Letters from the West

Boise State survey returns, shedding light on Idahoans’ opinions on environment, other issues

Little Jacks Creek winds through deep canyons and across the sagebrush steppe of Owyhee County, one of the state’s scenic wonders Idahoans cherish.
Little Jacks Creek winds through deep canyons and across the sagebrush steppe of Owyhee County, one of the state’s scenic wonders Idahoans cherish.

Most Idahoans aren’t too worried about climate change, but they aren’t skeptics. They don’t think the Idaho Legislature needs to get too involved in environmental issues right now, but a majority rates them as among the state’s top concerns.

A strong majority wants hunters to be allowed to continue to hunt wolves and most want the Idaho Legislature to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to reduce the wolf population. Those were some of the findings this week of the Boise State University Public Policy Survey.

I was disappointed when the school’s social science research center chose in 2011 to end the surveys it had done for 21 years. The new School of Public Service is conducting the survey that gives Idahoans a statewide look at how Idahoans’ views contrast with the rest of the nation and develop over time.

Nothing does that better than the question “Is Idaho heading in the right direction?” This year 57 percent of those surveyed said Idaho is on the right track, as my colleague Bill Dentzer reported earlier this week. In 2011, in the depth of the Great Recession, 49 percent said we were on the right track. In 1999, 79 percent said Idaho was going in the right direction.

We have clearly become more optimistic than we were in the recession, but not as optimistic as at the start of the recession in 2008, when 65 percent voiced optimism.

In 1999, we were in the glory days, especially in the Treasure Valley, where Micron and other tech companies were hiring anyone they could get, and Californians were flocking here and to Coeur d’Alene, creating the building boom and making real estate worth more.

Unemployment is down across most of the state, though income is not growing significantly. The general restlessness that most of the nation is feeling also infects Idahoans, especially rural areas where there has been little economic bounty.

I have watched Idahoans shift on environmental surveys. A majority of Idahoans supported the return of wolves to Idaho in the early days. But as wolf numbers grew, support dropped. Today, 72 percent of Idahoans want wolves hunted and thousands spent to reduce their numbers. It doesn’t mean Idaho wants no wolves at all.

This survey showed that people older than 65, the Earth Day generation, are more concerned about the environment than any other group, at 59.2 percent. The young people of 20 years ago are next, those 45 to 54 years old, at 58.9 percent. Overall, 54.5 percent rated the environment between 8 and 10 on a scale of 1 to 10, so it’s still high.

Climate change wasn’t much of an issue in 1999 in Idaho, but in the new survey, just 30 percent think it’s much of an issue now. Still, after one of the worst years for fire and drought in North Idaho, 68.6 percent said they believe the globe is warming. They’re just not apparently worried about it.

Regarding federal lands, the BSU survey illustrates where Idahoans’ hearts stop and their brains begin. The survey asked whether people support transferring the 60 percent of Idaho that is federal land to the state for management and 56.3 percent said yes, which would make supporters like the Idaho Freedom Foundation happy.

But when told that transferring management “could potentially cost the state millions per year in taxpayer dollars,” the number favoring transfer dropped to 39.3 percent. Since every review of the idea done by supporters and opponents alike confirms these costs, it’s a pretty good reflection of what the public really thinks.

Finally, BSU’s School of Public Service teaches us a lesson on what we think about all-or-nothing debates. They asked what should be the priority in Idaho: jobs or the environment. Surprise, surprise: Jobs won out by 68 percent to 25 percent.

When asked whether people thought this was a false choice, 92.5 percent said yes.

Class dismissed.