• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Idaho Grazing Rights Chew New Turf

Air Date: Week of

In Idaho, an environmentalist is seeking to outbid ranchers for leases to grazing land he wants to protect from the cattle. Jyl Hoyt from member station KBSU in Boise reports on how one activist is seeking to change the landscape there — politically and physically.


NUNLEY: The political tug of war over grazing on Federal lands moves onto new turf this month. Under new rules imposed by the Clinton Administration, environmental controls over Federal grazing allotments are being tightened, and the public will get more input into the management of public grazing lands. But many western members of Congress have vowed to overturn those rules and put ranchers in the driver's seat. The grazing battle rages on at the state level, too. An Idaho environmental activist has sued over a new law giving ranchers exclusive access to some state lands. John Marvel says many of these areas have been seriously damaged by over-grazing, and he's fought back with such novel tactics as outbidding ranchers for the right to use the land. But his methods have drawn criticism, even from other environmentalists. From member station KBSU in Boise, Jyl Hoyt has this profile of an activist who's kicking up a lot of dust on Idaho's rangeland.

HOYT: John Marvel is a trim, silver-haired architect with a strong environmental streak. We leave his second-story office in Haley, a small town in the mountains of central Idaho, climb into his rig, and make our way through a steady rain to Silver Creek, a spring-fed waterway Ernest Hemingway used to fish in. The road turns from asphalt to gravel to mud before we finally stop, pull out a pair of umbrellas, and make our way to the water's edge.

(Footfalls on gravel)

HOYT: We take shelter under a large willow, and Marvel explains that for years there's been no livestock grazing on this side of Silver Creek.

MARVEL: These willows here are very tall. They're probably 20 feet tall. It's really remarkable what this " this sense of life. And here's some wild rose here, and there's also some red twig dogwood here, too, that brilliant red color.

HOYT: But on the other side of Silver Creek, there are no willows, no dogwoods, and no wild roses. Marvel points across the 50-foot-wide stream.

MARVEL: And we see here a very badly dull-colored landscape of dead grasses and virtually no willows or woody species at all extending for over a mile. This is literally from many, many years " well, over a hundred years " of livestock destruction of this riparian area.

HOYT: Marvel says stream banks all over the west are so overgrazed by livestock that they're lifeless. Marvel wants to change that.

MARVEL: We want to act as a tool to change management on public lands.

HOYT: Marvel's new group, Idaho Watersheds Project, is trying to get rights to lease state lands that traditionally have been used by ranchers. And instead of grazing livestock on them, he wants to fence cattle off the lands.

MARVEL: And protect them in ways that can provide an example, as this one is here, to what could happen in terms of the environmental protection of the land.

HOYT: Marvel's effort has succeeded, sort of. He submitted the high bid at auctions for grazing leases, but the state land board has ended up giving the leases to ranchers anyway.

(People speaking at a gathering. A man speaks: "Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats.")

HOYT: The land board is made of Idaho's top 5 elected officials, 3 of whom have agriculture backgrounds. Board member Pete Cenarusa has been Idaho's Secretary of State for almost 3 decades. Sinarusa's family grazes livestock on public lands, and he says the livestock industry brings more than $700 million into Idaho's economy. The 77-year-old Secretary of State blusters at Marvel's efforts to stop grazing on the state lands.

CENARUSA: He testified. He said no, I'm not going to graze any livestock. I'm just going to fence off the stream and that's it. He didn't comply with the rules. The rules state that that's a grazing lease. He wasn't complying with it; he said I'm not going to graze anything. He admitted that.

HOYT: The parcels that John Marvel is bidding on all have streams which make grazing in surrounding areas possible. The strategic importance of the streams isn't lost on Marvel, or Bob Sears of the Idaho Cattle Association.

SEARS: The surrounding areas aren't good to anyone at all, and drastically limits the grazing process for the overall allotment.

HOYT: Sears admits stream banks have been trampled down by cattle. But he says ranchers have improved grazing methods and are now protecting riparian areas. To thwart efforts like John Marvel's, the legislature has changed the law to dictate the way certain state lands can be used. While only a small fraction of people in Idaho actually work in ranching and farming, an increasing number of people value land that is open and natural. But most political power in Idaho is held by agricultural interests, who are determined to make sure the state continues its traditional character. Land board member J.D.Williams.

WILLIAMS: Idaho's changing, there's no question that we have become an urban state. But we're still a western state, and I think the western lifestyle is very much a part of our heritage. And part of that heritage isbeing attacked now.

MARVEL: Well, the reality is that sure, there's a war on the west. But it's not being waged by people from New Jersey or Atlanta, Georgia, or Chicago.

HOYT: John Marvel of the Idaho Watersheds Project is from Delaware. But he's been in Idaho several decades. As we drive back to town, he explains his version of the much touted war on the west.

MARVEL: It's been being waged by those who've lived here for the last 120 years. Where they've succeeded in destroying some of the most extraordinary fauna and flora that's ever existed on the face of the Earth, all for personal gain through ignorance.

HOYT: Many other Idaho environmentalists think John Marvel's analysis is sound, but say his tactics are so polarizing that they've kept politicians from forming coalitions to push through moderate environmental protection. Marvel remains undaunted, though, by criticism from either side. And he continues to apply for grazing leases. The Idaho Supreme Court is expected to rule on one of his contested leases later this year. For Living on Earth, I'm Jyl Hoyt in Boise.



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth