A University of Montana-based research initiative today announced the results of its latest survey of outdoor recreation habits and public lands views among Montana voters. The survey’s findings indicate that more than three-quarters of Montanans visited public lands 10 or more times in the past year, and roughly two-thirds regularly camp, hike or run on trails. According to FM3 Research President Dave Metz, one of the two pollsters hired to conduct the survey, those numbers put Montana over the top nationally when it comes to outdoor recreation.

“The state is generally, on most kinds of outdoor recreation, probably 10 to 15 points higher, if not more, in terms of the number of voters who are regularly recreating outdoors and using public lands,” Metz said during a press call Monday, April 13. “Alaska is one other state where I think we’ve seen numbers that are comparable to what we’re seeing in Montana.”

The survey, which has been conducted biennially by the Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone Initiative since 2014, shed light on a host of topics, including the physical and cultural benefits of public lands and outdoor recreation as an economic driver. Of the 500 registered voters polled by phone for the survey, 89% said public lands are helpful to the state’s economy — up from 82% in the initiative’s 2018 survey. The poll was conducted in late March, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, leading UM geology professor and initiative director Rick Graetz to speculate that the increase could be a reflection of where the public’s attention is focused at present.

New Bridge Strategy and FM3 Research

Number of times that Montana survey respondents reported visiting federal public lands in 2020. Credit: New Bridge Strategy and FM3 Research

“There was a big bump this year in the number of voters who say public lands are important to the Montana economy, I think because we are super focused on the economic picture right now,” Graetz said. “Consistent with that … we saw huge support this year for Montana’s Office of Outdoor Recreation, and I think that’s because Montanans want to support small businesses, in tough times especially.”

The results also offer a window into voter perceptions of the ongoing political debate over Wilderness Study Areas, a federal designation protecting lands identified as having potential for Wilderness designation. U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte faced considerable criticism throughout 2018 after both introduced proposals to remove the WSA designation from hundreds of thousands of acres in Montana. Those bills died in late 2018, but the fate of WSAs continues to be a point of concern for many public lands advocates.

The UM initiative’s 2020 survey asked respondents how they felt about seven specific WSAs across Montana. According to the results, 75% said they felt protections should remain the same or be increased. Another 14% said protections should be added in some places and eliminated in others. Only 8% agreed that existing protections should be completely eliminated; in the 2018 survey, 11% sided with eliminating all WSA protections.

“People are starting to realize the value of protecting areas because it allows wildlife to move freely, and people don’t like to see other people, so the more protected landscapes we have, I think people enjoy that,” Graetz said when asked about the decline in support for WSA elimination.

The issue also appears to be a bipartisan one, as 57% of Republicans polled said they support increasing WSA protections or maintaining the status quo. Support among Republicans for eliminating WSA protections dropped between the 2018 and 2020 surveys, from 22% to 15%.

“That really cut across partisan lines,” said Lori Weigel with New Bridge Strategy, the other pollster behind the survey. “A majority of Republicans also said that we should keep them as they are or in fact increase protections.”

One new question included in this year’s survey indicates that Montana voters would prefer that elected officials act quickly on matters affecting public lands. Of the total respondents, 39% said they’d like Congress to handle public land proposals within one year, and 27% said such proposals should be handled within six months. Amy Robinson, conservation director for the Montana Wilderness Association, found those results particularly compelling.

“Montanans want to get things done. We’re doers,” Robinson told Montana Free Press Monday. “And that reminds us that we really do want Congress to implement some of these place-based proposals.”

Robinson singled out Sen. Jon Tester’s Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act as an example. The bill is the result of more than a decade of work by MWA and a host of other state and local entities to enhance conservation protections and outdoor recreation opportunities in the Blackfoot-Clearwater drainage. Tester threw his support behind the proposal in 2009, but it has yet to pass the U.S. Senate despite repeated introductions. That the latest survey shows 75% of Montanans support the bill is no surprise to Robinson. That number has remained consistent in the UM initiative’s surveys since 2016, and MWA continues to use it in advocating the bill’s passage.

“Because the Blackfoot-Clearwater has polled about the same, from 73% to 75% support, for three polls now, we can continue to say that,” Robinson said. “This is consistent support from Montanans that isn’t changing.”

Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...