Poll finds support for Rocky Mountain Heritage Act's Front protection plan

By Karl Puckett

Great Falls Tribune Staff Writer

A new survey by a Colorado-based pollster, commissioned by the Wilderness Society, found that Montanans favor, by a 3 to 1 margin, a Rocky Mountain Front conservation plan that includes more wilderness.

The Rocky Mountain Heritage Act, unveiled in September by the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front, proposes to add protection to 393,000 acres.

Under the plan, 307,000 acres of roadless land would be permanently protected by a new designation called "conservation management," while 86,000 acres would be added to the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas.

The act also seeks additional federal funding to fight noxious weeds.

Of those surveyed, 69 percent said they favored the protections, with 21 percent opposed and 10 percent undecided. In the poll 507 registered voters statewide were randomly selected and interviewed between Nov. 12 and Nov. 16. The poll's margin of error is plus or minus 4.4 percent.

Wilderness Society spokesman Jared White in Bozeman said the results show that the conservation plan's popularity crosses political and geographic boundaries.

"They all seem to like this approach," he said.

A previously released Montana State University-Billings poll, also conducted in November, found less support for a conservation bill introduced by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. That plan proposes to designate 600,000 acres of federal land in Montana as wilderness. Of those interviewed in that poll, 50 percent supported the plan while 36 percent were opposed.

Harstad Strategic Research Inc., a political polling, public relations and marketing consultant based in Telluride, Colo., conducted the poll regarding the Rocky Mountain Front plan.

Respondents were asked to give their views after hearing a four-part description of the plan, which was:

  • Ensures healthy and productive land by placing a high priority on eradicating noxious weeds;
  • Protects natural and scenic features with a 307,000-acre conservation management area;
  • Ensures traditional use of land such as livestock grazing; and
  • Protects wildlife habitat by adding 86,000 acres to the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas.

    Of those interviewed, 81 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Republicans said they supported the idea, Harstad pollster Chris Keating said.

    The Heritage Act has not been introduced into Congress, but White said the results should be of interest to the state's congressional delegation.

    The coalition currently is in the process of responding to comments that were made during four October public hearings on the proposal.

    The plan wasn't universally embraced by those who attended the hearings, with some people criticizing it for proposing too little wilderness, while others said there was too many acres proposed for wilderness.

    The poll also found that 67 percent of Montanans are familiar with the Rocky Mountain Front, Keating said. Its "beautiful scenery and majestic views" were cited by 46 percent of respondents, making it the most frequent description given by those who were polled.