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Know the West

Jon Marvel vs. the Marlboro Man


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.

"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.

"It's just nuclearized'

A narrow dirt road winds up a gentle mountain slope onto the Owyhee Plateau, where Marvel wants to check on the Castle Creek Allotment, a 200,000-acre area managed by the BLM.

"Look at this shithole," he says, pointing at a portion of Poison Creek.

"God, it's just nuclearized."

He moans as he looks at streambanks grazed down to dirt. The streambed is caked with mud dented by hundreds of cow hoofprints. "Oooooh," he says, wrinkling his nose, "can you believe the smell?"

Marvel says he and his fellow monitors, Gene Bray and Katie Fite, see these kinds of scenes all too often. They take pictures and ask the BLM to do something about it.

Marvel and other volunteers know that the BLM's skeleton crew of biologists and range conservationists can't keep constant watch over millions of acres of public land, so he and a handful of other monitors think of themselves as scouts for the agency.

"It's caused a singular change in attitude for agency managers to know they're being watched," Marvel says.

Fite and Bray have discovered dead birds and squirrels drowned in a poorly installed cattle trough. "This is what happens out there if people aren't watching," Fite says.

"Look at the tremendous taxpayer subsidy here," Marvel says. "It'd be a lot cheaper to just remove the cattle."

At a high point in the road, Marvel unfurls his master BLM map of Idaho's Owyhee Plateau. He lays the yellow map on the hood of the truck, and points out the boundaries of the Castle Creek Allotment. The map is inked up with the names of ranchers who run cattle here, as well as allotments on the west side of the plateau.

Looking off to a broad expanse of rolling green hills and thick groves of mountain mahogany, Marvel takes time to express amazement at the success of his 900-member group.

The Idaho Watersheds Project sued the BLM to improve this allotment, settling the case after the BLM agreed to reduce grazing 23 percent. The agency also agreed to fence 15 miles of streams, heal riparian areas and possibly boost redband trout populations.

"This was a real compromise," says Lucas of the LAW Fund. "It proves that Jon can be reasonable."

Lucas doubts the compromise will result in a long-term environmental fix, especially since one permittee has appealed. "That case was a real lesson to us. Negotiations don't get you where you want to go in the long term," Lucas says.

The project will cost a total of $221,800, Marvel points out, yet Castle Creek's eight permittees will pay only $23,310 in grazing fees in 1999.

The letter of the law

About 50 air miles to the west from the Castle Creek Allotment, Marvel and Lucas broadened their scope. They took aim at 68 ranching permits that the BLM had renewed for 10 years with only cursory environmental review. The agency ignored guidelines passed by the Interior Department in 1995 that required it to conduct a detailed review of streams and rangelands.

Instead, a BLM manager signed a one-page checklist, saying a 1981 environmental impact statement provided an adequate analysis.

"We didn't have clear direction within the agency on how to handle the new policy at the time," explains Barry Rose, BLM spokesman.

Last March, U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill ruled that the permits were renewed illegally. As a solution, Marvel asked the judge to halt all 68 permits until ranchers came into environmental compliance.

If Judge Winmill had agreed with Marvel, 17,000 cows would have been homeless this summer - kicked off federal land.

On June 2, about 30 Owyhee County ranchers packed a federal courtroom in Boise, along with Marvel and his supporters.

Ranchers heaved a collective sigh of relief when Judge Winmill said he would not shut down grazing this summer. But Lucas argued that a timeline should be set for the BLM to conduct environmental reviews, and specific restrictions should be imposed in the interim to protect redband trout, riparian areas and sage grouse.

The outcome is still pending.

As an end run against an unfavorable court decision, Idaho's two Republican senators recently placed a rider on a year-2000 appropriations bill that would relax BLM deadlines for examining expiring grazing permits.

Still, for Marvel, the legal decision was a stunning near-victory over a way of life in the West that had been unquestioned for decades: Ranchers raising hay on private land, then sending their cows onto public land to graze on the rich summer grasses.

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: www.idahowatersheds.org;
  • 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.