Recently, Idaho Politics Weekly reported a poll result that found, “Three-fourths of all Idahoans want the federal land in the state turned over to state government management.” This would seem to tell us a great deal about how Idahoans feel about the public lands issue. Yet there have been a number of other recent polls that report numbers nowhere near this high, with support for “turned over” federal public land often in the minority.
This underscores how issues such as the politics of public lands need a more nuanced approach when we purport to represent public preferences. We tried to get at that approach last year at Boise State when we included a question on transferring public lands in our statewide survey on public policy attitudes.
We read the following information to one-half of our sample (or about 500 Idahoans): “Currently, the federal government owns or manages over 60 percent of land in Idaho. Would you favor or oppose transferring land owned by the federal government to the state government for management?” The other 500 respondents received a bit more information; they were also informed of the percentage of Idaho land owned or managed by the federal government, and then told that “transferring management of those lands to the state government in Idaho could potentially cost the state millions per year in taxpayer dollars.”
The impact of receiving this additional information about potential cost was significant. Support for transfer dropped from 56.3 percent to 35.3 percent when respondents were informed of the potential cost, while opposition rose from 39.3 percent to 50.5 percent. Thus faced with a question about the costs of “turning over” federal public lands, a key portion of Idahoans surveyed changed their minds. When asked about the topic in general, there may be indications of majority support, but when citizens also learn that transfer comes with a price tag attached, we see a sizable shift in attitude.
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Importantly, this was only one way of trying to learn about public attitudes on a complex and controversial issue. Another nuanced approach, and one we did not take in the BSU survey but ought to be asked in future studies, would investigate differences between the kinds of lands being transferred (i.e., multiple-use management associated with the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management versus trust lands management associated with the Idaho Department of Lands).
There is also a “who do you trust” question revolving around federal land managers versus the Idaho Legislature; Idahoans may support state control in general, but may differ on who should be in charge at the state level. A survey dealing with these and other questions would obviously need a number of questions, not just one.
John Freemuth is professor of public policy and senior fellow at the Cecil Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State. Justin Vaughn is associate professor of political science and helped lead the public policy survey team.