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
 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • ANNUAL FUND MANAGER
    Working closely with the Foundation's leadership, the Annual Fund Manager is responsible for the oversight and management of the Foundation's annual operating fund. This is...
  • DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    Looking for someone who loves public land and understands the value and importance of data in reaching shared goals as part of a high-functioning team....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • NEW BOOK: A FEAST OF ECSTATIC VERSE AND IMAGERY
    Dynamic fine art photographer offers use of images to raise funds. Available for use by conservation groups. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com.
  • WANTED: TALENTED WRITER
    Write the introduction to A Feast of Ecstatic Verse and Imagery, a book concerning nature and spirituality. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com. Writer who works for conservation/nature...
  • MT STATE DIRECTOR- THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
    The Montana State Director is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team who plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....
  • THE MAGICAL UNIVERSE OF THE ANCIENTS: A DESERT JOURNAL
    Bears Ears, Chaco Canyon, and other adventures in the Four Corners area. 60 photos and lively journals. Purchase hc $35 or pb $25 from bigwoodbooks.com...