Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Westerners remain steadfast in wanting to conserve the land, water and wildlife that surround them, although concerns about overcrowding and water shortages reflected in a new eight-state poll are strengthening those desires.

On Wednesday, with the help of Republican pollster Lori Weigel and Democratic pollster Dave Metz, the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project released the results of its 13th annual bipartisan Conservation in the West Poll, which continues to show that voters in all Western states, with minor variation, are overwhelmingly supportive of conservation, regardless of party or affiliation.

Montana - where 73% of voters consider themselves to be conservationists - has been part of the poll since its start in 2011. And in spite of all the changes that have occurred since then - including a pandemic and inflation - a large majority of Montanans and Westerners overall insist that conserving land, water and wildlife are high priorities, because that’s why they live where they do, Weigel said.

“They’re saying ‘Look, this is still important. Inflation comes and goes,’” Weigel said. “There can be different pressures but what’s staying the same is what they value about the West and about their state. When we ask people about what they like most, it is overwhelmingly about the land, the view, the wildlife that walk across their property, so much about nature. I think it’s more integral to their identity than the price of eggs.”

One question that saw a significant change in responses over time is whether too many people moving into a state was a problem. In 2016, about 20% thought it was a very serious problem, but seven years later, that’s more than doubled, and 75% now consider it a serious problem.

More than 80% say the loss of natural areas is a serious problem, a notable increase since 2011 when only 70% considered it a serious problem. In Montana, that jumps to 86% with 55% saying it’s a very serious problem. Similar percentages of Montana voters say the loss of habitat for fish and wildlife is a serious problem.

The perception of overcrowding and loss of natural areas probably contributes to the increase in support for the 30x30 Plan, which seeks to conserve 30% of land and water and 30% of ocean areas by 2030. This year, 82% of those polled support the goal, up from 73% in 2020. That includes 68% of those identifying as “conservative GOP.”

In Montana, the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act, sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester, continues to gain support. This year, 84% of those polled support the Act, compared to 79% a year ago, and more than half express strong support. That corresponds with the 2022 poll results from University of Montana Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone Initiative, which found 83% support the Act.

Tester has been carrying the collaboratively produced Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act since 2017, but Sen. Steve Daines, who sits on the Senate Natural Resources committee, has continually blocked its passage in spite of overwhelming support from Montanans.

When asked why elected officials don’t take their cues from the trends indicated in the Colorado College poll, Metz said a number of factors play into policy decisions.

“Partisan politics obviously plays a role. You have some elected officials who, given the way district lines are drawn, may be more responsive to primary voters in their own party than they are to the broader electorate. And obviously, their preferences may be different,” Metz said. “Public opinion is one input into decisions and the lobbying of interest groups is another. And some of these questions are ones where matters of policy affect very well funded industries that may have different perspectives than the voters do.”

When the pollsters asked voters to rate eight reasons for conserving public lands and natural areas, almost all said the protection of drinking water was most important. That was followed by ratings of at least 90% for maintaining healthy forests, conserving wildlife migration corridors and habitat for threatened wildlife and providing opportunities for children to learn about nature.

“People tell us all of them are at least somewhat important. But some really rise to the fore,” Weigel said. “Water certainly tops that list. Wildlife is really something that resonates, and no matter how we ask about it, people give us the same response.”

When asked about declines in fish and wildlife populations, 83% agree it’s a serious problem, up 3 percentage points from two years ago. More than 90% of voters in every state say conserving wildlife habitat and migration corridors is important, and almost two-thirds considers it very important. About 85% support building more wildlife crossing structures across highways.

With regard to water, half of all voters consider the shortage of water to be a serious crisis, with southern states expressing somewhat more urgency than northern states. In Montana, a headwaters state, only 37% consider inadequate water supplies to be a very serious problem compared to 74% in Arizona. But when it comes to drought and low river levels, more Montanans care about that, with 46% saying low rivers are a very serious problem and 56% saying drought is very serious. But at least three-quarters of Montanans consider all three problems to be serious.

To address the water shortage, more than 80% of all voters support - and more than 50% strongly support - improving infrastructure to reduce leaks, requiring proof of water availability before new development is approved, and using more recycled water in homes and businesses.

When it comes to energy, one result remains unchanged since 2012: voters prioritize expanding clean energy over fossil fuels by more than a 2:1 ratio. A large majority also agrees that drilling on public land should be approved only where resources are likely to be found. And a consistent 91% agrees that oil and gas companies should be required to pay for their cleanup.

“Gas prices may go up, but people think that we should still be moving toward more clean, renewable energy as opposed to drilling for more fossil fuels. Because they know that, over the long run, that’s where they think that we have to go,” Metz said. “And that’s kind of encouraging, to think that the public has some core values that they hold fast to, despite some of these changing, temporary circumstances relating to economy and politics.”

To see the results, go to https://www.coloradocollege.edu/other/stateoftherockies/conservationinthewest/2023.html

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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