The news that Hailey conservationist Jon Marvel had been cited for making false statements to the Bureau of Land Management spread through the ranching community like the Murphy Springs fire.
Cattlemen have been sitting around country cafes gleefully talking about how the outspoken anti-grazing activist is getting a dose of his own medicine.
Marvel and Gordon Younger paid the fine on the charge they liken to a traffic ticket. Marvel and his attorney say the charge is unfounded. By paying, they avoided a long costly legal battle that would put the72-year-old Younger through an ordeal he wants to avoid while he fights cancer.
It also would have kept Marvel from what he considers more important work, like challenging the BLM public lands grazing program.
If this wasn’t Jon Marvel, Idahoans who are skeptical of government agents exercising power might be open to his attorney Laird Lucas’ argument that this was retaliation. Lucas argues the proposal to cancel the grazing permit and the criminal charges were attempts by BLM officials to get back at Marvel for all of the hassles he’s caused them by repeatedly beating them in court.
But Marvel has often callously carried out his agenda to drive cattle ranchers off public lands, ignoring the impacts he has had on ranchers and their families. He has shown neither mercy nor understanding, so I suspect he will get little from them.
The story that most illustrates this side of Marvel to me was when he and I were outside of U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill’s courtroom after a hearing on a lawsuit his Western Watersheds Project had brought against Owyhee ranchers several years ago. The ranchers and their families were milling around in anxiety because they didn’t know whether they were going to be able to put their cattle out on public land in the spring. If they couldn’t, they might face bankruptcy.
I had quoted an environmentalist in my first book, “Saving All the Parts,” comparing ranchers, loggers and miners to the ghost-dancing Indians who thought their dances would drive the Blue Coats away the 1890s. I had said that ranchers’ early 1990s protests and activism were no more successful in driving away urban environmentalists from the rural West.
So sitting outside that courtroom, with the ranchers looking on, Marvel holds his arms out straight and asks, “Rocky, what am I holding?”
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” I replied.
“Blankets, Rocky. I’m holding the smallpox-contaminated blankets,” he said — likening his efforts to eliminate the ranchers to those of some early white Americans who intentionally sickened the Indians.
Marvel is a complex person who is often painted in black-and-white terms. He nearly single-handedly reshaped the environmental agenda on grazing in the 1990s and has personally done more to point out and pick at the flaws of the current system than the rest of the conservation community combined.
He also has driven the Idaho Department of Lands to take its trustee responsibility for school children seriously even though politics forces it to consider special interests.
He has built support on his sharp wit and great speaking ability. But he loses his temper easily and sometimes in public. He often displays the arrogance he said he disdained in the old ranchers whose behavior drove him to his current advocacy.
He strongly dislikes the cowboy mythology that is pervasive in the West and of course throughout American life.
But he loves the West, its sagebrush ecosystem and the native creatures that live there.
I’ve had more than one of Marvel’s allies describe him as “his own worse enemy.”
Former Idaho Democratic State Sen. John Peavey said it another way at an Idaho Woolgrowers meeting a few years ago.
“Imagine where we would be if Jon Marvel was nice?”
Rocky Barker covers environmental issues for the Idaho Statesman.