Letters from the West

Rocky Barker: Idaho anti-grazing activist Jon Marvel has retired

Jon Marvel has left the building.

The man who told ranchers he would let them keep their country music but tried to send them into extinction has retired from Western Watersheds Project, the organization he formed in 1993. Now a new generation takes over and other groups are moving in, seeking to fill the void left by Marvel’s departure.

Marvel has had a dramatic impact on Idaho. Western Watersheds and its attorney Laird Lucas forced the Idaho Land Board and Legislature to operate its range lands, indeed all of its endowment land, under its constitutional mandate to maximize long-term financial returns, meaning the group could bid against ranchers for — and drive up the price of — grazing rights. The legal victories its attorneys won with Lucas’ Advocates for the West forced federal land managers to hold ranchers accountable for their operations’ effects on water quality and wildlife habitat.

Western Watersheds remains a major player in the legal fight over protecting the sage grouse and its habitat.

Marvel was a Hailey architect when he walked into the public lands grazing debate in 1993, filling that national environmental groups had created. Marvel sucked the oxygen out of rooms with his angry and theatrical performances, attracting funding and a core of supporters.

Other environmental groups that worked with ranchers and other local residents to protect Western landscapes were forced to back away from Marvel and Western Watersheds. Those groups were unwilling or uninterested in attacking the cowboy culture that is the foundation of the political support for the public land ranchers, who number about 20,000 and account for about 3 percent of the nation’s beef.

For all his success, Marvel didn’t push many cows off the public land. The nature of the regulatory and legal system that has developed around public land grazing makes it hard and time-consuming to remove cows. Consider Cliven Bundy, the Bunkerville, Nev., rancher who owes the government more than $1.1 million for back grazing fees and fines. He attracted hundreds of gun-toting crazies to hold off the Bureau of Land Management when it sought to confiscate his cows in 2014.

Western Watershed’s new executive director is Travis Bruner, 36. The 2013 graduate of the University of Colorado law school grew up in Bozeman, Mont., where he hunted for Hungarian partridge and ruffed grouse in Montana’s big country.

Everywhere he saw cow pies and overgrazed land, where the water table had dropped due to the destruction of stream banks. He says he shares the same principles, mission and strategy as Marvel.

“But the delivery is different,” Bruner said.

He doesn’t eat beef or chicken but he eats fish and wild game, he said. He thinks economics will eventually drive ranchers from the public land, but he wants to help the process along with court victories that lead to policy changes. He’s not ready to accept without challenge the cowboy myth that pervades American culture.

But he doesn’t intend to be mean about it.

The other young activist to rise out of Marvel’s legacy is Brian Ertz, 32, of Hailey. For seven years, Ertz served as Marvel’s media director. A Boise State University graduate, he’s now in his last year of law school at Concordia in Boise. He serves as the chair of the Sierra Club’s national grazing team, which took him to Washington to lobby Congress. What he found is that there is no major grassroots base for anti-grazing activism to push back against the powerful ranching political front.

So Ertz and his wolf-activist sister, Natalie Ertz, have started a new group, Wildlands Defense. They’re focusing on grazing, wolves and blacktailed prairie dogs in Colorado. But their main tool is community organizing. Brian Ertz still supports Western Watersheds, but said its over-reliance on litigation allows Congress to overrule its court victories.

“We need to get out the vote at the local level,” Ertz said. “As much as environmentalists advocate science, they don’t talk much about political science.”

These competing visions, along with those of groups such as the Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, the Wilderness Society and the Idaho Conservation League that work with ranchers, ensure that Idaho conservationism will have a diversity of voices and approaches, even as Marvel rides into the sunset.