You can't keep a cow from water (or Jon Marvel from grazing issues)

  • Jon Marvel, director of Western Watersheds

    Dan Dry
  • Dan Dry

In September, the Western Watersheds Project announced that it was seeking a successor to Jon Marvel, its founder and executive director. Marvel, who lives in Hailey, Idaho, began his campaign to end public lands grazing back in the early 1990s, following a dispute with a neighboring rancher whose cattle bedded down on Marvel's property and munched on his grass. This inspired Marvel, an architect, to start the Idaho Watersheds Project.

His group made headlines in 1996 when it successfully bid on state grazing leases with the intent of removing cows from the range once it controlled the leases. Marvel's goal, both then and now, was to puncture what he sees as the unholy alliance between ranchers and public-lands agencies, which, he says, has caused the ecological degradation of most of the West through excessive livestock grazing.  High Country News covered his bare-knuckled crusade in an in-depth cover story in 1999. HCN Publisher Paul Larmer recently caught up with the 65-year-old activist via phone.

HCN: You've been known for your blunt statements and willingness to confront ranchers. Do you like any ranchers?

J.M.: I've met many interesting ranchers who are congenial. I talked to two just within the last couple of weeks. Every year, I go and ask this one rancher on the Middle Fork of the Salmon if he's ready for a buyout. His grazing allotments are in an area that was burned by wildfire this summer; he's had wolves eat his sheep; his guard dogs have bitten bicyclists; his land values are at an all-time low. I say, "Isn't it time that we made a deal?" And he'll say: "Oh, I didn't get into this business to make money." He's quite funny. I don't have a problem with ranchers who don't have a chip on their shoulder.

HCN: You are accused of having a chip or two on your shoulder. Have you always felt righteous indignation toward those in power?

J.M.: Yes, it's been a problem for me.

HCN: So why are you stepping down as the director of the Western Watersheds Project? Have the range wars been won?

J.M.: First, we haven't found anyone yet to take my job, so I'm continuing for now. But it's my choice, really -- to reduce my time and the administrative aspects of the job. The board would like to bring in some youth, and that's a good idea. I'll continue on as an advisor.

My strongest wish is for the larger conservation organizations to take up the public-lands grazing issue. The Nature Conservancy, for example, has never said a bad word about ranching. In fact, they say that ranching is a solution to restoring the land. Other groups have dabbled in it, too, but always backed off.

HCN: Why have they backed off?

J.M.: Groups like the Sierra Club and NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) fall away when they encounter the difficulty of changing the system. Foundations (that fund environmental groups) reinforce this approach. The Pew Charitable Trust is highly focused on polling. They try to control what language you use, how you frame the issue. If you do a focus group on mining and ask people what they think, 90 percent will say it's a disaster. Do the same with grazing, and the results are the opposite; 80 percent are positive -- "We love ranchers; they are part of our heritage." So (despite grazing’s big impact on land health, groups like Pew that fund environmental nonprofits) listen to what focus groups tell them. They have focused so much on wilderness designation, trying to get ranchers on board. "Hey, we'll pass legislation that makes life easier for you, Mr. Rancher, because the environmentalists won't bother you if the land is designated wilderness."

HCN: Have your views about ranching and the damage caused by livestock grazing changed over time?

J.M.: Not much. Ranching culture is a violent culture. The killing of 90,000 coyotes by federal wildlife service agents, the killing of wolves and prairie dogs -- that's all about ranching. It is also a secretive culture. Ranchers who want to take buyouts from environmentalists are afraid of being socially ostracized by their peers. It's remarkable that so many conservative ranchers won't respect an individual rancher's decision to sell off their grazing permit and retire it. People who hate the government, but depend on it, are mentally ill.

High Country News Classifieds