John Marvel H AILEY, Idaho Perched on a shelf in architect Jon Marvel’s office are four plastic cows.
“They remind me of what’s out there,” he said.
What’s out there, according to Marvel, are hordes of cattle, tromping across Idaho’s public lands, decimating range grasses and fouling streams. Marvel wants that to stop.
Forty-five miles away, third-generation rancher John Faulkner has real cows and sheep. He grazes them on public land.
“It’s good country, and we’re taking care of it,” he said.
Thus is framed a new type of range war: Sun Valley architect versus southern Idaho rancher. Both call themselves environmentalists.
Marvel’s battle plan sounds innocuous. He goes to state auctions and tries to outbid ranchers for the right to graze cattle on state land.
“What’s extreme about the free market?” he said recently. “They can outbid me.”
He and his group, the Idaho Watersheds Project, say they want to let the land rest. They predict the range grasses will grow lush, the muddy streams will clear.
“I was tired of writing letters on public policy issues and seeing them end up put in the file,” Marvel said. “We’re going to provide a laboratory to demonstrate what these streams could be. That’s what they’re afraid of.”
“They” are people like Faulkner, whose families have grazed sheep and cattle on public land for decades.
“I feel I’m an environmentalist, because I’m out there working all the time,” Faulkner said. “I don’t think he even knows what the hell he’s talking about.”
Faulkner and Marvel went head to head at an auction last November, when Marvel successfully outbid Faulkner for a 10-year grazing lease on 520 acres of state land. Price: $400. Plus $335 a year in grazing fees.
“He’s spending his money for nothing,” said Faulkner.
Bob Sears, executive vice president of the Idaho Cattle Association in Boise, thinks Marvel is just a publicity seeker.
“He can take those newspaper clippings to the little old ladies in California and Florida and say `Look, I’m fighting the ranchers,”’ Sears said.
He argued that ranchers are taking care of the land, rotating pasture and fencing off salmon spawning areas. Some areas may look overgrazed, he says, but they’ll bounce back quickly.
“It’s just like taking your lawnmower over a high spot and scalping it,” Sears said. “It looks pretty bad today, but in a couple weeks, you wouldn’t even know that spot was there.”
Plus, he said, as the grass grows back, wildlife likes to eat the new shoots.
“They can’t handle that tough, brittle, dry, coarse grass,” Sears said.
Marvel was a Chicago college student when he came to Idaho in the mid-‘60s looking for a summer job. He ended up cutting trees on Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain.
In 1969, history degree in hand, he came back. He and his wife, Stefanie, bought a cabin in remote Stanley, Idaho.
“I liked the spaces here,” he recalls. “I like it not being so crowded.”
After a few years, Marvel went back to school to study architecture. Twelve years after opening his office in Hailey, near Sun Valley, he’s designed about 160 buildings, mostly homes.
Marvel argues not only that public lands ranching is environmentally destructive, but that it’s an unfair subsidy.
Ranchers pay for grazing not by the acre, but by Animal Unit Months. An AUM is the amount of food a cow with a nursing calf will eat in a month. An acre of lush valley contains more AUMs than an acre of dry rangeland.
In 1974, Idaho ranchers paid $4 per AUM to lease state land. According to the Consumer Price Index, that $4 is worth $12.02 in 1994 dollars.
Instead, today’s rancher pays $5.15. In 1974 dollars, that’s $1.71. In two decades, the cost of leasing state land has actually dropped by more than half.
Sears said the land still costs too much. The $4 in 1974 was “an arbitrary figure,” he said. Even $5.15 is too much, he added.
The real value of the land, he said, is closer to what the federal government charges. This year, that’s $1.61 per AUM.
“We don’t mind paying a little bit more because the money’s going to the schools,” Sears said.
The state puts all lease money into its public schools. Last year, Idaho ranchers paid $1,077,552 in grazing fees. If anything, Marvel argues, he’s driving up the amount of money schools get.
Over in the state Capitol, Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa said that’s a nearsighted view.
“If it’s driving people out of business,” he said, “it’s not the highest and best use of the land.”
Cenarrusa, a Carey sheep rancher and Land Board member, argued that the state’s livestock industry needs the grazing leases to stay competitive. He says he’s seen a rancher weep with relief upon learning Marvel isn’t going to bid on nearby land.
“He said `That’s my livelihood,”’ Cenarrusa said. “If they’re paying all they can pay, I don’t consider that a subsidy.”
Many ranches have used nearby state lands for 50, 60, 70 years, Cenarrusa said. Grazing leases are included in the property value of a ranch.
“By and large, he is mischievous,” Cenarrusa said of Marvel. “It’s made the ranchers nervous. They have a family to feed, children to send to school, and taxes to pay.”
Just as important, he said, Marvel’s group is targeting land with creeks and streams. In arid southern Idaho, that’s rare and valuable land.
Since forming his group in September 1993, Marvel has won four land bids and lost one.
He has yet to take over a single acre. Every time he’s won, ranchers have appealed to the state Land Board to intervene.
The Land Board has only considered one appeal. In it, the board reversed its vote and awarded the lease to a rancher, even though the rancher refused to bid.
Marvel is now appealing the case to the state Supreme Court. The Land Board will consider the other appeals in a month or two.
“I’ve got to say he is doing some good, in a way,” Cenarrusa said. “He’s calling attention to the livestock people that they have to be good stewards of the land.”
On Jan. 20, Marvel announced the group plans to bid on 1,290 acres of rangeland near Challis leased to William Hewlitt and David Packard, computer magnates.
Marvel scoffs at the suggestion he’s much of a threat to the state’s livestock industry. His group wants to lease 40,000 acres over the next decade - roughly 2 percent of the 1.8 million acres the state leases out for grazing.
U.S. law prohibits non-ranchers from bidding on federal lands.
Cenarrusa wants the Legislature to do the same. That nearly happened last March. A bill to restrict the people who can bid on a grazing lease overwhelmingly passed both the state House of Representatives and Senate.
Six days after lawmakers went home, Andrus vetoed the bill, saying it would grant exclusive use of the state’s grazing lands to the livestock industry.
“With House Bill 912 on the books, the cowboys will have engineered the great terrain robbery of Idaho,” Andrus wrote in his veto.
The Cattle Association’s Sears says his group will push for a similar bill this year.
“Then Mr. Marvel will have to look for other causes,” he said. “We’ve got to make him go away. He won’t go away on his own.”
Marvel expects such a bill to pass this year. If it says only ranchers can bid on rangeland, Marvel says he’ll rename his group the Idaho Watersheds Ranch. If the law says cattle must be grazed on the land, he said, the group will put out a single cow.
“The biggest thing we’re fighting is the myth of the West,” he said. “There’s a nostalgia out there - a belief in this as a wholesome and rewarding way of life. People have this romantic image of what it means to be out on the range.”
If people want to preserve the ranching tradition, Marvel suggested a theme park: “The Historic Ranch Program.”
“They can have large tins of poison for the coyotes there, they can have bear traps, they can have water quality that would kill an elephant,” he says, without humor. “We don’t want to deny our children their heritage.”
Then he paused.
“This is absolutely part of American history,” he said, “but it ought to be history.”