The University of Montana recently released its 2018 Public Lands Survey. It sent a shock wave through Senator Steve Daines’ and Congressman Greg Gianforte’s offices, because the poll found that a scant 11 percent of Montanans support their legislation to eliminate 29 wilderness study areas (WSAs) comprising more than 800,000 acres across the state.
These bills pave the way for mining and oil and gas development in our wildest public lands — places we rely on for our drinking water, our fish and wildlife populations, and our $7 billion outdoor recreation economy. Not surprisingly, Daines and Gianforte scored quick endorsements for their bills from the Montana Petroleum Association and Montana Mining Association, two organizations with much to gain from their legislation.
But Daines and Gianforte have yet to hold a single public meeting to talk about WSAs with their constituents. Given that 97 percent of Montanans (according to the same UM poll) think it’s important that a wide range of stakeholders and local communities have the opportunity to provide their input on this kind of legislation before decisions are made, it’s no wonder their WSA-elimination bills are about as popular as a campfire in fire season.
Instead of acknowledging that their constituents might not be on board with their legislation, instead of considering a more inclusive approach to determining the fate of our WSAs, Daines and Gianforte are digging in their heels and thumbing their noses at Montanans.
As soon as the UM poll came out, both of them clumsily attempted to dismiss it as biased. That didn’t fly well in the press, primarily because one of the two people who conducted the poll is a Republican and works for a firm that has helped elect dozens of Republicans to Congress. Also not helping their case was the fact that 43 percent of the 500 poll respondents consider themselves conservative and 33 percent moderate.
That didn’t stop state Sen. Fred Thomas (R-Stevensville) from joining Daines and Gianforte in throwing mud at the poll. But Thomas ended up with mud on his own face.
In his initial guest editorial that ran in the Helena Independent Record, Thomas tried to deflect attention away from the WSA issue, writing, “When asked point blank, without any supporting arguments, 71 percent of the poll respondents said they would oppose adding additional Wilderness in Montana.”
That IR had to remove this sentence from the op-ed and run a correction because the poll showed something quite different than what Thomas claimed. It actually showed that 57 percent of Montanans support additional Wilderness in Montana.
The 43 percent of respondents who had said they don’t support additional Wilderness or had no opinion were asked a follow-up question: “Just three percent of Montana lands are currently dedicated as wilderness areas. Knowing this, would you support or oppose dedicating additional, existing public lands as wilderness areas here in Montana?”
When they heard that only 3 percent of state lands are currently designated as Wilderness, 20 percent of those had initially opposed or had no opinion about additional Wilderness changed their minds. This resulted in a boost of support for additional Wilderness among all respondents from 57 to 65 percent.
It’s clear now that Daines, Gianforte, Thomas, and certain county commissioners — especially Ravalli commissioners — simply do not care what an overwhelming majority of their constituents want for our public lands. They are even disparaging that majority, calling us “radical” and “extremist.” What’s radical and extremist is pushing legislation that only 11 percent of Montanans want.
They are making a mockery of representative democracy in our state and embarrassing themselves in the process.