By Colin Cooney
A recent survey from the University of Montana shows voters consider public lands and outdoor businesses to be more critical than ever to Montana’s economy and quality of life. According to the poll, 89 percent of people think public lands help our economy, up 7 percent from the 2018. The survey also showed support of our public lands across all political parties, genders and ages. To public land advocates in Montana, this comes as no surprise.
This poll shows not only the support for public lands and the economy they create, but also for specific federal land designations such as Wilderness Study Areas and Wilderness Areas designations. Of those polled, 75 percent want to increase or maintain protections for Wilderness Study Areas in Montana. These protections and designations have recently come under attack from anti-public land folks, and we have seen attempts to remove these protections. Just last year, two separate federal bills were introduced that would have removed 5 of the 7 Forest Service WSAs and all of the BLM WSAs in Montana.
Thanks to public outcry these bills were quickly beaten back, but it shows the threats to our public lands are still alive and well.
The effects of land management quite literally flow downhill. The 663,000 acres of designated WSA lands in Montana protect our public lands and access, as well as important fishing and hunting habitat. Trout Unlimited agrees that there is a need to resolve long-standing issues with WSAs and believes that the right path forward for determining the future management of these lands is to bring stakeholders together to work toward a collaborative, consensus solution. The support for the different collaborative projects in this poll proves that we are not alone in that belief.
The Montana Environmental Quality Council (EQC), an interim legislative committee, is currently considering Senate Joint Resolution 20 a study bill that instructs the EQC to study WSAs in Montana and provide management recommendations to our congressional delegation.
This poll only strengthens our message to the EQC, public lands are extremely important to Montanans and only by bringing diverse interests together can we strike the right balance of designations and uses for these important landscapes.