IDAHO FALLS, Idaho -- The Western Watersheds Project started its fight against grazing on public lands in 1993 by brandishing briefcases stuffed with cash at public hearings on lease sales.
But the nonprofit has taken its public relations campaign against politically wired ranchers to the courts, becoming one of the country's most litigious environmental groups.
The group has scored big legal victories that have forced significant changes in how federal and state agencies manage grazing permits.
And it's made plenty of enemies.
Ranchers call the group "public enemy No. 1." Earlier this year, a dozen Wyoming ranchers filed a complex lawsuit that accuses the group of trespassing to take water samples. Still in its early stages, the lawsuit could stretch on for months or even years and put an enormous strain on Western Watersheds' limited resources (Greenwire, Nov. 18).
The lawsuit catches Western Watersheds at a crossroad. Jon Marvel, its charismatic founder, stepped down from his post atop the Hailey, Idaho-based group earlier this year. He hired a new executive director, but he acknowledged the difficulty of fundraising.
"The question for Western Watersheds now that Jon has stepped away is, can they continue to sustain this without his animating presence?" said Johanna Wald, a retired Natural Resources Defense Council attorney who has known Marvel for more than 20 years.
"He is a unique individual, and he has done a very unique thing. It is very hard to start and sustain a nonprofit environmental organization, particularly one that is working on an issue that is as little-appreciated as the one he is working on."
Marvel, 67, grew up in Delaware and became an activist during the environmental movement of the early 1960s after reading Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" when he was 15. After attending the University of Chicago for his undergraduate degree, he earned his master's in architecture from the University of Oregon.
He settled in Idaho and began working as an architect. For 20 years, he kept coming across tracts degraded by grazing cattle.
Increasingly, Marvel grew angry. He struggled in vain to force federal and state agencies to take action. And he pressed groups like NRDC to file lawsuits, but he found their response underwhelming.
So in 1993 he launched the Idaho Watersheds Project, a three-man outfit that tried to purchase and tie up grazing leases for state lands.
In a recent interview, Marvel recalled butting heads with the "good ol' rancher boy network."
His secret weapon: theatrics.
Marvel showed up at a public hearing ready to bid on a tract between Ketchum and Sun Valley by offering a briefcase packed with $5,000 in cash.
He called for the governor, attorney general and state land commissioners to look at the greenbacks they were turning away by letting the lease go back to a local rancher for less.
As he dumped the briefcase -- which was stuffed with $5 bills topped by $100s -- on the table, the crowd of about 75 cheered, he recalled.
"It was an excellent bit of theater," he recalled, that "caused a lot of consternation."
After running into roadblocks with that tactic, Marvel quickly pivoted to the law. He looked for ways regulators' handling of grazing was running afoul of the state constitution, National Environmental Policy Act, Federal Land Policy and Management Act, Endangered Species Act, and even the Clean Water Act. He sued and quickly earned some victories. Because of one of the group's early lawsuits, for example, it is now legal to bid on expiring state grazing leases to not graze on them.
Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt tried something similar during the Clinton administration. He issued regulations that allowed for conservation nonuse of grazing permits, but those rules were eventually vacated in court when challenged by ranchers.
Marvel instilled in Western Watersheds an insurgent's mindset.
He promotes the notion that the group is David in a death struggle against the ranchers' Goliath.
A challenge for the nonprofit, he said, is ranchers have cultivated the notion of a lone cowboy on horseback herding cattle on the range.
That image has endured -- from John Wayne movies to Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy's high-profile standoff earlier this year to protest the Bureau of Land Management's efforts to round up his cattle over unpaid grazing fees. Even the University of Wyoming mascot is a cowboy on his horse.
That image is a myth, Marvel said, adding that less than 3 percent of beef eaten in the United States has come from an animal that's grazed on public lands. Most beef, he said, comes from large farming operations.
While its contribution to U.S. food supplies is scant, grazing, he said, is the "single largest anthropogenic impact on the face of the Earth."
He expressed frustration that larger environmental groups haven't shown enthusiasm for the grazing fight.
"It's always a challenge with any nonprofit to create an entity that is going to have an impact without offending too many people," he said. "A lot of national big green organizations are pretty averse to negative publicity and actual conflict, especially in the courtroom. They are admirable in many ways, but I think they fall down out of fear of standing up for what they believe."
Attorney Bobby McEnaney, part of NRDC's public lands team, was complimentary of Marvel's work, but he noted that the group focuses solely on litigation, while NRDC tries to build political support for its efforts.
"If you win a grazing lawsuit, that can end up being nullified by Congress," he said. "That's happened multiple times."
McEnaney characterized public lands grazing as a "third-rail issue" that is "embedded with political power."
"It's been very difficult for any environmental organization to find the magic sauce to approach this issue without inflaming our political supporters," he said, "especially the conservative right wing."
Ranchers return fire
As Western Watersheds found its footing, it scored victories that set valuable precedents, particularly during the George W. Bush administration.
In 2006, the group challenged rules that would have eased restrictions on grazing for 150 million acres of public lands and reduced BLM's ability to sanction ranchers. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Western Watersheds, ruling that the regulations violated several environmental laws.
Western Watersheds has frequently filed lawsuits seeking to undercut BLM's resource management plans and has gotten some for Idaho and Wyoming thrown out by the courts.
And last year, the group partnered with another nonprofit and two ranchers to permanently retire 130,000 acres of BLM-managed grazing allotments that serve as habitat for bighorn sheep, sage grouse and other species.
The group now has operations -- albeit in many single-activist shops -- in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon and Montana.
That success raised the ire of ranchers, who view Western Watersheds as a threat to their way of life.
"If I had to say who is public enemy No. 1, it would be Western Watersheds Project," said Jim Magagna of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.
Magagna said Western Watersheds "really isn't focused on what is the best way to manage the natural resource."
"They find every tool they can to put up these challenges," he said.
In the recent lawsuit against the nonprofit, more than a dozen Wyoming ranchers are claiming the group's representative violated their property rights by trespassing to collect water samples as part of a campaign to force state regulators to address contamination from livestock wastes in waterways. Western Watersheds denies all of the allegations and has moved to dismiss the lawsuit.
Magagna also questioned whether the group is as effective as it claims.
Because of its lawsuits, he said, BLM, ranchers and state authorities are falling behind in completing environmental assessments that would improve grazing plans.
"If the goal were the resource, then they would work with us to meet their goal and our goal, as well," he said. "With Western Watersheds, there is no room for collaboration.
"It's not about the resource, in my view. It's about their goal of eliminating livestock grazing."
New executive director
Marvel has handed the reins of the organization to Travis Bruner, the new executive director.
At 35, Bruner is younger than a lot of the group's staff. He is portly and bearded and has two passions -- the fight against grazing, which spurred his going to law school, and country music. He plays pedal steel guitar in several bands.
He took over as executive director in March, and three months later the lawsuit was filed by attorney Karen Budd-Falen, a property rights crusader whom Bruner calls his group's "nemesis."
The lawsuit is a clear message to Western Watersheds to back off, and Bruner acknowledged that it knocked him off balance.
"Western Watersheds Project has never dealt with anything like this before," he said. "Certainly, it kept me up at night for a while there at first. ... It just wasn't something I was prepared for right away."
But Bruner said the group is confident and standing its ground against a "fruitless" lawsuit.
"I certainly feel confident in our position now," he said.
And Bruner said his group's goal is protecting the environmental value of Western public lands.
"That's 250 million acres of public lands," he said, "that are important habitat and are great places for humans to go and experience what it's like to be in nature."
Like what you see?
We thought you might.
Request a trial now.