Jon Marvel vs. the Marlboro Man

  • Idaho Watersheds Project

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • Jon Marvel wants to protect public lands from livestock damage

    Charmaine McCann
  • "The Real Welfare Queens" cartoon

    Idaho Watershed Project billboard
  • Cows graze near Giraffe Creek in southeast Idaho

    Idaho Watersheds Project photo
 

Note: this feature story includes four sidebar articles: Jon Marvel, rancher Brad Little, Land and Water Fund lawyer Laird Lucas, and Air Force pilot and environmentalist Herb Meyr give their perspectives in their own words.

SILVER CITY, Idaho - Imagine a silver-haired 52-year-old fellow walking into a saloon in this remote mountain town in the 1920s.

He slams open the saloon's swinging doors and says, "All right, who owns those cows sprawled in the middle of Jordan Creek? Jordan Creek is full of crap and I want those cows out! Now!'

Imagine the response. A couple of cowboys at a corner table would slowly rise out of their chairs, rub the bone-chiseled grips of their six-shooters and stare at the man named Jon Marvel. "Let's settle this outside," they'd say.

Maybe they'd soak him in a water trough. If he were lucky.

But it's 1999, not the 1920s. And Jonathan Marvel, a successful architect from Hailey, Idaho, is not afraid to attack what he calls the West's sacred cows.

He has proudly worn a button that urges "End welfare ranching," and he targets ranchers who use federal land as well as Idaho state land, along with both the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service - in Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. More than a few ranchers probably wish they could settle things the old-fashioned way.

"He's an arrogant, ignorant asshole," says Jay Cox, an Owyhee County, Idaho, rancher.

"Out here in Castle Creek, the BLM is cutting cattle numbers and they're trying to fence every mile of the stream. They cut me back to the point where I'm losing $28,000 a year. And Marvel ... he just smiles and laughs," Cox says.

Even some of Marvel's friends marvel at the chutzpah of this anti-grazing activist who has found new ways to attack the state and federal permits that public-land ranchers say they need to survive.

One friend, who requested anonymity, called him "Slobodan Marvel," playing off the name of the Serbian murderer and ethnic-cleanser, Slobodan Milosevic. "He's easy to hate," he adds, "but you have to admire his guts and sense of humor."

The agriculture weekly Capital Press, based in Salem, Ore., interviewed Marvel on June 18, and concluded that while he was "more up-front than usual," he was also "immune to reason."

Its editorial concluded: "We have the impression that he harbors a rage against public-lands grazing, and any amount of reasoning, analyses or demonstration projects are unlikely to make a difference with him."

A slow, deliberate talker, Marvel says his aim is to stop the environmental damage caused by livestock on public lands, focusing on critical fish and wildlife habitat along rivers and streams. Hence the name of the nonprofit group he began six years ago - Idaho Watersheds Project.

His solution: "Destabilize" the livestock industry to the point where ranchers get so mad and miserable that they quit the business.

"We're creating biological deserts in areas that should be exuberant with life," Marvel says. "If the land could talk, it'd be crying."

Marvel takes a no-compromise position because ranchers, in his view, refuse to improve stewardship, and state and federal politics are rigged in their favor.

"I'm painted as an extremist radical who's trying to undermine their way of life, and some of them call me a communist," he says. "Well, the great irony, of course, is that the system of public-lands ranching is a communist system. It's a command-and-control system. Outsiders cannot participate. There's no democracy. There's no free market. There's no competition allowed. They're in charge."

Criticism of cattle, of course, is nothing new. For the last decade, federal government studies have documented the damage cattle do to arid public lands, endangered fish and streams and rivers.

Marvel is making a bigger splash than previous crusades, such as "Cattle Free by "93," because he's discovered highly effective ways to attack ranchers. His arsenal runs the gamut and includes bidding on state grazing leases, suing state and federal agencies, filing endangered species petitions, appealing grazing plans and mounting anti-cow cartoons on highway billboards.

He gets headlines by attacking wealthy and well-known public-land permittees, such as the Hewlett Packard-leased San Felipe Allotment near Mackay, Idaho, and billionaire potato king J.R. Simplot's extensive grazing leases in southern Idaho.

Marvel mocks federal grazing fees - $1.35 per cow-calf pair per month in 1999 - by comparing them to the cost of feeding a pet hamster. That, he estimates, is $3 per month, while feeding a pet tarantula a month's supply of crickets costs $4.75.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....