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Idaho Grazing Lands Eyed as Cash Cow for Schools

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Hailey, Idaho

In Jon Marvel's world view, cows are the root of all evil.

An environmentalist, Mr. Marvel describes cattle as a plague on the ranges they roam here in southern Idaho and throughout the West.

Lumbering, stupid beasts, they trample fragile ecosystems and turn public lands into wastelands.

Mr. Marvel, a 48-year-old architect, has long campaigned to protect natural resources from these hoofed locusts.

And recently he added a new crime to his litany of transgressions of the cow: Bessie and her bovine friends are robbing Idaho schools of money.

Money for Schools

For more than a century, cattle have grazed on Idaho's school-trust land, some two million acres of federal property awarded to the state upon its admission to the United States in 1890.

Like most Western states, Idaho was given this land to generate revenue for its public schools--a policy dating back to the late 1700's.

But the state, Mr. Marvel argues, has ignored this mandate. Students have gone without, he says, so that cowboys--often millionaire businessmen and movie stars in chaps and boots--could lease school-trust lands at dirt-cheap prices.

Mr. Marvel has yet to line up many allies in the school community. And ranchers, naturally, do not take kindly to his arguments--they consider him a gadfly activist and have nicknamed him "Captain Marvel."

Still, this dust storm over Idaho's school-trust lands is being watched closely by conservationists throughout the West.

Having tackled grazing on federal lands with mixed results, conservationists are turning their attention to state lands at a time when education advocates are trying to squeeze more school revenues from them. (See related story.)

Tramping recently through the muck and manure of a rancher's state-leased cow pasture near here, Mr. Marvel described his mortal enemy as an "exotic alien species." Although a part of every American's image of the West, he said, cows actually are native to European countries.

"That's what I say--send them back to Poland," he said, half joking.

Cattle Crossing

In 1993, Mr. Marvel formed the Idaho Watersheds Project, an environmental group focused on protecting land around water sources.

Cattle, Mr. Marvel said, inflict the most damage on streams and creeks and their banks because they often congregate near water, crushing the fragile root systems of trees and bushes. Erosion results, spoiling the spawning beds of such endangered fish as the Chinook salmon.

To protect such areas, the Watersheds Project has started a bidding war for the land. Six times since December 1993, Mr. Marvel has applied for an expiring lease to grazing land, forcing a public auction.

Eventually, the group aims to hold the 10-year leases on up to 40,000 acres of state land and close it to grazing. The goal: Give ecologically damaged areas a rest and chance to rehabilitate.

Cash Cow for Schools?

Such a land grab could also pay off for schools. Historically, auctions and bidding wars are rare, as land is often passed from one generation of ranchers to the next without a lease challenge.

That could change with the Watersheds Project throwing cash around. At an auction this spring where Mr. Marvel was the only challenger to the current leaseholder of a 640-acre plot, he drove the asking price for control of the lease to $13,550 before folding.

Practicing such market-based environmentalism, Mr. Marvel said, shows "that we aren't just a negative force out there designed to stop something from happening."

(See education budget may seem like chicken scratch, few Idaho educators sneeze at extra revenue, however small. The state ranks 46th in the country in per-pupil spending at $4,200.

"I'd like to maximize what we get from all revenue sources, but especially from these lands," said David Neumann, the superintendent of the 350-student Genesee district in northern Idaho. "I'm concerned that they are not being managed in the interests of the kids."

Grazing lands could be a huge cash cow for schools, Mr. Marvel contends.

If the lands were leased at fair-market value as determined through competitive bidding, the return to education--now about $1 million a year--could easily triple, he estimates.

Sell the lands and invest the proceeds, he continues, and schools could easily collect $12 million annually.

Under this scenario, schools would also gain income from the local property taxes charged on the land.

But nothing will change, according to Mr. Marvel, until ranchers are exposed as the state's biggest welfare recipients.

Since 1974, he said, the cost to lease state grazing land has dropped 60 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars, to about 55 cents an acre.

"We have rats in the closet," he said. "They have everything in there set up just the way they like it. But when we open the door and put the big searchlight on them, people aren't going to like what they see, and the rats will go scurrying away."

Billion-Dollar Industry

Ranchers, however, are not running for cover yet.

"We are not redneck rapists of the land," said Katie Breckenridge, the owner of an 1,800-acre ranch in Picabo, just south of Hailey. "We are strong environmentalists."

Ms. Breckenridge and other ranchers say the state does not subsidize them and that nothing but cattle ranching could turn a profit for schools on much of Idaho's arid land.

They say cattle ranching is a billion-dollar industry in Idaho whose spinoff revenues support local economies. The state captures some of that money through wage, sales, and gasoline taxes and uses it, in turn, to help support the public schools.

Such indirect income that flows to schools has to be considered, argued State Sen. Laird Noh, the chairman of the Senate committee on natural resources.

Mr. Marvel's bidding war might give a short-term boost to schools, he said, but fencing off the land would make it economically sterile and deprive schools of cash in the long run.

"There's no question that the cattle industry is the largest single economic factor in the state of Idaho," Mr. Noh, a sheep rancher, said. "Certainly, it's hard to argue that the industry of buying state leases and leaving them sit is also an important economic factor in the state."

So far, the state's powers have sided with the ranchers.

Mr. Marvel made the highest bid in four of the six auctions in which he vied for a lease, but the land board stepped in each time and ruled that his group was not an appropriate leaseholder.

When the Watersheds Project filed a lawsuit claiming that the board--made up of five of the state's highest elected officials, including the governor--had overstepped its authority, a district court also ruled against it.

Perhaps worse for Mr. Marvel, the legislature this spring passed a law--called the "anti-Marvel bill" by some--that allows the land board to give ranchers preference in awarding leases even when another party has made a higher bid.

The Cowboy Heritage

The economics of the school-trust issues have at times been drowned out by personal attacks. Ranchers charge that Mr. Marvel is a militant rabble-rouser with too much time on his hands.

His talk about protecting resources "is a sham," said Frank Bachman, the public-lands manager for Simplot Livestock Company, one of the state's largest ranchers. "Bottom line--he's anti-livestock, and his goal in life is to remove all livestock from federal and state lands."

Mr. Marvel counters that a hard-charging approach is needed to challenge ranchers' clout.

He says that ranching as a mainstay of the West's economy died nearly two decades ago with John Wayne, one of Hollywood's favorite cowboy heroes. But convincing policymakers of that is as hard as convincing the Vatican that Jesus did not exist, Mr. Marvel said.

For years, he said, anyone wearing cowboy boots and a big belt buckle could get the state to ignore its constitutional mandate that the lands generate the maximum return for schools.

"We're fighting a belief system," he said. "When you question the belief system that people hold close, they won't listen. It's too threatening to them."

Mr. Marvel might have more success in this task if the school community rallied to his side. But two different state schools superintendents have actively opposed him in casting their votes as land-board members.

Some local school officials would like to line up with Mr. Marvel, said Superintendent Neumann of the Genesee schools, but a public stand could cost them their jobs.

It "would just be political suicide for some," Mr. Neumann said. "And for the amount of money that we're talking about, some have decided that it's just not worth it."

Officials at the Idaho Education Association are still sizing up the situation, but so far they have concluded that the costs of taking up Mr. Marvel's fight would not be worth the return to schools, said Jimsic Shackelfordsic, the union's executive director.

The issue is a tough one with no clear-cut answers, Mr. Shackelford said. "You have to look at the long term as well as the short term."

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