True grit

In a heated showdown with Western cattlemen, Idaho environmentalist Jon Marvel, ABí72, tries to outlaw livestock grazing on public lands.

By Lydialyle Gibson
Photography by Dan Dry

Itís Jon Marvel, ABí72, vs. cattlemen in a fight over public lands. View the slide show.

He can’t help looking. Even though Jon Marvel knows there’s probably no bluebunch wheatgrass here, that its numbers in this field have been declining for years, so that a person could walk a mile through the sagebrush—and Marvel has—without seeing a single delicate blond seedhead, he can’t help searching the ground for one. In central Idaho’s dry sage-steppe grasslands, bluebunch wheatgrass is a key native species, year-round forage for elk, deer, and antelope. It’s part of what keeps the ecosystem whole.

“Let’s just take a walk and see,” Marvel says, setting off through the sloping expanse, with sagebrush slapping at his knees and the Lost River Mountains climbing the sky in front of him. He traces a wide circle halfway around Swensen Butte, a high-shouldered mound of dirt and rock on the edge of the Sawtooth National Forest. After half an hour, he’s turned up a few fronds of Idaho fescue, some Indian rice grass, and fistful after fistful of crested wheatgrass, an invasive weed transplanted from Siberia a century ago that has long since run amok. But, as expected, no bluebunch wheatgrass.

To Marvel, it’s clear what’s to blame—the same culprit he sees behind almost every poisoned stream and trampled hillside and denuded landscape west of the Great Plains: cows. Thousands and thousands of cows, eating their way across the range all summer long.

Marvel stops short and points at a dried pile of manure. “Look,” he says, “cowshit,” enunciating crisply a word that clangs in an otherwise refined vocabulary. “See how it smothers the landscape?”

Over the past two decades Marvel, AB’72, an architect who lives near Sun Valley in Hailey, Idaho, has become one of the most tenacious antigrazing activists in the West. His objective is as simple as it is absolute: the total removal of domestic livestock from Western public lands, some 250 million acres of desert, forest, grassland, rivers, and streams stretching from Montana to California.

“Most people don’t realize what’s going on out here,” Marvel says. His voice has the pleasant, slightly vexed tone of someone used to explaining the obvious to those who don’t, or won’t, understand. “It’s not well known that these places are being degraded. But they are.”

In 1993, after a particularly ugly hike along a decimated creek in central Idaho, Marvel founded the Idaho Watersheds Project, an upstart environmental organization. Now it has offices in eight states, an advisory board of botanists and biologists and conservation ecologists, a team of attorneys in Boise, and a bigger name: Western Watersheds Project. Scrappy and aggressive, the group has unleashed an all-out assault against the stockmen Marvel calls “welfare ranchers,” those who depend on public lands to graze their cattle and sheep.

To some, Marvel is a warrior fighting a rigged system that favors ranchers over the public interest. “Jon’s a hero out West here,” says his friend Justine Kaiser, whose home sits amid a grazing allotment. Others call him a bully and an instigator who persecutes stockmen in ways that don’t always promote range reform. Even ranchers who agree with his environmental concerns say he’s too rigid, too draconian. “There is abuse out there, and some ranchers need to work on things,” says Utah rancher Jeff Roche, who’s friendly with Marvel. “And Marvel could help them. But he’s too radical, where he’s at.”

The battle unfolds most visibly in the courts. At any given moment, several dozen cases brought by Western Watersheds are winding through the federal (and, less often, state) court system: injunctions on behalf of endangered species, challenges to government grazing decisions, lawsuits against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Forest Service, the agencies that control federal lands. Western Watersheds keeps its lawyers busy, and its lawyers keep winning.

In 2007 a Western Watersheds lawsuit overturned Bush administration BLM grazing rules governing 160 million acres, which would have reversed Clinton-era reforms. Last fall the group won a court order shutting down sheep grazing on BLM land in western Idaho, to protect endangered bighorn sheep from a domestic-sheep-borne disease that has destroyed entire herds. The group had already expelled the animals from two nearby national forests.  “The only way you can get anything done,” says wolf conservationist Lynne Stone, a founding Idaho Watersheds board member, “is if you sue.”

