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

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"It's absurd," he rails. He's fond of calling ranchers names like "welfare queens' and "champion whiners." The in-your-face, brazen style has earned Marvel a foul reputation.

"It's a scorched-earth policy," says state Sen. Laird Noh, a Kimberly sheep rancher, Nature Conservancy board member, and chairman of the Senate Resources and Environment Committee.

"He's trying to trade one use of the land that can be environmentally compatible for another use that will lead to ranchettes, pavement and subdivisions, all of which can't be reversed," Noh says.

Falling in love with the West

Marvel's first trip to Idaho was in 1959, when he was 12, and it changed his life.

"I loved it. I don't see how anybody who came here wouldn't like it," he says. "The open spaces, the beautiful mountain vistas, beautiful rivers ... I hiked in the Sawtooths every week I was here."

In 1962, Jon Marvel's family purchased a small cabin in a shady grove of lodgepole pine near Stanley, Idaho, next to the towering Sawtooth Mountains. As Marvel grew up in Wilmington, Del., his family often traveled to the 21-acre former ranch during the summer.

Marvel earned a bachelor's degree in American history from the University of Chicago, and, hoping to settle in the Northwest, he went on to the University of Oregon in Eugene to earn a master's degree in architecture.

In 1976, he became a full-time Idaho resident and began his career as an architect. As the world-class Sun Valley Resort drew more people to the Wood River Valley, palatial homes and condominiums sprouted in Ketchum, Sun Valley and points south. Marvel started his own architectural firm in Hailey in 1981, specializing in residences, and in remodeling and public projects for the Blaine County schools, the Wood River Hospital and the Blaine County Senior Center.

"I have not done a large number of huge houses," Marvel says. "The largest house I've designed was 7,000 square feet. I'm not involved in designing homes at the hyper-exclusive scale."

Marvel says it was while living at his family's cabin in Stanley that he began to see cattle from the perspective of a small landowner.

"Cows would break into our property because there was nothing left on the other side for them to eat," Marvel says. "When we asked the ranchers to move the cows or help with the fence, they'd just ignore us. I observed an arrogant, unresponsive and unneighborly attitude."

It was a quick education about open-range law in the West. Ranchers aren't required to fence their cows in; adjacent property owners must fence cows out.

Marvel says he couldn't help noticing how cattle overgrazed streambanks until they left nothing but dirt. He took pictures of animals defecating in clean, mountain-spring water.

Through the years, he says, his complaints to the Forest Service went unanswered. By the early 1990s, he'd had enough.

"I've always had a strong revulsion to public-lands pillage," he says. "I decided to get more active."

Marvel seized on the novel concept of bidding on state grazing leases, something anti-grazing environmentalists had never tried before. Marvel raised private cash and began to bid for land.

He knew that the Idaho Constitution required the Idaho Land Board to raise maximum income on state leases for public schools. So, he assumed, if two parties competed for a lease, the state would hold an auction and the highest bid would win.

But the system favored ranchers - always.

"One thing I think ranchers understand is money," Marvel says. "If we can go in and embarrass them or outbid them, this is a no-lose situation. Even if we lose the auction, we raise more money for the schoolchildren."

Since Marvel made his first bid on state lands in 1994, a variety of groups have followed suit, bidding on state lands in Utah, Oregon, New Mexico, Arizona and Nebraska.

But very quickly, Marvel hit a brick wall in Idaho. The five-member Land Board, composed of the Idaho governor, attorney general, controller, superintendent of schools and secretary of state, was so appalled at the notion of leasing land to an environmentalist that it crafted a law to block him from bidding. Marvel then sued the board, thanks to the efforts of Laird Lucas of the nonprofit Land and Water Fund.

This time, Marvel scored a bull's eye. Last April, the Idaho Supreme Court ruled 5-0 that the board could not set up a system of "qualified bidders' that explicitly ruled out non-ranchers such as Marvel. The state's so-called "anti-Marvel" bill was thus ruled unconstitutional.

Justices ordered the state Land Board to hold 26 auctions this summer to give Marvel a chance to bid on the 1995-'96 contested leases. Marvel says he'll target the San Felipe state lease, leases held by John Faulkner, who ranches on a large scale, and Simplot's leases. Simplot runs the biggest feedlot in the United States, with a capacity of 450,000 head per year.

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