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

  • Jon Marvel, director of Western Watersheds

    Dan Dry
  • Dan Dry

Page 2

HCN: What about the land-management agencies and the politicians who support ranching?

J.M.: The agencies are compromised by ranching culture. A new biologist may want to do good honest science (showing ranching’s impacts), but they are quickly informed to get in line: "Don't bother us with information about plants," they are told. "That's not what we're doing here."

(Agencies and politicians) have all bought into the mythology that sprang from the media and popular entertainers like John Wayne and shows like Bonanza. (Even though) we have moved a long way from the cowboy myth - you're more likely to see cowboy clothing in a gay bar than on a street in a modern Western town, politicians like (Interior Secretary) Ken Salazar, (Utah Sen.) Orrin Hatch, (Utah Gov.) Gary Herbert, and (Wyoming Sen.) John Barrasso continue to believe fundamentally that the West is to be exploited.

HCN: You've long called it "welfare ranching," right?

J.M.: There are 800,000 livestock producers in the U.S., but just 21,000 get to use the public lands -- 2.5 percent. They have clout and privilege far beyond their numbers and they use it to maintain this house of cards. Over 60 percent of the grazing permittees on public lands are absentee owners. The old idea of mom-and-pop ranchers who use their blowtorch to burn the spines of prickly pear cactus so their cattle have something to eat is gone. Very rich people are buying ranches for the views, the landscape.

HCN: A few years ago, you helped put together a giant coffee-table book called Welfare Ranchers: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West. Did it help your cause?

J.M.: We had hoped that the book would have an impact like the early Sierra Club books (put together by David Brower) but it has had no impact on public policy, largely because the major conservation groups won't take the issue on.

HCN: Can you point to any victories?

J.M.: Our biggest victory was during the second term of the Bush administration when we stopped its attempt to rewrite the Babbitt/Clinton grazing regulations. We challenged them in federal court, and it went all the way to the Supreme Court, where we won.

We've also been successful with the greater sage grouse. Western Watersheds initially pursued the listing of the species under the Endangered Species Act. Thanks to our challenges, the BLM is now readying 68 management plans in eight Western states, and the Forest Service is amending dozens of forest plans to provide more protection for the sage grouse. Everyone is scrambling to show they have concern for the sage grouse in an attempt to avoid a listing. Our little group is one of the major reasons the crisis is here -- and it's a good thing.

HCN: So you’re a specialist in crisis development?

J.M.: When I first started working on this in the 1980s I did an I Ching reading about my desire to contest livestock grazing on public lands. My hexagram read "Major obstacles" and suggested that I seek alternative ways to reach my goal because there would be so much resistance. Of course I didn't do this. I think that unless you speak out about the problems, they will get swept under the rug.

HCN: In our 1999 story about you, Idaho rancher and now Lieutenant Gov. Brad Little gave you a sort of backhanded compliment, saying your efforts might have forced ranchers to be better stewards and document those efforts, in case you sued them.

J.M.: Fear is not the best motivator, but if ranchers are afraid of me, and then they go out and do better by the land, then I say, "Whatever it takes."

HCN: Do you still envision a future where there is no public-lands grazing?

J.M.: If the laws and regs on the books were implemented, and if grazing fees reflected market value, this problem would take care of itself in a matter of months. But in 20 years, there will be a lot less grazing on public lands, not because of concern for water, air or wildlife, but because of economics. The rich ranch owners will want a few decorative cows on the landscape, but nobody will want to be involved in the business. Ranchers are getting old, sick or divorced, and their kids have no interest in continuing on -- they've moved to Fort Collins or Boise. It's going to go away, we're just trying to accelerate it.

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.