Central to the legal strategy is a coterie of scientists who monitor the environment, like biologist John Carter, whose 900-acre wildlife preserve in Idaho is named for his Akita, and botanist Beth Painter, whose Wyoming family has been ranching since the 1880s. For her, the evidence against grazing came as a “shock to the the system.”

Then there are Marvel’s personal skirmishes. Kaiser explains: “In Jon’s position, you have a lot of friends and a lot of enemies. And there’s no in between.” Marvel’s gotten into shouting matches with ranchers and government officials; he’s received the occasional death threat. Agency higher-ups have twice issued memos instructing employees to stay away from Marvel, alleging verbal abuse and physical intimidation—in one case, that he screamed at a BLM district ranger and poked him in the stomach. Marvel denies the accusations and takes them as proof of his effectiveness: “We’re getting to them.”

It’s true; he is. Even in defeat, he gets to them. Once, after bidding on a grazing lease, only to see it awarded to a rancher who’d submitted a lower bid, Marvel packed a black briefcase full of $5,000 in $5 bills—the maximum he’d set aside for the auction—and marched into a meeting of the Idaho State Board of Land Commissioners. They knew that if Marvel won the lease, he’d have used it to keep livestock off the allotment. Marvel set the briefcase on the table. He told the commissioners they’d forfeited a considerable sum, and that as fiduciaries for the schoolchildren of Idaho (state-land revenues benefit the school system), they’d violated their constitutional obligations. Then he clicked open the briefcase and flipped it upside down. Cash spilled everywhere. “Everybody went, gasp!, like that,” Marvel says. He chuckles remembering how they all drew back in their chairs. 

Marvel has also taken to carrying a pink pacifier to meetings with ranchers and agency officials. When the ranchers start “whining”—and they always do, he says—Marvel pulls out the pacifier and sets it on the table. “I don’t say a word. They know what it means.”


This past fall, Marvel invited Magazine photographer Dan Dry and me to Idaho. It was early October, a few weeks after the last cows and sheep had been rounded up and moved out to their winter pastures on private ground. Marvel wanted to show us the damage they’d left behind. He wanted to show us Summit Creek flowing through a 125,000-acre grazing allotment, with its unkempt, unhealthy beaver dam and its banks worn down to bare dirt. “Cows did that, of course,” he says, explaining that cattle congregate near water, causing rivers and streams to take an especially hard beating. Banks erode, channels widen and shallow, water temperatures rise. Fish die. Marvel also wanted us to see the East Fork of the Big Lost River, where sediment hammered into the stream by 1,100-pound livestock smothers fish eggs and chokes out underwater oxygen. He wanted us to see Swensen Butte, where the sagebrush is scrawnier than it should be, and ground that ought to be covered with grass lies bare.

The abundance of cheatgrass, an invasive weed, chokes out native grasses.

Almost everywhere he looks, Marvel sees signs of environmental degradation. He fills scrapbooks with photos of ugly places with pretty names: Horse Basin Creek, Spruce Mountain, Willis Creek, Road’s End Meadow. Some of them, like Trout Creek, part of a vast grazing allotment near Jackpot, Nevada, will “never recover in human history,” he says. “It would take another ice age.”

One morning Jeremy Greenberg, a Hailey native who manages the office at Western Watersheds’ headquarters, comes out with us. He’s backpacked and biked in these mountains since childhood, but he never thought anything was wrong until he started working for Marvel. That’s not uncommon, Marvel says. Western landscapes have been ravaged for so long that locals grow up never knowing what their own wilderness is supposed to look like.

Still, Greenberg, like every Western Watersheds adherent, has a horror story, a conversion moment. His was on his first trip into the field with Marvel and a Forest Service district ranger. They came upon a herd of cows huddled around a tank designed to divert water from a nearby stream (a mechanism, Marvel notes, that keeps cattle off the streambanks but at the cost of depleting the streams). The tank had failed, but no rancher had come to fix it. The cows were dying of thirst. When the group drove up, they scattered, except one bull. “He stayed there, sucking for life,” Greenberg says. “He had his tongue on the pipe, which was dripping into his mouth.” At the next stop, they discovered a dead cow next to a trampled spring. The smell was overwhelming. “It was a bad day,” Greenberg says. “I came home numb.”

