The man at the center of the largest land debate in the west
PHOTOGRAPHY Matthew Hayes
Jon Marvel is a complex man, yet one with a simply stated goal: “to end grazing on public lands.” And because of this goal, he is considered, in certain circles, to be the most hated man in the West.The founder, director, and public face of Western Watersheds Project (WWP), Jon has a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde reputation. One on one, he is quiet and soft-spoken, deferential and polite, with an engaging sense of humor. He likes to tell and hear good stories, especially Western-based ones. One would think those attributes would make for an empathetic, collaborative individual who would consistently seek common ground with those who oppose his views. Not exactly.
As Eric Davis, from Bruneau, Idaho, who’s one of those folks Marvel calls “welfare ranchers,” said about Marvel in an interview for University of Chicago Magazine, “Bless his heart, I guess he thinks he’s doing right, but I think he’s a vindictive SOB.”
Jon’s appearance belies his reputation, often so polarizing that he has sworn enemies who have never even met him. And some of his friends accuse him of getting in his own way. Some of the articles and words written about him (notably in Range Magazine) variously describe him as spiteful, egotistical, vituperative and profane, and his tactics as “scorched earth and uncompromising.”
In individual conversation little of that attitude is visible. It’s hard to square a “take no prisoners” reputation with this rather bookish, mild-talking man who enjoys a good laugh at his own expense. Confronted with instances of aggressive behavior against those who oppose him (and even some who don’t), Jon tends to downplay that aspect of his personality and gives assurance that he has “mellowed.”
After 26 years of fighting bureaucracies, and what he considers “land abusers,” Jon no longer has the same fire in the belly that put his feet on this path. And a remarkable path it has been, demonstrating that one person who believes they are right, and with a will to do so, can change an entire system despite seemingly insurmountable odds.
In 1993, the degraded condition of riparian habitat along Lake Creek, on the East Fork of the Salmon River, caused by livestock grazing, motivated Jon and other concerned citizens to organize to improve the environmental condition of our public lands. This gave rise to the Idaho Watersheds Project, now known as the Western Watersheds Project, which has spurred conservation efforts that have contributed to restoration and protection of public lands and wildlife habitat across the West.
Although originally hailing from Wilmington, Delaware, Jon comes across as more Western than many self-described natives (his father and grandfather were both prominent lawyers but Jon’s best memories center around being raised on a 40-acre farm). He passionately believes one doesn’t need a Western pedigree or ranch heritage background to love or defend what is essentially every American’s birthright—equal access to publicly held land. And those claiming “rights” have, for so long, forgotten this. “Rights” is a word that can really fry Jon’s bacon. He immediately corrects anyone who uses the word rights in connection with public land use. All users (grazers, guides, loggers, etc.) have “permits,” not indelible “rights” and, as such, they are permitted to use public land that is held in trust and by law for all Americans.
If you take the word “rights” out of the debate, it begins to erode the popular picture of generations of ranch families being forced off the land. Are we taking the “rights” away from Mary Hewlett (of Hewlett Packard fame) to use thousands of acres of public land that she’s probably never laid eyes on? Are we taking “rights” from the J.R. Simplot Corporation to thousands of acres of cheap grazing? Have we vested too much of our own heritage into too few hands? Is it too much to ask those with “permits” and those who administer them to act in good faith or have permission withdrawn?
Certainly the picture of generations of family ranchers being forced to change their historical method of doing business, and the struggle and hardship that can ensue from that change, is a reality, not a myth. Their pain in doing so is too individualized and personal to either measure or quantify. Yet in today’s world, there is little safety in doing things the way they have always been done. In recent years, every business, indeed every individual job, is held up to scrutiny and, to borrow a pioneering term, its “root hog or die!” to survive. Unfortunate as it may be, the great steamroller of the world economy seems to have flattened sentiment, history, tradition, and constancy at the same time, and what it will give rise to is yet to be seen. In the meantime, adaptation and change means survival.
HOMBRES DE LA TIERRA
This article was supposed to begin last fall, on the high ranges of Idaho, with a bottle of whiskey and a campfire. A sit-down with hombres de la tierra (men of the earth). Those with boots, in this case hooves, on the ground. Range riders—they of little pay, long hours and lonesome vistas. What better way to get at the heart of the debate on public grazing than to sit butt to boot-heels around a campfire and pass a jug of “tongue oil” around. Seeking truth and wisdom from men whose livelihoods and way of life are on the line.
It didn’t happen. The seasons swung past like a rusty gate, winter came on and the stock trucks rolled for the home ranch or scattered feedlots. The land was left to heal itself, to regenerate until the following summer when the ritual, practiced by generations of Western ranchers, reverses itself and livestock is once again scattered over 250 million acres of public lands. But, does it heal? Does it regenerate? Therein lies the heart of this argument.
As a boy, some of my first unwitting experiences with land use were from working on a variety of ranches, and as a rider for a Cattlemens’ Association in the mountains of central Idaho. For a time I lived a boy’s dream: life in the saddle, working alone, free and unfettered by rules and convention, figuring there was plenty for all.
