Friday, October 15, 2010

The Guy Idaho Ranchers Love to Hate

Jon Marvel sees two ways to get cows and sheep to stop grazing on public lands: Politics and litigation. He chooses the latter.

By Dennis Higman, 10-14-10

“If we weren’t getting to them, they’d brush us off like a fly. After all, we’re just a little organization with 14 or 15 people, but they act like what we do is the end of the world.” Photo courtesy of Boise State.
“If we weren’t getting to them, they’d brush us off like a fly. After all, we’re just a little organization with 14 or 15 people, but they act like what we do is the end of the world.” Photo courtesy of Boise State.

There are two topics you don’t want to bring up with most Idaho ranchers: wolves and Jon Marvel, the white-haired, 63-year-old founder and executive director of the Western Watersheds Project.

Exactly what is it about this guy who looks more like a college professor than an environmental activist worthy of nstant, visceral, angry reactions from ranchers, that include “he’s an asshole” to “I hate that bastard” to “he’s an abusive guy” and other not-suitable-for-work quotations?

As it turns out, Marvel, a history graduate from the University of Chicago who founded WWP in 1993, is not at all mild-mannered unless it serves his purpose. In reality, he’s is an intense, combative man who does not believe in compromise. “You don’t influence change without directly taking on the people who oppose that change,” he says in a recent interview. “Collaboration simply gets you marginalized.”

He’s also a man who harbors a long-standing grudge with roots in an incident many, many years ago at his family cabin in Stanley, Idaho. “One day I found this rancher cutting across my land without permission, taking salt blocks to his stock. I told him to go around, go back the same way he came in and you know what he said? ‘Where did you come from?’ It was like he felt he was somehow entitled to use my private property as he saw fit.”

That initial contact led Marvel to take a closer look at what his ranching neighbors thought they were entitled to do on surrounding public land where they grazed their stock in the summer under longterm, subsidized leases (currently, it’s $1.35 for a cow or calf compared to $17 to $22 on private land). He was appalled by the activity supervised by the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the state. He saw it as the long-standing, irresponsible, wanton destruction of the land and its resources---fish, wildlife, plants and water---by cattle and sheep. He surmised this destruction was aided and abetted by complacent, complicit government agencies charged with regulation and oversight of grazing on millions of acres in the public interest.

That was a defining moment for him and the beginning of what became Western Watersheds Project---which is the second reason most Idaho ranchers hate Jon Marvel. Although the mission of WWP, headquartered in Hailey, is to “protect and restore western watersheds and wildlife through education, public policy initiatives and litigation,” its goal is to do this by getting domestic livestock off public land in the West. And while its methods certainly include some education and policy initiatives, the organization’s MO consists primarily of filing lawsuit after lawsuit, using every environmental law on the books, ranging from the Endangered Species Act to the Clean Water Act and the Federal Land Policy Management Act, among many others.

Jon Marvel, WWP staff and officials with the Forest Serveice survey cattle damage on Pine Creek in the Little Lost River Watershed. Photo by John Carter.

Jon Marvel, WWP staff and officials with the Forest Serveice survey cattle damage on Pine Creek in the Little Lost River Watershed. Photo by John Carter.

“Marvel’s nothing but a pot-smoking trust-funder who came out here from back East to change the world. He’s got millions of dollars behind him,” complains one angry Idaho rancher who wouldn’t allow his name to be printed. “If I say anything on the record, I’m just inviting one of his damn lawsuits and I can’t afford it, he said, continuing, “He’s not interested in improving the resource; he just wants people like me out of business. It’s hard enough to make any money in cattle these days.”

That kind of reaction does not displease Jon Marvel. Public lands in the West and livestock are not a viable combination and never have been, he says. It doesn’t make any sense economically or environmentally to use this arid land for grazing and he says he can prove it with reams of data and statistics: It’s too dry, harsh and fragile, only 3 percent of cattle are raised on public land anyway (most are raised on private land in East Texas and Florida), and ranching is, at best, a marginal economic activity in Idaho.

Half the ranchers who use public land for grazing are “hobbyists,” in Marvel’s view, who don’t depend on ranch income. Of the other half who do, half of those are “corporate ranchers,” he says.