Marvel nods solemnly. “And I have to say, the district ranger was shocked.” He keeps a mental tally of the officials he’s managed to discompose by showing them broken landscapes under their care. Inside his office hangs a framed, matted photograph of several people milling beside a muddy cleft that looks more like a wound than a stream. The caption, written by Marvel, reads, “Pine Creek Embarrassment Exposes USFS Negligence.”


When the first ranchers began driving livestock north and west from Texas in the 1860s, they thought the grass was limitless, that the prairies would go on forever, inexhaustible. Millions of sheep and cattle marched across the continent every year, consuming everything in their path. “The settlement of the American West is bizarre,” Marvel says, “a complete misperception of what the land and water can do. What happened was exploitation after exploitation.” He can recite a mounting catalog of ranching-related outrages: not just the ruined land and species driven to extinction, but also millions of dollars of annual subsidies in the form of taxpayer-funded fences and cattle guards, public-grazing fees kept ten times below market rate. The livestock industry has a powerful grip on politics. For ranchers, the government has culled wolves, coyotes, and mountain lions; it has ripped out sagebrush, which cows don’t eat, to plant nonnative grazing grasses. The biggest operators—large livestock corporations and millionaire “hobby ranchers”—benefit the most, and often, Marvel says, they prove the worst environmental offenders.

The “cowboy mythology” deeply rankles Marvel, with its notion of ranchers as brave stalwarts, the salt of the earth, and its assumption that cattle belong in the arid West. In wetter states like Florida and Louisiana—both ranching hubs—a cow can live on two acres; out west it needs as many as 100 acres to find forage. “This is an industry that’s only sustainable through massive manipulation of the land,” Marvel says, adding that for all the effort, public-lands ranching yields only 3 percent of the nation’s beef cattle.

There was a time when Marvel didn’t know any of this, when he didn’t bristle at the image of cowboys on horseback, when the word “livestock” didn’t curl his lip. Marvel moved to Idaho after graduate school in Oregon. He and his wife, Stefanie, X’67, settled into the summer cabin his family owned in Stanley, at the bottom of the Sawtooth Mountains. Adjacent to it sprawled the Stanley Basin grazing allotment. Cows would arrive in June and stay until the snow drove them out in November. The Marvels were forever mending fences and chasing cattle off their property; some mornings they’d wake up to drooping eyes and a wet snout just inches from their bedroom window. One week, when Marvel was away and his wife was home alone, a bull crashed through the fence and planted itself in her garden. For days it refused to leave, while she waved sticks at it nervously and tried to get the rancher on the phone.

When the Marvels did talk to the rancher who leased the allotment, the answer they got was, “It’s your problem, not mine.” And he was right: open-range law, a relic of the early West, dictates that it’s up to landowners to fence cattle out, not the ranchers’ job to fence cattle in. “As he learned more and more, he became more and more outraged at what the rancher could get away with,” Stefanie Marvel recalls. One of Western Watersheds’ earliest victories was limiting grazing in the Stanley Basin, after Marvel discovered endangered sockeye salmon returning there to spawn every year.

High up in the Pioneer Mountains, Justine Kaiser and her husband, Steve, are living the Marvels’ Stanley experience on their 30-acre spread, a complex of tiny cabins dating to the 1880s. In every direction the landscape races outward, over creeks, hills, a stand of aspens, a scattering of pines, before heaving upward over the mountains’ split backs. In the distance looms the squared-off peak of the Devil’s Bedstead.

Encircling their property is a grazing allotment occupied every summer by as many as 3,600 cows. The Kaisers spend their summers fixing fences and shooing cattle. “We do two or three cattle runs a day,” Steve Kaiser says. Recently a bull kept breaking down the fence and hiding in the willows. Occasionally a cow falls into a mudhole, and the Kaisers can hear its screams echoing across the valley. When it gets to be too much, they call Marvel for advice.

As we turn to leave, Steve offers an admonition: “Write kindly of Jon. He’s fighting the good fight, and it’s a lonely battle against the powers that be.”


