A ranch manager coughed up the money to defeat conservationist Jon Marvel at a state-land grazing auction in Idaho Falls March 7.
For the first time, Marvel and his 350-member Idaho Watersheds Project lost a bid, although every time he has won in the past the Idaho Land Board overturned his victory - handing the lease back to the rancher.
Marvel said he was surprised but not disappointed at his recent defeat. "I thought we were going to win. I thought we had plenty of money," Marvel said following the auction. Then he added, "And I've still got it."
The winning bidder was Steven Hart, chief financial officer for Sheridan Golden Eagle Ranch, but he did not look particularly pleased. About midway through the 17-minute auction, the price for leasing 320 acres of state land in Clark County had already shot well past what the ranch had paid in the past. When the bidding hit $9,000, Hart slumped back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest. It appeared that Marvel and his checkbook were about to give another rancher a whipping.
At the last minute Hart upped the ante to $9,050. Marvel then shot back with a $9,500 bid. When Marvel bumped his bid up to $13,500, Hart pulled his pen out, scribbled some more figures on his yellow legal pad, and pushed his offer to $13,550. Marvel folded.
But when the auction ended it was Marvel who cracked a smile. "This is what the Idaho Watersheds Project is all about," Marvel said. "We tripled the return to the schools (on that parcel of land) and we did it in an hour." Most of the revenue generated from the state's roughly 2 million acres of endowment land goes to the state's public schools.
Marvel, the founder of the controversial Idaho Watersheds Project, tries to force ranchers to pay more for publicly owned rangelands or move their cattle off them. Marvel said he only picks damaged parcels that need a rest from decades of overgrazing, and that the parcel he bid on last month contains severely damaged streamside habitat.
Jim Wood, range supervisor for the Department of Lands office in Idaho Falls, agreed some changes need to be made in the way that land is managed: "I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's critically overgrazed, but it's an area where we need to ... do a better job than we've been doing."
Hart said after the auction he never entertained the idea of dropping out, even when he paused at $9,000. "I was just feeling bad that you have to pay that much to protect your business. I was just thinking how this came about, that we're put in this kind of position to protect our future, our families and our jobs."
Wood said because of Marvel's bidding, Hart will pay significantly more for the land this year. In 1994, Wood figured Hart paid the state $244; this year he'll pay $2,014. The bid secures a right to lease the land for 10 years.
"This whole process of conflict biding we don't feel is a proper way to generate money for the state," Hart said. "We run the ranch as a business, and it's sad that every 10 years we have to have our business put up for auction."
Hart said he'll appeal the auction results to the state land board, which oversees management of the state's endowment lands.
"This is a free market. They didn't have to go that high," countered Marvel. "How strange."
The issue is far from over. On March 31, the Idaho Land Board overturned the results of two auctions Marvel won in late 1994. In January 1994, the land board also reversed Marvel's first victory. That case is now before the Idaho Supreme Court.
The writer works for the Post-Register in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and is a former HCN intern.