Jon Marvel, the co-founder and executive director for 21 years of the Hailey-based conservation group Western Watersheds Project, will step down from his post at the end of this month. He will be replaced by the organization’s current public lands director, Travis Bruner.
Marvel—refreshingly outspoken or rudely abrasive, depending on whom you ask—has steered Western Watersheds Project toward its audacious goal of ending livestock grazing on public land in the West.
Under his direction, Western Watersheds Project has grown from a group of three conservation activists who began bidding on Idaho state trust land grazing leases to a staff of 14 people keeping an eye on management of public rangelands in 10 states. Though the organization remains far from accomplishing its ultimate goal, it has garnered a reputation as being effective in forcing federal and state land managers to follow environmental laws and their own regulations, often under threat of litigation.
Suzanne Stone, Idaho representative for Defenders of Wildlife, called Western Watersheds Project “a very powerful ally for the environment.”
“They’ve had a very loud voice in raising concerns that haven’t been promoted in Idaho,” she said. “They’ve been paying attention to things that have otherwise gone undocumented.
“They’ve sometimes been considered abrasive, but they’ve been very true to their mission. Sometimes you need bookends to find out where the middle is.”
In the organization’s office above Shorty’s Diner in Hailey, Marvel, 67, reflected upon his tenure. He said that as a result of Western Watersheds Project’s efforts, range managers with the U.S. Forest Service and BLM have started to move away from viewing themselves as working solely for ranchers, rather than for the public at large.
“It’s not the degree of impact that we’d like to see,” he said, “but it’s a definite change from the acquiescent attitude that the agencies had prior to our existence. Because we’re now in the arena, the agencies have to pay attention to what we say, because they know we know what’s going on.
“We don’t fool around. We get right to the point—why are you doing this or that, and how are you going to change what you’re doing?”
Marvel said his organization’s effectiveness is due to the knowledge it has acquired about the arcane world of federal land-management regulations.
“We know the regulatory authority as well as they do,” he said, “which is very unusual [among environmental organizations].”
He pointed to several other, more specific accomplishments as among the organization’s most significant:
Filing the first petition to have sage grouse listed under the Endangered Species Act and repeatedly bringing the U.S. government into court in support of that petition. The result was a court-ordered 2015 deadline for the BLM to draft a management plan for sage grouse in Idaho and Montana.
Winning a federal court decision in 2007 to overturn Bush-administration changes to grazing management policy. Marvel said the court order reinstated public participation in the process and required agencies to review grazing conditions when renewing permits.
Effected permanent retirement of grazing leases on 130,000 acres of public land in the Owyhee River drainage in southwestern Idaho via money provided by the Sagebrush Habitat Conservation Fund. The fund was established in 2010 when the El Paso Corp. provided $15 million in return for a promise from Western Watersheds Project not to sue over the route of the corporation’s then-proposed gas pipeline from Wyoming to Oregon.
“It’s a definite change from the acquiescent attitude that the agencies had prior to our existence.”
Western Watersheds Project
Winning three Idaho Supreme Court decisions handed down on one day in 1999. One invalidated an amendment to the Idaho Constitution that made grazing leases on state lands permanent and another ruled that those leases need to be offered at auction, and that the state cannot discriminate in favor of ranchers over lessees who intend to use the land for conservation purposes. Marvel said the decisions resulted in more money being made available for Idaho’s public schools.
The organization began its battles as Idaho Watersheds Project in 1993 after Marvel and two other environmental activists, Linn Kincannon and Lynne Stone, were inspecting the damage done by cows to an allotment on BLM land in the East Fork of the Salmon drainage. They discovered that a parcel of state trust land, which raises money primarily for public schools, was in the midst of the allotment, and that the 10-year lease on that parcel was set to expire the next month. They decided to form an organization to bid on it to rest the land from grazing.
When the State Board of Land Commissioners awarded the lease to the rancher despite the fact that Idaho Watersheds Project had outbid him, the fledgling organization took the state to court. Marvel and his associates lost in district court, but appealed to the state Supreme Court. Their 1999 victory there resulted in an award of the lease to Idaho Watersheds Project.
“Initially, the idea was to find some sort of leverage that could rescue public lands from the critically disabling policies that were degrading watersheds and fisheries and even recreation,” Marvel said.
As the activists expanded their area of operations, the name was changed to Western Watersheds Project.
The “watersheds” theme came from a proposal by John Wesley Powell, director of the U.S. Geological Survey from 1881-1894, to create states from the Western territories based on watershed boundaries.
“Watersheds define the West in ways that aren’t understood in the rest of the country,” Marvel said.
He added that Powell’s idea “was ignored in ways that have resulted in very negative outcomes for many values.”
Marvel attributes much of the organization’s success to its lawyers, particularly those with Boise-based Advocates for the West. However, he said, those successes have been the result of a partnership.
“Without our field work and our regulatory knowledge, they couldn’t have developed the cases they have,” he said.
Marvel acknowledges that the organization has not succeeded on substantially changing public perceptions about ranching, which, according to polls, remain very favorable. He said most people don’t realize that most holders of public-land grazing permits are absentee owners, often wealthy individuals or corporations.
“Only 30 to 35 percent are old-fashioned ma-and-pa-type ranches,” he said.
He said that trend is continuing, and predicted that public-lands ranching will collapse before too long due solely to its marginal economics. He pointed out that in Custer County, ranching provides only 4 percent of the jobs.
Marvel said that after retirement, he will remain on the three-person board of the Sagebrush Habitat Conservation Fund, and, following a five-week trip in April to visit his two grandsons, will continue as a volunteer with Western Watersheds Project.
“I’ll still be involved with public lands decision-making, because I live here,” he said.
Greg Moore: email@example.com