One could argue that Marvel knows something about the powers that be. He grew up in Wil-mington, Delaware, the son of a family that traces its history to an indentured servant arriving from England in 1652. For generations the Marvels were farmers—his great-grandfather grew peach trees—but Marvel’s father and grandfather were lawyers who ran for governor and senator. In 1947 Marvel’s father, Josiah, who died when Marvel was eight, became President Harry Truman’s ambassador to Denmark. Marvel’s grandfather, also Josiah, was president of the American Bar Association. Marvel himself went to boarding school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.

But power and privilege aren’t Marvel’s memory of home; what he remembers is the outdoors. His family lived on a 40-acre farm with a barn, a pond, two donkeys, a horse, chickens, and a vegetable garden. He collected bird nests, amassing 60 of them, lined up according to species: warbler, sparrow, scarlet tanager. He read the complete works of botanist Luther Burbank, father of the plumcot and Russet Burbank potato. He learned the Latin names for local trees. Then, as a teenager, he set out to find a chestnut.

Until the early 1900s, flourishing forests of American chestnut trees stretched from southern Ontario to northern Mississippi. But around 1904 an Asian bark fungus arrived, likely on an imported tree, and within decades three billion American chestnuts were dead. Or all but—after the main stem dies, new shoots can sprout for years before the blight consumes them. Marvel wanted to find one that had produced a nut and use it to cultivate a healthy tree. It would be a way of turning back the devastation, of starting over.

He never found one.

In 1959, when Marvel was 12, his family took a road trip from Arizona to California, Oregon, and Idaho, stopping at national parks along the way. He saw high mountains and wide, roaring rivers. That trip changed him. At 18 he returned to take a summer job clearing ski trails in Sun Valley. “I was a logger,” he declares with a rueful smile, recalling how flying squirrels leapt from the falling trees and soared down the mountain. “They were completely losing their home.” By then Marvel knew he’d be moving to Idaho for good.

At Chicago Marvel majored in history. Summoned twice by the Vietnam draft board, he cofounded an organization in 1966 called We Won’t Go. He went to architecture school and set up his practice in Idaho, designing ecological homes for the Sun Valley crowd. He designed the house in Hailey where he and his wife raised their two children, a place that seems to expand once you step inside.


Eric Davis is one of those whom Marvel calls “welfare ranchers.” A former president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and a wealthy, powerful Idaho stockman, he owns Bruneau Cattle Company, a feedlot, hay farm, and ranch in the high desert of Owyhee County. Every summer his 1,100 cattle graze on federal land.

Just after dawn on our last day in Idaho, Davis, in a dusty hat and canvas coat, shuffles out to greet us in front of his house, a modest stack of siding and cinderblock overlooking the feedlot and hay fields and canyonlands beyond. With him is Charles Lyons, who ranches with his uncle 20 miles away in Mountain Home, raising 400 head of cattle. It’s not an easy living. For smaller ranches like Lyons’s, profit margins have shrunk to near nonexistence. “Kind of scratchy,” he says. The family also relies on his wife’s salary as a seventh-grade teacher. 

Davis motions toward a pickup in the driveway. He has places he wants to show us: stands of mahogany where new trees are sprouting; a field where cheatgrass—a stubborn, invasive weed—is receding; a once-grazed streambank now fenced off from cattle and densely thicketed. “You’re also going to see some cattle impacts,” Davis warns, steering the truck past bare, muddy expanses around water troughs, grass eaten to a dry stubble, cowpies, cow paths, sagebrush rubbed raw. Isolated spots, Davis says, on a 30,000-acre allotment. We catch up with his cattle at a creekbottom on his own land. Ranchers are required to have enough private property to support their livestock through winter, when they’re not allowed to graze public land.

Pretty soon the talk turns to Marvel. “He hasn’t made his living on this country,” Davis says. “He’s just made up his mind that the rest of us are pikers and don’t deserve to be here.” Later he refines the sentiment: “Bless his heart, I guess he thinks he’s doing right, but I think he’s a vindictive SOB.” Most of the lasting environmental damage, he adds, happened during ranching’s first hundred years, when unregulated, unrestrained grazing reduced the range to dust. Where the climate is dry, the land is brittle, Davis says. “Just like a bone, it breaks faster than it heals.” Marvel’s lawsuits, he says, paralyze them even from making improvements. Lyons—who keeps his own scrapbook, showing fields decimated in the fall looking rejuvenated by spring—describes an artificial beaver dam he built years ago to restore a stream and meadow on his own property. “We’re sued whenever we try something like this on public land.”

