposite – that the federal government could do it better,” he said. “I think we can find out whether providing those sets of information to people changes their view. The land management in Montana struck me as a good area to explore this because the opinion is so sharply divided.”

Mauk said the contentious issues facing the rural West haven’t changed much over her 30 years of reporting. What has changed, she said, is how the issues are resolved.

“I first covered the Montana Legislature in the 1980s, and they were still basking in the afterglow of what was an amazing bi-partisan accomplishment in the 1972 Constitutional Convention,” she said. “There were bitter fights over economic issues and resource protection, as there is now, but the combatants remained respectful and dedicated to achieving a reasonable compromise.”

Mauk said she doubts Montana’s sitting legislators could pass a new constitution given the state’s political rift and the nation’s political climate. She said the issue would serve as a strong topic for a future conference on the rural West.

“The fights are increasingly personal and vindictive, and it would be impossible to replicate the kind of compromise Montanans were able to reach in 1972,” she said. “That’s a predicament I would like to see explored more, how we got to this point and how do we get away from it.”

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The Absaroka-Beartooth front just south of the Montana border in Wyoming. (Photo by Martin Kidston)