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for people who care about the West

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


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.

HCN: What about the land-management agencies and the politicians who support ranching?

J.M.: The agencies are compromised by ranching culture. A new biologist may want to do good honest science (showing ranching’s impacts), but they are quickly informed to get in line: "Don't bother us with information about plants," they are told. "That's not what we're doing here."

(Agencies and politicians) have all bought into the mythology that sprang from the media and popular entertainers like John Wayne and shows like Bonanza. (Even though) we have moved a long way from the cowboy myth - you're more likely to see cowboy clothing in a gay bar than on a street in a modern Western town, politicians like (Interior Secretary) Ken Salazar, (Utah Sen.) Orrin Hatch, (Utah Gov.) Gary Herbert, and (Wyoming Sen.) John Barrasso continue to believe fundamentally that the West is to be exploited.

HCN: You've long called it "welfare ranching," right?

J.M.: There are 800,000 livestock producers in the U.S., but just 21,000 get to use the public lands -- 2.5 percent. They have clout and privilege far beyond their numbers and they use it to maintain this house of cards. Over 60 percent of the grazing permittees on public lands are absentee owners. The old idea of mom-and-pop ranchers who use their blowtorch to burn the spines of prickly pear cactus so their cattle have something to eat is gone. Very rich people are buying ranches for the views, the landscape.

HCN: A few years ago, you helped put together a giant coffee-table book called Welfare Ranchers: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West. Did it help your cause?

J.M.: We had hoped that the book would have an impact like the early Sierra Club books (put together by David Brower) but it has had no impact on public policy, largely because the major conservation groups won't take the issue on.

HCN: Can you point to any victories?

J.M.: Our biggest victory was during the second term of the Bush administration when we stopped its attempt to rewrite the Babbitt/Clinton grazing regulations. We challenged them in federal court, and it went all the way to the Supreme Court, where we won.

We've also been successful with the greater sage grouse. Western Watersheds initially pursued the listing of the species under the Endangered Species Act. Thanks to our challenges, the BLM is now readying 68 management plans in eight Western states, and the Forest Service is amending dozens of forest plans to provide more protection for the sage grouse. Everyone is scrambling to show they have concern for the sage grouse in an attempt to avoid a listing. Our little group is one of the major reasons the crisis is here -- and it's a good thing.

HCN: So you’re a specialist in crisis development?

J.M.: When I first started working on this in the 1980s I did an I Ching reading about my desire to contest livestock grazing on public lands. My hexagram read "Major obstacles" and suggested that I seek alternative ways to reach my goal because there would be so much resistance. Of course I didn't do this. I think that unless you speak out about the problems, they will get swept under the rug.

HCN: In our 1999 story about you, Idaho rancher and now Lieutenant Gov. Brad Little gave you a sort of backhanded compliment, saying your efforts might have forced ranchers to be better stewards and document those efforts, in case you sued them.

J.M.: Fear is not the best motivator, but if ranchers are afraid of me, and then they go out and do better by the land, then I say, "Whatever it takes."

HCN: Do you still envision a future where there is no public-lands grazing?

J.M.: If the laws and regs on the books were implemented, and if grazing fees reflected market value, this problem would take care of itself in a matter of months. But in 20 years, there will be a lot less grazing on public lands, not because of concern for water, air or wildlife, but because of economics. The rich ranch owners will want a few decorative cows on the landscape, but nobody will want to be involved in the business. Ranchers are getting old, sick or divorced, and their kids have no interest in continuing on -- they've moved to Fort Collins or Boise. It's going to go away, we're just trying to accelerate it.