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

Page 4

An angry man

When Marvel began his nonprofit Idaho Watersheds Project, it was clear that he harbored a monumental grudge. In the fall of 1994, Marvel attended a grazing fee meeting in Park City, Utah, and proceeded to call all the ranchers and agency people in the room "categorical liars."

"Does that include me?" asked moderator Bob Armstrong, assistant secretary for the Department of the Interior.

Marvel didn't flinch: "Yes, that includes you."

Before Armstrong could say anything, everyone in the room turned on Marvel, expressing their outrage. He later apologized.

But he probably wasn't very sorry. He admits that his brash approach to dealing with politicians and agency officials is intentional. He says he figures he won't change federal and state grazing policy by being Mr. Nice Guy.

Marvel's attitude, however, can be so alienating that he hurts his cause. In a 1995 Land Board meeting, he stuck out his tongue at Idaho Controller J.D. Williams when he was denied the right to bid on a grazing lease.

Marvel continues to shout insults at federal agency staffers across a room or he calls them names on the phone, several sources say. On the other hand, he also has spies in the agencies who help him.

"He may burn more bridges than he crosses," says Armstrong, who recently retired to Austin, Texas. "He does that at some peril if he hopes to make things happen."

Johanna Wald, a San Francisco-based attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, thinks Marvel should be commended for being bold.

"I'm impressed by his willingness to speak forthrightly," Wald says. "I think he's having quite a huge impact. There are a bunch of other groups that have tried to do what Jon's been doing for years; they haven't gotten very far."

If Marvel's crusade works, he expects scores of ranchers to quit the business. When they're close to the breaking point, he predicts the federal government may try to buy them out.

"The only way it will happen, is if they feel sufficiently at risk," he says. "And there's lots of ways to do that."

Talk of a class war

Marvel's activities have sent cold waves of fear across the rural landscape that may strengthen - rather than weaken - the resolve of his opponents.

"Mark this, Jon Marvel. There is great passion out here on the land. And in that, you have met your match," says Diane Josephy Peavey, a Blaine County poet and HCN board member whose husband, John Peavey, is a large-scale sheep rancher.

"Here is a resort-community architect attacking rural family ranchers," adds Josephy Peavey. "Driving ranchers off the land is an arrogant approach that won't do anything but drive a bigger wedge between environmentalists and ranchers."

Rancher Jay Cox's response to Marvel is to punish everybody. He locks his gates and prevents public access to 20 square miles.

"It's about the only thing we can do," Cox says.

From a political perspective, Marvel's crusade scores points among many environmentalists in liberal pockets of Idaho in Sun Valley and Boise. Yet state Sen. Noh says a poll by the Idaho Rangelands Resources Commission found that 70 percent of Idaho voters support livestock grazing on public lands.

"That's given some heart to people in the livestock industry," he says.

Tom Hook, an Owyhee County rancher whose grazing permit was at risk in the recent BLM case, says, "We're not afraid of what's going on out here on the land. We think things are improving. We can defend ourselves."

For now, watch for Marvel and Laird Lucas to file more lawsuits, bid on state leases, push to get diminishing species protected, appeal grazing plans, and "hassle the BLM and the Forest Service unmercifully," as Marvel puts it, until the agencies protect public lands as the highest priority.

He doesn't care if he's hated; he's not going to stop until he gets results.

"I've been able to draw more attention to public-lands grazing than anyone else in Idaho," he says. "Whether I'm the guy who signs the peace treaty, or whatever the outcome is, I don't care. Just as long as it happens."


Stephen Stuebner reports from Boise, Idaho.

You can contact ...

  • Jon Marvel, president, Idaho Watersheds Project, 208/788-2290, e-mail: [email protected], Web site:;
  • Laird Lucas, Land and Water Fund in Boise, 208/342-7024, [email protected];
  • Idaho Department of Lands, Bryce Taylor, rangeland leasing supervisor, 208/334-0200;
  • Bureau of Land Management, Owyhee Resource Area, Barry Rose, public information, 208/384-3300;
  • Idaho Cattle Association, Sara Braasch, executive director, 208/343-1615.
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