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Survey: Public land aids state

February 8, 2013

Montanans asked about wide open spaces
Survey: Public land aids state

By Erin Madison

Tribune Staff Writer and The Associated Press

Montanans place a high value on public land, according to a poll Thursday by Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project.

Ninety-one percent of voters in Montana say public lands are an essential part of the state’s economy, according to the survey, 72 percent believe public lands support the economy, provide recreation opportunities and enhance quality of life, rather than being a fiscal burden and preventing creation of jobs.

The majority of voters in the six Western states covered in the survey — Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — agreed, with 79 percent saying public lands support the economy and enhance the quality of life in their state.

While Western voters remain concerned about the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, 59 percent supported “strong standards” to limit drilling near recreation areas, water sources and wildlife. Only 35 percent supported opening more public lands to energy exploration.

“I’m astounded at how strong their beliefs on conservation in relation to energy development remain” in light of the weak economy, said Walter Hecox, an economics professor at Colorado College and director of the school’s State of the Rockies Project.

Voters often tolerate more development when the economy is in the doldrums.

“Given all the economic stress, people in the region call for a planned approach to energy development,” Hecox said. “The region is holding on to its core values.”

The poll did find that 89 percent of voters regionwide viewed dependence on foreign oil as a serious problem, and 56 percent backed the concept of drilling on public lands, provided environmentally sensitive places are protected.

In Montana, 57 percent of voters say environmentally sensitive places should be permanently protected from oil and gas drilling, while 37 percent say more public lands need to be opened to responsible energy development.

Montana voters are in favor of renewable energy, with 53 percent of voters listing wind power as one of the top two sources of energy they would encourage the state to develop. One-third of voters favored developing natural gas and 28 percent favored coal.

Colorado College started this survey three years ago as a way to gather nonpartisan, statistically valid data on what people think about public lands, Hecox said. Prior to that, politicians and the media frequently talked about the public opinion of land and energy development without any real data to back up their theories.

A separate study by Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics also found that public lands bolster a state’s economy.

On average, nonmetropolitan counties in the West see an increase in per capital income of $436 for each 10,000 acres of protected public lands, such as national park or designated wilderness areas, in that county, according to that study.

“The West is outpacing the rest of the country in terms of income, jobs and population growth,” said Ray Rasker, economist with Headwaters Economics.

CEOs are seeing the benefits of open space and an amiable quality of life as a tool for recruitment.

“Globally, we’re in a race to attract the most talented people,” Rasker said.

Colorado College’s poll was conducted jointly by Republican and Democratic polling firms. It sampled 400 voters in each state with a margin of error of 2 percentage points at the regional level and 4.9 percentage points at the state level.

Reach Tribune staff writer Erin Madison at 791-1466 or emadison@greatfallstribune .com. Follow her on Twitter@GFTrib_EMadison

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