Gem State ‘Heaven’s Gate’

By Michael H. O’Donnell

Nothing stinks worse than fresh cow pies cooking in the summer sun with a bloated bureaucracy lying on the pulverized banks of a western stream, emitting the stench of subsidized wealth.

That’s how Jon Marvel, Idaho architect turned ecological warrior, sees it.

And nothing riles ranchers, especially corporate ones, more than people poking their noses into western tradition…even if the stated goal is to preserve the landscapes and watersheds of the Mountain West forever.

So I wasn’t surprised to read that the political forces in favor of private livestock grazing on public lands rallied the support of the BLM and convinced it to charge Marvel and his Western Watersheds Project with providing “false information” on a grazing permit application.

For years, conservation groups have argued that BLM stands for Bureau of Livestock and Mining. It looks like the federal agency is living up to its nickname and siding with the big buck-a-roos. Corporate cowboys like Hop-along Simplot are slapping the BLM sheriff on the back.

What have Marvel and his sneaky band of interlopers been doing to this federal and state public land? They’ve been poaching leases. In an effort to protect and preserve lands they believe are over-grazed and abused, they have been paying us more than the ranchers to secure 10-year leases.

Then they do the unthinkable, and an alleged BLM rule-breaker. They don’t put cows or sheep on it to steal feed from elk and deer during the abbreviated growing season of the high plains.

The Western Watersheds Project actually had to take the Idaho Land Board to court to force it to accept more money…money for silly things like the state school endowment fund. The Idaho Supreme Court ultimately decided it was in the public’s best interest to allow leases on public land to go to the highest bidder. However, sweetheart leases for publicly owned resort property in North Idaho remain intact, much to the chagrin of Idaho’s Republican Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. But, that’s another story.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch.

The vast majority of Idaho’s two million acres of state managed public land has been devoted to grazing leases. Money from these 10-year use permits is earmarked to provide income to public schools. Historically, the permits have been granted with no competitive bidding. Monetary returns to the school endowment have been skinnier than an anorexic steer at the end of a long cattle drive.

On a grander scale, the BLM manages about 160 million acres of public land for grazing in the West. Those in the bovine business pay about $1.38 per animal per month (AMU) for the privilege of having them dine on the prairie’s plate. Marvel has been quoted as saying this is less than what he pays to feed his pet hamster every month. And the T-bones on a hamster are pretty hard to grill.

A Web site managed by the BLM states the main objective of grazing on public lands is: “to ensure the long-term health and productivity of these lands and to create multiple environmental benefits that result from healthy watersheds.”

Critics of grazing on public lands say the no-bid leases and cheap AMU’s amount to a mission of subsidizing a select industry and bygone lifestyle at the expense of the public and environment. Mr. Marvel is the most effective and pesky critic roaming their range.

I suspect many big ranchers would pass up a wolf in the crosshairs to put his hide on the wall. This week’s citations from the BLM’s Challis office made me think of a scene from Michael Cimino’s mega-flop movie “Heaven’s Gate.” I’m apparently one of the two or three people in the country who thought it was a compelling piece of history brought to life on the screen.

For those who have never seen it, (and those numbers are legion) it is a fact-based story about the range wars of Wyoming in the 1890s. Rich cattle barons were fed up with outside immigrants coming to Johnson County and homesteading. As the ruling class, the land belonged to them.

Upset with the intrusion by “outsiders,” the Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association president, played with chilling precision by Sam Waterston, tells a gathering of ranchers he has a solution for these “thieves and anarchists” who are invading their cowboy kingdom. He holds up a sheet of paper and says it contains a list of the people who need to be killed to set an example for others who would challenge their grip on the halter of history.

“We have the blessing of the governor,” he tells the men in suits and cowboy boots seated around him as he waves his “death list.”

To help them fulfill their plan, Waterston and the ranchers hire a small army of men who are long on shooting skills and short on sympathy for poor folks.

Things have changed. A century later, groups like the Idaho Cattle Association and the big grazing operators in the state have turned to the local BLM sheriff for a little help rounding up the anarchists. Jon Marvel should consider himself lucky.

Michael H. O’Donnell is a state and national award winning newspaper columnist living in Pocatello. He currently teaches business education and computer applications at Blackfoot High School.