Western Watersheds is an adversary that ranchers must factor into business decisions. Recently Davis sold a couple hundred cows to pay his lawyers. Two years ago the Environmental Protection Agency fined him $40,000, charging that runoff from his feedlot poisoned a canal leading to the Snake River. Davis denied it, wanted to keep fighting, but gave in because he feared Marvel might join the appeal. 

By midday Davis and Lyons begin adding up the hours they spend trying to avoid run-ins with Marvel. Days on the phone with lawyers, four-hour meetings with BLM officials, range tours with Western Watersheds scientists, nights spent poring over documents. “You’ve got to be full of hate to do what he does,” Lyons concludes. “He takes people that produce, who get on the ground and do something, and picks them apart from over there. We’re fighting for family and communities and landscapes. That’s what keeps us going.”

On the way back to Davis’s house, we stop at a small cemetery along an otherwise empty stretch of road. “These are some of the people that settled this country,” Davis says, stepping down from the truck. Some graves are marked with rocks and rebar, others with august headstones. Except for the wind coming over the hill, the place is silent. Wandering among the graves, Davis and Lyons forget Marvel and his lawsuits and their two visitors from Chicago. They talk only to each other, telling stories they know by heart: the widow in her long grief, the young man who fell from his horse and died, the Irishman who came west looking for gold and ended up here, half-blind and fishing for salmon in the Bruneau River. The dead aren’t their ancestors—neither man’s family goes back more than a generation in Idaho—but they’re forebears. The men and women under these headstones broke the land and put down a foothold. They made possible the lives that Davis and Lyons now lead.


Nathan Sayre, AM’95, PhD’99, a conservationist and geographer at the University of California, Berkeley, says throwing all ranchers off public lands wouldn’t solve the problem. “The question becomes, what happens to the private land?” Richer in water and fertile soil, private ground is often more critical for wildlife, and without public lands some ranchers would graze their own property ceaselessly. Others—perhaps most—would go out of business, carve up their land, and sell it. “Cows or condos” is the slogan, a choice Marvel regards as false. But Sayre says “parcelization” is a risk, even in remote areas. “And then you lose those large, open parcels of land, on the order of tens of thousands of acres, which is the scale at which many ecological processes happen and can be managed—certainly better than if you try managing ecology on a 40-acre scale.”

Underpinning Western Watersheds’ work, Sayre says, is "the ‘central myth’” that “all you have to do is get rid of the cows, and everything will improve.” That’s not always true, he argues, particularly in arid climates. “There are places in the Southwest where 50 or 75 years of rest from livestock have resulted in either no change in vegetation or changes to something very different from what it was before grazing.”


In September 1993, Marvel went hiking with two conservationist friends along Lake Creek, a Salmon River tributary, and saw the banks of the stream eroded and crumbling, the grass eaten to the ground, the streambed guttering downward. When he realized the grazing lease for that parcel was expiring, he formed Idaho Watersheds and applied for it. Nobody had ever tried that before, and, because he was not a rancher, the state land board rejected his application. He filed suit. When he won the case—and the lease—the land board changed the rules. He sued again. Again the rules changed, including an amendment to the Idaho constitution abolishing the auction requirement altogether. And on and on until 1999, when three simultaneous rulings from the Idaho Supreme Court affirmed Marvel’s right to compete for grazing leases. Since then he’s bid for many others, and Lake Creek, fallow for 15 years, has come back lush and green.

“Change is possible,” he says. “It’s easy to say this is already ruined, why bother. But in fact western North America is the only place in the world where humans have a chance to restore natural functions and all the species that were present. How can we not try?”

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"My own private Idaho"
(UChiBLOGo, January 26, 2010)

(UChiBLOGo, March 3, 2010)


View the slide show.