You can't keep a cow from water (or Jon Marvel from grazing issues)

  • Jon Marvel, director of Western Watersheds

    Dan Dry
  • Dan Dry

In September, the Western Watersheds Project announced that it was seeking a successor to Jon Marvel, its founder and executive director. Marvel, who lives in Hailey, Idaho, began his campaign to end public lands grazing back in the early 1990s, following a dispute with a neighboring rancher whose cattle bedded down on Marvel's property and munched on his grass. This inspired Marvel, an architect, to start the Idaho Watersheds Project.

His group made headlines in 1996 when it successfully bid on state grazing leases with the intent of removing cows from the range once it controlled the leases. Marvel's goal, both then and now, was to puncture what he sees as the unholy alliance between ranchers and public-lands agencies, which, he says, has caused the ecological degradation of most of the West through excessive livestock grazing.  High Country News covered his bare-knuckled crusade in an in-depth cover story in 1999. HCN Publisher Paul Larmer recently caught up with the 65-year-old activist via phone.

HCN: You've been known for your blunt statements and willingness to confront ranchers. Do you like any ranchers?

J.M.: I've met many interesting ranchers who are congenial. I talked to two just within the last couple of weeks. Every year, I go and ask this one rancher on the Middle Fork of the Salmon if he's ready for a buyout. His grazing allotments are in an area that was burned by wildfire this summer; he's had wolves eat his sheep; his guard dogs have bitten bicyclists; his land values are at an all-time low. I say, "Isn't it time that we made a deal?" And he'll say: "Oh, I didn't get into this business to make money." He's quite funny. I don't have a problem with ranchers who don't have a chip on their shoulder.

HCN: You are accused of having a chip or two on your shoulder. Have you always felt righteous indignation toward those in power?

J.M.: Yes, it's been a problem for me.

HCN: So why are you stepping down as the director of the Western Watersheds Project? Have the range wars been won?

J.M.: First, we haven't found anyone yet to take my job, so I'm continuing for now. But it's my choice, really -- to reduce my time and the administrative aspects of the job. The board would like to bring in some youth, and that's a good idea. I'll continue on as an advisor.

My strongest wish is for the larger conservation organizations to take up the public-lands grazing issue. The Nature Conservancy, for example, has never said a bad word about ranching. In fact, they say that ranching is a solution to restoring the land. Other groups have dabbled in it, too, but always backed off.

HCN: Why have they backed off?

J.M.: Groups like the Sierra Club and NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) fall away when they encounter the difficulty of changing the system. Foundations (that fund environmental groups) reinforce this approach. The Pew Charitable Trust is highly focused on polling. They try to control what language you use, how you frame the issue. If you do a focus group on mining and ask people what they think, 90 percent will say it's a disaster. Do the same with grazing, and the results are the opposite; 80 percent are positive -- "We love ranchers; they are part of our heritage." So (despite grazing’s big impact on land health, groups like Pew that fund environmental nonprofits) listen to what focus groups tell them. They have focused so much on wilderness designation, trying to get ranchers on board. "Hey, we'll pass legislation that makes life easier for you, Mr. Rancher, because the environmentalists won't bother you if the land is designated wilderness."

HCN: Have your views about ranching and the damage caused by livestock grazing changed over time?

J.M.: Not much. Ranching culture is a violent culture. The killing of 90,000 coyotes by federal wildlife service agents, the killing of wolves and prairie dogs -- that's all about ranching. It is also a secretive culture. Ranchers who want to take buyouts from environmentalists are afraid of being socially ostracized by their peers. It's remarkable that so many conservative ranchers won't respect an individual rancher's decision to sell off their grazing permit and retire it. People who hate the government, but depend on it, are mentally ill.

