End of an era? Western Watersheds seeks new director

Sep 21, 2012

After 19 years of leading the charge against public lands grazing, it appears that Western Watersheds Project (WWP) founder and Executive Director Jon Marvel is retiring from active service.

As noted Sept. 10 in the Idaho Statesman, WWP has quietly listed a posting for the executive director position on the “professional opportunities” area of its website, a position Marvel has held since his founding of the organization in 1993. In addition to the obvious skills required for the position, one of the job’s principle duties is to “[i]dentify and coordinate pursuit of strategic opportunities to end public lands livestock grazing...”

Arguably the most reviled name in the livestock industry, Marvel is known for his uncompromising position on public lands grazing, which he maintains should be entirely discontinued. A widely recognized anti-grazing crusader, Marvel’s caustic style has led to aggressive and confrontational exchanges with ranchers, agency personnel and scientists, as well as provoking the occasional death threat. Nonetheless, under his leadership, WWP has accrued a sizable haul of legal victories over public lands ranchers and federal agencies, frequently aided by the non-profit environmental law firm Advocates for the West, of Boise, ID.

Indeed, Marvel’s group carries the distinction of being one of the most litigious environmental organizations, with cases currently pending on some 12 million acres of public grazing permits across Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah and Oregon. This fact is clearly a point of pride with the organization, which claims on its website that “[n]o other conservation group has such an ambitious public lands grazing litigation program—and aside from our many victories … the sheer size of these efforts is helping to promote change in public lands grazing.”

Among other noteworthy coups, Marvel helped engineer the legal settlement between WWP and Ruby Pipeline LLC and El Paso Corporation that resulted in the $15,000,000 Sagebrush Habitat Conservation Fund, the purpose of which, according to Marvel, is to acquire and retire grazing permits across the West.

Marvel founded the Hailey, ID-based organization in 1993 under the name “Idaho Watersheds Project,” which was expanded in 2001 to the more geographically inclusive “Western Watersheds Project.” The group claims to have a $1 million annual operating budget and around 1,400 members, with offices in Arizona, California, Montana, Utah and Wyoming as well as their headquarters in Idaho. According to the group’s website, “WWP works in partnership with the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) in Oregon, Forest Guardians in New Mexico, the Center for Biological Diversity in Arizona, the American Lands Alliance in Washington, D.C, and the Larch Company in Ashland, Oregon” to support legislation for a federal grazing permit buyout program.

Raised in Wilmington, DE, Marvel attended the elite Phillips Academy in Andover, MA, before attending the University of Chicago and graduate school in Oregon. An architect, Marvel resides in Hailey, which is adjacent to the affluent resort town of Sun Valley, ID.

WWP has been tightlipped about the change of leadership, and refused to comment. However, WWP board member George Wuerthner told E&E News Greenwire that Marvel is looking to hang up his spurs.

“Jon is hoping to retire,” Wuerthner explained to Greenwire. “I completely understand his desire to have more free time, but finding someone with his unique combination of skill, knowledge and contacts will be difficult.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent