My own private Idaho

Roche calls Marvel's environmentalism too radical and inflexible, but he still believes there's room for common ground between them. "Because he's right on some things," Roche says. "With fencing, for example. He says, 'All a fence does is move a problem.' And that's exactly right."

For me, pretty much every Magazine feature ends with the same inevitable regrets: the anecdote I couldn’t squeeze in, the quote that didn’t quite fit, the people who gave fascinating interviews but never found their way into the final draft. There are always more stories to tell than space to tell them.

When I put together the Jan-Feb/10 feature story on Jon Marvel, AB’72, an Idaho environmentalist trying to abolish livestock grazing on Western public lands, a lot of good stuff stayed buried in my notes. Animal activist Lynne Stone talked about camping out of her truck among packs of wild wolves for six months at a time, getting to know them as individuals and scaring them off from hunters and ranchers. Marvel had a long yarn about losing all his money to Turkish cardsharps during an undergraduate summer abroad and taking a job as a spotlight operator at the Istanbul Ice Capades until he earned enough to get him back home.

Rancher Charlie Lyons described the enveloping loneliness for a cowboy gathering cattle on the range, and how he used to pretend to look for stray cows as an excuse to drop in on his neighbors. Lyons’s friend Eric Davis, while giving us a tour of his own ranch, drove up to a windswept ridge overlooking Idaho’s vast Owyhee Canyonlands and the mountains of Oregon and Nevada beyond. Turning to Lyons in the back seat, Davis said—with a rush of emotion flooding his cheeks—that when he died, he wanted his ashes scattered on the high Shoofly Bench across the valley. “You can see every direction from there.”

But the story I most regretted not being able to tell was about Jeff Roche. Twenty years ago Roche and his family bought the Utah ranch where his father had worked as manager when Roche was growing up. Since then they’ve expanded the place and begun renting out its hunting grounds and hosting City Slickers-like adventures. For family reunions and church groups, the Roches, who are Mormon, offer re-enactments of the arduous handcart treks that Joseph Smith's pioneer followers made across the Great Plains a century and a half ago.

Roche is a rancher—and not the only one—interested in protecting the environment. He’s worked with federal agencies that manage public lands on projects to eradicate invasive weeds and reseed the ground with native grasses. To preserve streambeds, he took part in an experimental program that sent a herder out to move cattle off the creek when they started to congregate there for too long. (A more conventional solution has been to fence creeks off for miles—a measure that ends up limiting wild animals’ access too—and then to divert the water into metal troughs for livestock.)

A year ago Roche ran up against Marvel’s brick wall. He’d applied for permission to switch some of his sheep-grazing permits to cattle-grazing, to create a buffer for a herd of wild bighorn sheep, which are susceptible to disease from domestic sheep. Roche had jumped through hoops for the wildlife-agency and public-lands officials. He’d gotten a group of bighorn advocates on board, and he’d spent $100,000 on a scientific study backing his claim. But when he filed his application, Marvel opposed it. Roche decided to drive up to Marvel’s headquarters in Hailey, Idaho, to sweet-talk him out of his objections.

No such luck. Roche says Marvel shook his hand and offered him a seat and glass of water. And then told him no. Nothing would convince him to drop his opposition. What Marvel’s after, Roche discovered, isn’t compromise with public-lands ranchers. He wants them gone.

Roche left Hailey shaken and disappointed, but undeterred—and still on friendly terms with Marvel. For one thing, the two agree on some of the environmental problems affecting public lands, if not on how to fix them. “I keep thinking,” Roche says, “if I keep communications open with Jon, maybe we can both…” He trails off. “Well, I know two things. You catch more flies with syrup than you do with vinegar. And I have no money to back me, and he does. So what’s the point of going to battle with him? If I beat Jon Marvel, I’ve got to beat him another way.”

Lydialyle Gibson

Photo by Dan Dry

January 26, 2010