“They know I’m right about this,” Marvel says. “If we weren’t getting to them, they’d brush us off like a fly. After all, we’re just a little organization with 14 or 15 people, but they act like what we do is the end of the world.”

Here, Marvel is being somewhat disingenuous. Western Watersheds has offices in nine Western states, a million-dollar budget and a formidable advisory board and staff of doctors (the academic type---botanists, biologists, ecologists), as well as an aggressive, highly effective team of public interest lawyers in Boise, Advocates for the West.

Typical is John Carter, a long-time board member and the director of WWP’s Utah Office until he recently resigned to spend more time developing his 900-acre wildlife and research preserve in southeast Idaho. Carter, a soft-spoken Southern farm boy with a degree in mechanical engineering, a Master’s in business administration and a Ph.D. in biology/ecology, started several successful engineering businesses and consulting firms involved in studies of watersheds, oil shale development and hazardous waste management before devoting his full time to authoring numerous scientific papers on range conditions in the West and becoming an expert witness for Western Watersheds.

“You know, people like to zero-in on Jon Marvel,” says Carter, whose accent and courtly manner mask a passionate, aggressive dedication to the cause, “but he’s not alone. There are a lot of highly qualified people all over the West, pushing for and dedicated to reform just like he is.

“What we’re up against is a broken, corrupt regulatory system,” Carter continues. “The environmental damage caused by livestock grazing on Western public land is irrefutable. This land needs more than a few years off. The fact is, it needs a century of rest!”

Idaho ranchers who graze livestock on public land during the summer most emphatically do not agree with any of this. “Jon Marvel’s an environmental obstructionist,” insists Carl Elsworth, Idaho Cattle Association (ICA) President. “His goal is not to help the environment or help local economies. He holds up good projects like improvement of salmon and bull trout habitat on technicalities because all he really wants to do is get cattle off public land.”

Charles Lyon, incoming ICA President, agrees. “There is no middle ground here, not as far I’m concerned. Marvel’s trying to nail us to a wall with all his lawsuits. He wants to put us out of business and we have to stand together.”

“These people (WWP) have never worked the ground a day in their life,” he says, “and if they get their way, a lot of struggling little rural communities are going to be hurt economically. There’s a good system in place, using public range in the summer and private land in the winter. You take away the public land, it will overload private land, damage its resources and a lot of small operators will get squeezed out.”

The Idaho Rangeland Resource Commission (IRRC), a state agency dedicated to providing “scientifically-based educational materials to Idaho teachers” and whose goals are, among others, “to promote public support for sustainable livestock grazing” and “responsible range stewardship,” declined to comment on Marvel and WWP, or suggest people who would.

“The IRRC works on positive stories and stays away from controversy as much as possible,” Executive Director Gretchen Hyde said in an e-mail, “and we don’t want to put anyone at risk of dealing with lawsuits (frivolous or not).”

The Forest Service, one of the primary regulatory agencies that oversee livestock grazing on public lands in Idaho and other Western States---and a constant target of Jon Marvel’s lawsuits and ire---is also gun shy. A local Idaho district ranger in that vast bureaucratic organization now needs permission from Washington, D.C., to talk to the press, and that permission was not forthcoming in time for this article.

It does pay to be wary of Marvel and the Western Watersheds Project, of course. Lawsuits to protect wolves, sage grouse, pigmy rabbits, bull trout and bighorn sheep have all been filed by WWP over the years, plus a host of other litigation, and they’ve won some significant victories.

Early on, Marvel tried to buy leases on state land in order to halt grazing on the theory that if he paid to have the land retired instead of grazed, the state was better off financially and environmentally. When his high bids were rebuffed, he took it to the Idaho Supreme Court and won. And when the State Land Board still refused to go along, he won a subsequent case in federal court using a civil rights law.

In 2005, WWP won a federal court injunction removing livestock from 800,000 acres of BLM-managed land in Idaho. And in 2007, WWP’s litigation strategy paid off in a big way when it was able to overturn Bush-era grazing regulations on 160 million acres of BLM land in 11 states.

