"It's just nuclearized'

A narrow dirt road winds up a gentle mountain slope onto the Owyhee Plateau, where Marvel wants to check on the Castle Creek Allotment, a 200,000-acre area managed by the BLM.

"Look at this shithole," he says, pointing at a portion of Poison Creek.

"God, it's just nuclearized."

He moans as he looks at streambanks grazed down to dirt. The streambed is caked with mud dented by hundreds of cow hoofprints. "Oooooh," he says, wrinkling his nose, "can you believe the smell?"

Marvel says he and his fellow monitors, Gene Bray and Katie Fite, see these kinds of scenes all too often. They take pictures and ask the BLM to do something about it.

Marvel and other volunteers know that the BLM's skeleton crew of biologists and range conservationists can't keep constant watch over millions of acres of public land, so he and a handful of other monitors think of themselves as scouts for the agency.

"It's caused a singular change in attitude for agency managers to know they're being watched," Marvel says.

Fite and Bray have discovered dead birds and squirrels drowned in a poorly installed cattle trough. "This is what happens out there if people aren't watching," Fite says.

"Look at the tremendous taxpayer subsidy here," Marvel says. "It'd be a lot cheaper to just remove the cattle."

At a high point in the road, Marvel unfurls his master BLM map of Idaho's Owyhee Plateau. He lays the yellow map on the hood of the truck, and points out the boundaries of the Castle Creek Allotment. The map is inked up with the names of ranchers who run cattle here, as well as allotments on the west side of the plateau.

Looking off to a broad expanse of rolling green hills and thick groves of mountain mahogany, Marvel takes time to express amazement at the success of his 900-member group.

The Idaho Watersheds Project sued the BLM to improve this allotment, settling the case after the BLM agreed to reduce grazing 23 percent. The agency also agreed to fence 15 miles of streams, heal riparian areas and possibly boost redband trout populations.

"This was a real compromise," says Lucas of the LAW Fund. "It proves that Jon can be reasonable."

Lucas doubts the compromise will result in a long-term environmental fix, especially since one permittee has appealed. "That case was a real lesson to us. Negotiations don't get you where you want to go in the long term," Lucas says.

The project will cost a total of $221,800, Marvel points out, yet Castle Creek's eight permittees will pay only $23,310 in grazing fees in 1999.

The letter of the law

About 50 air miles to the west from the Castle Creek Allotment, Marvel and Lucas broadened their scope. They took aim at 68 ranching permits that the BLM had renewed for 10 years with only cursory environmental review. The agency ignored guidelines passed by the Interior Department in 1995 that required it to conduct a detailed review of streams and rangelands.

Instead, a BLM manager signed a one-page checklist, saying a 1981 environmental impact statement provided an adequate analysis.

"We didn't have clear direction within the agency on how to handle the new policy at the time," explains Barry Rose, BLM spokesman.

Last March, U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill ruled that the permits were renewed illegally. As a solution, Marvel asked the judge to halt all 68 permits until ranchers came into environmental compliance.

If Judge Winmill had agreed with Marvel, 17,000 cows would have been homeless this summer - kicked off federal land.

On June 2, about 30 Owyhee County ranchers packed a federal courtroom in Boise, along with Marvel and his supporters.

Ranchers heaved a collective sigh of relief when Judge Winmill said he would not shut down grazing this summer. But Lucas argued that a timeline should be set for the BLM to conduct environmental reviews, and specific restrictions should be imposed in the interim to protect redband trout, riparian areas and sage grouse.

The outcome is still pending.

As an end run against an unfavorable court decision, Idaho's two Republican senators recently placed a rider on a year-2000 appropriations bill that would relax BLM deadlines for examining expiring grazing permits.

Still, for Marvel, the legal decision was a stunning near-victory over a way of life in the West that had been unquestioned for decades: Ranchers raising hay on private land, then sending their cows onto public land to graze on the rich summer grasses.