HELENA INDEPENDENT RECORD: Poll finds Montanans strong on conservation, split on Trump

While Montanans appear evenly split on President Donald Trump’s public lands policies, they overwhelmingly see the outdoor recreation economy as essential to their state.

The eighth annual Colorado College “Conservation in the West” poll found voters along the Rocky Mountains widely consider themselves conservationists who enjoy playing on and taking care of public lands. And those numbers have grown since Trump took over from President Barack Obama a year ago.

“The change is fairly striking in context with what we saw in prior years,” said Dave Metz, representing the Democratic half of the bipartisan polling team. “The share of people who considered themselves to be conservationists in 2016 was 63 percent, while in 2018 it’s 76 percent.”

In state-by-state reviews, Montana topped that list with 82 percent self-identifying as conservationist, followed by Wyoming at 80 percent, Arizona at 77 percent and Idaho at 76 percent. Metz said that’s in an area where more voters identify as Republican than Democrat, and by double digits consider themselves more conservative than liberal.

Among Latinos in the Rocky Mountains, the shift between presidential administrations was even more striking.

“Three-quarters of Latino voters are likely to identify as conservationists — that’s up 18 points from two years ago,” said Maite Arce, president of the Hispanic Access Foundation. “That’s one issue where Latinos, even being so diverse, really agree.”

Latinos in the survey considered themselves 31 percent conservative, 35 percent moderate and 28 percent liberal, although the voter registration broke out as 19 percent Republican, 56 percent Democrat and 26 percent independent.

“It’s in single-digits in terms of those who thought the outdoor economy was of little importance or not important at all,” Weigel said. Those surveyed also “overwhelmingly rejected the idea that national monuments hurt the economy,” with only 14 percent of GOP voters saying monument designations tie up lands that could be put to better uses.

“Voters are rejecting changes to national monuments,” Weigel said, referring to questions about recent Trump-ordered reductions to the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah. “This was a bad idea to change protections of these monuments.”

The poll interviewed 3,200 people in statistically weighted samples of 400 in Montana, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. The total poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.65 percent, while results for individual states had a margin of 4.9 percent.

Montanans approved of Trump’s handling of land, water and wildlife issues by 46 percent to 45 percent. But 58 percent of the Montana respondents said they preferred protecting those things along with providing opportunities to visit national public lands. Just 28 percent supported prioritizing domestic energy production on national public lands.

Half of Montanans opposed raising entry fees on national parks like Glacier and Yellowstone, compared to 42 percent who supported the Department of Interior’s proposed increase. And 33 percent supported expanding the amount of public land available for oil and gas drilling, compared to 54 percent in opposition.