Conflictingly, around that same time I also worked as a wild-lands firefighter and during our downtimes performed range maintenance, stock-tank development and range studies on managed grazing units for the U.S. Forest Service. At the time, I had no opinion of, or thought nothing wrong with, the idea of individuals using public land. After all, that was the government’s original intention and enticement for opening the West to settlement. This was 25 years into the Taylor Grazing Act, and rangeland was supposedly being managed effectively by government entities.
Yet, as a rider pushing cows around, I distinctly remember being troubled by some of the job’s aspects. At that age, and at that time, “ecology” was not in my vocabulary but “beauty” was, and I remember being disturbed, especially in the autumn, by the adverse impact that a season’s grazing could have on the waterholes, creek bottoms and the once lush meadows and lovely stands of aspen trees.
So, cowboy or conservationist? Fast forward 50 years and I still sit with a leg over each horse in this race. Not because I do not have a personal opinion, but that my research into this question has revealed that, as usual, complicated questions seldom have simple answers.
ON THE RANGE
Somewhere in the middle of all of this stands the range manager. The other “man of the earth” in this conflict of opinions and philosophies. Most take their jobs seriously and with dedication. I have talked with men with 30 years’ experience in the field who got in it and stay in it for love of the outdoors. A love that abides as they both manage and use the land that’s in their care (curiously, this is not all that different from Jon Marvel’s love of the same land). Their biggest challenge (personal philosophy aside) is to abide by the currently mandated laws—that of managing public land for all users.
The range manager’s job description is pretty much a recipe for “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” decision-making. Living under the sword of litigation from both sides, their every move is scrutinized, dissected and weighed for advantage for or against any party involved. Consequently, managers with years of training and experience in the field can no longer rely on their accumulated knowledge, instincts, or even common sense when it comes to doing their job. Much of their time is spent lawyer-proofing or litigating their decisions. So much so that like nurses who spend more time filling out paperwork than tending to their patients, they have less time for hands-on management of the land they are responsible for.
It is Jon Marvel’s opinion that “these jobs are so politicized that range managers cannot effectively do their work for fear of either reprisal or political intervention from local districts, clear back to Washington, D.C.. So much so that they often deny their own science to avoid this interference.”
Range managers, whether from the U. S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management, must walk the tightrope of pleasing everyone, offending none, and meet the expectations of their job descriptions. Usually they avoid being quoted in articles like this.
Meanwhile, WWP believes that, as much as litigation, the economic forces set against stock raising the way it is practiced in the West will eventually accomplish much of their mission. Wages, fuel costs, feed expenses and lawyers’ fees will force these changes. The small ranching business, teetering at best, in its present form will not survive these mounting challenges. Are they right, or more importantly, are they in the right? It’s complicated.
In these times, who would willingly tell a person “we are going to help drive you out of business, are going to alter your lifestyle, that your traditions are no longer valid or valuable in today’s world, that you must, in our opinion, and for the greater good, give up perhaps the only thing you know how to do?” Or is this a tossed rock that creates a ripple in our pond but a wave elsewhere that can wash back over us?
END OF AN ERA
Arguments have been made that loss of widespread grazing creates environmental disasters elsewhere: dead fisheries from pesticides washing into the Gulf of Mexico (because of a greater dependency on raised fodder); annihilation of the Amazon rain forests; the challenge of creating pastures to feed the insatiable demand for meat. If the fast food chains can’t get it from the West, it will come from somewhere else in the world.
The net result being additional climate chaos for millions, not just the population in these Western states. So if we live in a global society, is moving these problems or adding to environmental woes elsewhere in our country or the world truly helping us at home? Should WWP pursue a scorched earth policy when it comes to achieving its goals? Or are they burning the ground they themselves hope to stand on one day?
Everyone with a dog in this fight has a pretty strong opinion as to their rightness and the other side’s wrongness. Where to stand? In sympathy, my heart resides with the range riders and a young boy’s memories of the view down the long hills through smoky autumn light, and with the true ranching families who want to raise their kids on hard work and homemade bread. Those folks, whose lives have been idealized and mythologized, have also in recent years been discounted as backward thinking because they want to be left alone to inhabit the way of life their families have always held. Their existence is not a total myth, and yes, there is a romance to their lives, but also a hard reality. This sympathy comes from my own history, and its memory of wonderful experiences of ranch life as well as the DNA embedded with growing up in the West and on Western lore. That’s where my heart lies.
My head, however, and my gut, tells me something different. Without offering judgment, it tells me that—if it hasn’t already—public lands grazing as now practiced is close to reaching its high tide, its own Gettysburg, and much like the South after the fierce fight that was the Civil War, is faced with a long drawn-out set of covered retreats in which it will win some battles, but eventually lose the war. Sheer numbers will have a hand in dictating this change. There is too much land in the hands of too few people, with too many others claiming interest, for the status quo to endure. Jon Marvel and groups like WWP have set in motion events that will change the West forever.
Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Is there a definitive answer? In the end, perhaps only the land will tell us.