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Survey: Montanans say quality of life getting worse, but support for public lands still strong

by By BLAIR MILLER Daily Montanan
| May 17, 2024 7:00 AM

An increasing number of Montanans say their quality of life is getting worse and point to ongoing development and what they say is the changing character of the state as primary reasons, according to a biennial statewide poll released Tuesday by the University of Montana.

The 2024 Public Lands Survey is the sixth from UM’s Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone Initiative issued since 2014 and takes the temperature of Montanans across the state on conservation, environmental and growth issues every two years.

This year’s polling was conducted by New Bridge Strategy, a Republican firm, and FM3 Research, a Democratic firm. The companies surveyed 500 registered Montana voters March 23-28 via landlines, cell phones and text messages that linked to the poll online, and the sample has a margin of error of ±4.38%.

One of the biggest changes in the results between this year’s poll and the one done in 2022 involves a seven-point jump in the share of Montanans who say their quality of life has gotten worse compared to the past five years — 62% of respondents said that was the case this year, compared to 55% in 2022.

Just 6% of Montanans said their quality of life had gotten better, while 31% said it had not changed.

“Covid brought quite a few new people to the state. We’ve seen in some places a gradual growth and huge visitation increases on the public lands, and that has a lot of Montanans concerned,” said Rick Graetz, director of the Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone Initiative of UM. “But one thing that hasn’t changed, even for the folks that are new here, is a deep connection that we have to public lands and the shared recognition of our state’s natural beauty is still there.”

When asked about what they see as current problems with the state, 60% of respondents said drought was either an “extremely serious” or “very serious” problem. Ten percent of people said drought was not an issue.

But sprawling development into open lands and former ranches came in just behind, with 59% saying it was an extremely or very serious problem. Just 9% of people polled said development was not a problem. Two years ago, just 52% of Montanans said development was a problem. Housing prices have exploded across the state since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and lawmakers did not lower the property tax assessment rate this past year, leading to large tax increases for many homeowners.

Those polled were also asked if they see Montana’s changing character as a problem. Fifty-seven percent of people said it was an extremely or very serious problem, up from 45% in 2022. Fifteen percent of people said it is not a problem.

Another 56% of respondents said they see the low snowpack this year as a serious issue, similar to the responses to the questions on drought. Reports released during the past three weeks indicate that unless the state sees a cool and wet spring, streamflows in most river basins will be below normal for the first part of the summer and potentially the latter half of it too.

And though people see Montana’s growth and development as an issue, according to the survey, about the same share of people, 46%, see crowding at places where they recreate as either an extremely or very serious problem – relatively unchanged from two years ago.

About 57% of respondents said their community is growing too fast, while about 33% said their community was growing at the right speed. The largest share of people who said growth was happening too fast came from those living in Missoula and the Bozeman-Butte area, at 66% and 69%, respectively. But more than half of those living in Billings and in rural Montana also said that was the case. Great Falls was the only major metropolitan area where the majority of respondents said their community was growing at the right pace; just 23% of them said Great Falls was growing too fast.

What has not changed much, according to the poll, is Montanans’ widespread support for public lands and access to them.

Ninety-five percent of people polled said they had visited national public lands druing the past year, nearly half of them at least 10 times, and 83% of respondents said the presence of those national public lands in Montana is a benefit to the state’s economy.

FM3 Research Pollster Dave Metz said that visitation rate is typically higher than any other state where the firm conducts polling on the same question, which Lori Weigel, with new Bridge Strategy, said is a testament to Montanans’ strong feelings about public lands and conservation.

“So the actual walking the walk instead of talking the talk is definitely a Montana trait that I think we see demonstrated time and time again,” she said.

Nearly half of those polled say conservation issues are a “very important” factor in deciding whether to support a political candidate, as well as 36% who said they were among the issues they considered when deciding for whom they will vote. Just 7% of respondents said conservation issues were not important in their political decision-making.

And the importance of conservation issues when voters are deciding on what candidates to support spans political leanings, according to the poll. Ninety-eight percent of Democrats, 84% of independents, and 71% of Republicans polled said conservation issues are important to their voting decisions.

“Montanans recognize and value our state’s natural beauty and heritage, and strong bipartisan demand for conservation solutions continues to grow,” Graetz said.

The survey also found broad support for a series of land use and management proposals and conservation policies at the federal level and in Montana.

Seventy percent of those surveyed said they support the Bureau of Land Management rule that the agency is in the process of publishing that would allow public lands to be leased for environmental protection, restoration and mitigation. That would put those efforts on the same level as mining, drilling, grazing and timber harvest.

Montana’s Republican federal representatives, Sen. Steve Daines and Reps. Ryan Zinke and Matt Rosendale, opposed the original version of that rule last summer, and Daines and Zinke said in recent days they still oppose the rule, claiming it will harm business with drilling, mining and grazing interests.

According to the poll, 73% people also want the U.S. Forest Service to open a public process to discuss proposed mines at the headwaters of the Smith River. The Montana Supreme Court heard arguments last month about a challenge by conservation groups to permits granted by the state for one company’s proposed mining operations near the river.

About 31% of those polled want to increase protections for seven of Montana’s Wilderness Study Areas, up from 23% two years ago, and 44% said they want to keep them how they are now. Daines has proposed removing protections for three of them in Montana.

On three proposals in Montana, the issues also drew broad bipartisan support: Designating parts of 20 rivers as Wild and Scenic rivers to ensure they are not harmed by new projects; enacting the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act sponsored by Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester; and adding more public land protections to 55,000 acres near Lincoln.

Eighty-three percent of respondents support the rivers proposal, according to the poll, along with 85% who support the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act and 76% who support the Lincoln proposal.

Graetz said while the survey has shown wide public support for those projects for years, they still have not gone anywhere in Congress.

“Given the growing concerns over growth and development, it is time for more lawmakers to embrace conservation efforts that preserve some of Montana’s natural beauty and heritage and involve local communities,” he said.

Among the group polled, 34% were Republicans; 23% were Democrats; and 43% were independents. One-quarter of them said they lived in a city; 27% in a small town; 36% in a rural part of Montana; and 12% in a suburban area.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect a seven-point jump in the share of Montanans who said their quality of life had gotten worse.