They were also recently involved (with other parties) in a lawsuit that put wolves back on the Endangered Species list, at least temporarily, and won a case which stopped domestic sheep grazing on 65 percent of the Payette National Forest on the grounds they carried a disease that was killing Bighorn Sheep. WWP has also successfully forced the Washington State Department of Fish and Game to stop using two large tracts of its wildlife lands for cattle grazing.

Excluding revolution, there are basically two ways to initiate the kind of sweeping change Marvel is seeking: politics or litigation---and he has clearly opted for the latter. In a one-party state like Idaho, there’s little choice, he says. Lawsuits may not be the ultimate answer, Marvel concedes, but they are an effective way to focus public attention on an environmental problem, bring about change and, equally important, increase the cost of noncompliance for violators. “There just aren’t any significant examples of environmental laws being enforced without litigation or threat of litigation,” he says

More recently, however, Western Watersheds tried an alternate approach by making an agreement with the El Paso Corp. not to challenge its proposed pipeline from Wyoming to Oregon in exchange for a $15-million fund to be used for conservation easements, land purchases and a voluntary retirement of grazing permits. Ironically, a group of counties have challenged this agreement on the grounds it’s harmful to ranchers because, among other reasons, they will be pressured into selling their grazing rights by WWP lawsuits.

Not true, Marvel says: Ranchers will sell voluntarily because it’s in their best interest to sell. A WWP spokesman is quoted in the Idaho Statesman as saying it isn’t a coercive fund at all, but then goes on to note that WWP does go to court to enforce the nation’s environmental laws and “we’re holding the enforcement of existing laws over their head.”

The resistance of these county officials may be more a matter of culture than economics, John Freeman, senior fellow at the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State, said in this same article. “Culture matters.”
By culture, he explained in a subsequent interview, he means a way of life and community values. This may help to explain why the angry reaction and resistance to Jon Marvel and the Western Watersheds program goes well beyond ranchers in many rural Idaho communities.

Marvel likes to talk about “the myth of the West,” the deeply ingrained glorification of cowboys and cows, noble, independent ranchers and echoes of “Home on the Range” that has obscured the destructive reality of this bogus culture for a century. “That myth is dying fast,” he claims. “Nobody makes Westerns any more. Young people today could care less. I know change is coming.”

And to bolster his point, he cites a survey that claims being a cowboy today is considered to be the worst job in the United States. The only two Idaho cowboys this reporter knows, however, apparently didn’t take part.

These are proud, independent, hard-working, self sufficient people who clearly love what they do, and when I complained to one about how hard it was to make a living these days, he replied there were plenty of jobs out there. Like what? I challenged him. “Like this one,” he laughed.

In the final analysis, it appears that the battle lines between Jon Marvel, Western Watersheds and the ranching community have been drawn. There is precious little room for compromise on the issues, and probably no room at all for politically bipartisan solutions on the land issues he champions.

Although Hailey, Idaho, where Marvel lives and works (and where Western Watersheds was just given the “Environmental Advocate of the Year” award by that city and the surrounding communities of Ketchum and Sun Valley), might be classified as a liberal community, Idaho remains a conservative Republican state. Ranchers retain a solid base of political power here and the current governor, a rancher himself, once boasted he would be the first in line to shoot a wolf when it became legal.

Nor is the national political outlook any more promising with the current Secretary of Interior, Ken Salazar, who has authority over the regulatory agencies that oversee federal public lands, is also a rancher by profession. “I’m deeply disappointed in the Obama administration,” Marvel concedes.

“There’s no change in behavior from Bush; it’s all extremely negative. I expected more, a lot more. I foolishly believed it was going to be different, but all we got were Clinton retreads. Ken Salazar has closed the door on change of any kind; it’s more of the same, an accommodation of vested interests.”

That, and the fact that upcoming November elections will, in all likelihood, make it look even darker on Marvel’s horizon, almost guarantees there will be only more contentious lawsuits and animosity ahead. The real winners look to be only one group---lawyers---who surely must rank somewhere not far below the cowboys on Jon Marvel’s survey, among the least-admired of any profession.

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