The founder of Western Watersheds Project, a Hailey-based organization that seeks to end grazing on public lands in the West, has been cited by the Bureau of Land Management for allegedly providing a false statement on a grazing permit application.
As a result of the alleged violation, the BLM has proposed canceling the permit, which covers three grazing allotments tied to property near Clayton.
The nonprofit conservation group was originally founded by Jon Marvel in 1993 to bid for expiring grazing leases on Idaho state school endowment lands.
Groups that represent ranchers say the development marks the unraveling of Western Watersheds.
The organization has been so successful in its efforts to curtail public lands grazing that many ranchers refer to Marvel as “the most hated man in the West.”
“This could unravel everything they’ve done over the past 15 years,” said Jake Putnam, broadcast services manager for Idaho Farm Bureau Federation.
Western Watersheds attorney Laird Lucas said the claims by the BLM and ranching groups are false and defamatory.
“We are vigorously contending it,” Lucas said of the violation notice and proposed cancellation of the grazing allotments. “There have been no false statements. This is simply and flatly false.”
According to BLM documents faxed to the Journal Monday, the BLM’s Challis office issued violation notices to Marvel and Gordon Younger, who contributes to Western Watersheds and holds Valley Sun LLC, which obtained the grazing permit in question.
The violation notices allege Valley Sun made a false statement on its grazing application by claiming it was in the process of acquiring livestock for the grazing allotments, even though it had no intention of doing so.
The BLM claimed evidence to back up these claims was contained on WWP’s Web site as well as the group’s own newsletter, The Watersheds Messenger.
According to the BLM documents, Valley Sun turned over day-to-day operations of the allotments to Western Watersheds. In a letter from David Rosenkrance, field manager of the BLM’s Challis office, the agency has proposed to cancel the permit because Valley Sun showed no indication it planned to use the permit for livestock grazing; it has removed all livestock handling facilities from the property; and it has not maintained range improvements.
“Valley Sun LLC and WWP have provided BLM with baffling, contradictory and apparently false statements,” the letter stated.
“There are livestock auctions every week in Blackfoot,” said Blackfoot rancher Jennifer Ellis, past president of the Idaho Cattle Association. “It’s not that hard to acquire livestock.”
Lucas, who also represents Younger and Valley Sun, said everyone has known all along Western Watersheds is a conservation group opposed to public lands grazing that seeks to restore these lands “and we made that very clear to the BLM.”
“We never claimed we were ranchers or were going to get into the cattle business,” he added.
He said the recent violation notices are an attempt by ranching groups to use the BLM to pry the land from the conservation group and use it for their own purposes.
“The BLM is doing the bidding of the ranchers,” Lucas said.
The BLM controls federal grazing permits, while the Idaho Department of Lands’ Idaho Land Board controls grazing permits on Idaho endowment fund land, which is used to benefit public schools and other beneficiaries. The IDL controls 1,207 grazing leases covering 1,783,813 acres.
Ranchers hope this development could lead the land board to rethink new rules it is writing that would allow groups such as Western Watersheds to bid on state grazing leases for conservation purposes.
Ellis said ranchers would like to see future bid applications include a section that asks, “Have you ever been convicted of lying to obtain a grazing permit?” If that wording were included, she said, it could preclude Western Watersheds from bidding on state grazing leases in the future if it is ultimately found guilty of the violation.
Lazy Y Ranch, an LLC set up by Younger, recently won a federal lawsuit against state land board officials who awarded grazing leases to ranchers over environmental groups that offered more money.
A federal court ruled the state violated the civil rights of Younger by not allowing him to bid for grazing leases. The court ruled the Idaho Constitution requires the land board to secure the maximum financial return on the state’s grazing land to benefit public schools.
As part of the suit, the Idaho Land Board agreed to rewrite its rules to allow conservation groups to compete for leases on state endowment lands. The 2010 Legislature still has to approve those rules.
Western Watersheds officials estimate their organization holds more than 4,000 acres in school endowment land leases that are being managed for wildlife habitat and conservation purposes.
Putnam said the hope among ranchers is that the recent BLM violations could change how the land board awards grazing leases. The land board, which consists of the governor, secretary of state, attorney general, state controller, and superintendent of public instruction, next meets March 16.
George Bacon, director of the Idaho Department of Lands and secretary to the land board, said the issue of the BLM violations is not on the board’s March 16 agenda, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be added.
“We have to see how all this unfolds with the BLM,” Bacon said. “I think it will take awhile to get to the bottom of what happened.”
“This raises a number of questions and concerns, and we plan on working through all of those as we proceed forward,” said Jon Hanian, spokesman for Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter.
Lucas said the previous system of grazing on state lands has been losing money for Idaho for many years. If the state can make more money by leasing the land to conservation groups, “It makes perfect sense.”
He expects Western Watersheds and Younger to ultimately prevail when all the facts come forth.
“We don’t play fast and loose with the law like they do,” he said. “I expect us to prevail in the end.”