Walt Foutz
Walt Foutz
Jan 09, 2013 10:56 AM
I applaud Marvels' efforts to curb or end grazing on public land. As a hunter, fisherman, backpacker, and rafter, from New Mexico to Idaho I've seen first hand the destruction of habitat caused by welfare grazing of cows on BLM and National Forst land. For the past 10 years my elk hunting party has only hunted in wilderness areas, due primarily to the lack of cows and ATVs in wilderness, which equals more elk and a much better hunting experience. Cows ruin the habitat almost as much as ATVs by grazing feed down to the roots, moving as little as possible, and spending a lot of time eating and crapping in formerly pristine riparian habitat. The all-day bawling and mooing of cattle ruins the experience even hunting a mile or more from the actual cows, and where you find a lot of cattle you will always find very few elk and trout. Which species belong there and which don't? Add to that the hypocrisy of welfare republican ranchers with their nearly free grazing permits whining about government meddling in their business, and the whole situation is in dire need of termination. I hope it ends sooner than later, and not necessarily of a natural death, as Marvel expects. Grazing on public land always degrades the land at the expense of wildlife, and it is a public disgrace in the west. Raising cattle should be illegal wherever it rains less than 20 inches per year.
Monika  Courtney
Monika Courtney
Jan 09, 2013 07:20 PM
Cattle grazing has long been the illegitimate political child. What is worse are the schemes and conspiracy infiltrating the West, now monopolized by cattle, developers and miners - and the foul propaganda they carry out to scape goat mustangs or other species in order to win their agendas. Not only is this conduct a disgrace but the very violence in which it is carried out a topic that must be exposed to all Americans who come visit the West not knowing the lies, deception and lies that rule the Rancher / Federal Agency Chicken roosts. Americans are fooled, and true change only comes from people with guts, such as Jon Marvel. Jon, you are a true inspiration for having had the indomitable spirit and determination to face harmful opposition and not cave in.
"Whatever it takes" ought to be the slogan for others in this country to follow your example. You made a difference because you could and were willing.
Thank you so much for all you have done.
Kind regards.
Monika Courtney
Thomas Jefferson once said: "All tyranny needs to gain foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent." I think Jefferson would have been proud to know Jon Marvel.

N Riehl
N Riehl Subscriber
Jan 22, 2013 09:01 AM
I am in favor of raising the cost of grazing fees to the amount ranchers would have to pay if they leased private land. Grazing and timber, plus oil, gas, and mineral extraction are giveaways from the public to the few. Kinda sounds like taxpayers funding the military industrial and surveillance complex -- taxpayers pay in a lot of money but don't get much (if anything) in return.
Steve Laster
Steve Laster
Jan 28, 2013 09:28 AM
Hopefully, with the stepping down of Jon Marvel, WWP will be come an organization that is capable of compromise along with a willingness to contribute to rangeland health. My experience with WWP as a public land manager was frustrating, in that the anti-grazing organization used its money to fight rangeland improvement and planning. Countless Freedom of Information Act requests were submitted to my office, initiating a time consuming bureaucratic procedure that costs the taxpayer rather than improving habitat. Projects and plans were regularly appealed, creating yet another bureaucratic process that prevented on the ground work from being accomplished. I believe in a process where all interested parties join together for a common good. Rather than cooperate, WWP wasted valuable contributions to block progress while exacerbating the bureaucratic process. Great potential exists to improve our rangeland habitats, particularly in areas of energy development. Its my hope that a new director of WWP will realize the value of cooperation and in the future assist our land managers with its input.
Janine Blaeloch
Janine Blaeloch
Jan 28, 2013 04:38 PM
Steve, I think WWP is working to make the definitive contribution to rangeland health--turning the "range" back into our public land.
Matthew Koehler
Matthew Koehler
Jan 29, 2013 10:11 AM
Yes, Steve Laster, how dare WWP and Mr. Marvel use the Freedom of Information Act request to get information (and likely much more of the whole story) from their federal government concerning public lands management. And, Steve, if you are so worried about "costs to the taxpayer" perhaps it's time for the BLM to do a full-cost accounting of their public lands grazing program, wouldn't you say?
philip smith
philip smith
Jan 30, 2015 07:56 PM
As a blm firefighter I happen to know where a majority of it's funding goes too. It's legal litigation partly due to jon marvel and his constant lawsuits. He has done more to degrade the range land then any rancher. A vast majority of ranchers are small Tim businessman who struggle as it is. Marvel is nothing nothing more then a smug liar with old money. My fire district has gone from 30 engines to 16. When more range land firefighters die, due to the fact we don't have adequate support, I blame him. Also any sportsman who has done his research into marvel, should know he's going after your hunting rights next.