The Origins of Western Watersheds Project


George Wuerthner and Jon Marvel in Hailey, Idaho. 

Western Watersheds Project is the only NGO whose mission is to educate the public about the numerous environmental impacts of livestock production and works to reduce livestock grazing on public lands. WWP is one of the most influential environmental groups because it successfully uses the courts to force federal and state agencies to follow the laws.

Using legal approaches to challenge the entrenched interests of the public lands livestock industry began with its founder, Jon Marvel of Hailey, Idaho.

Marvel, now retired, is a former architect who had repeated run-ins with cattle trespass on his Idaho property. So when the rancher who owned the cows summarily rejected Marvel’s requests to respect his property and remove his cows, saying it was Marvel’s problem, he antagonized the wrong man.

Cattle on the North Fork of the Big Lost River, Challis NF, Idaho. Photo George Wuerthner

Marvel began a campaign to stop livestock abuse of the public domain. One tactic he used to end livestock impacts was bidding on state grazing leases which once he won, he refused to graze. But, of course, in the crony world of public lands ranching, no one bids against another “rancher’s” (I use the possessive in quotes) lease, ensuring low bids at the state auctions.

State lands are required to provide “for the support of common schools” and required funds from the grounds to be placed in a “permanent school fund, the interest of which only shall be expended in support of said schools. The law requires that state trust lands be sold or leased in “such manner as will secure the maximum long term financial return.”

Cattle impacts to riparian area near Stanley Idaho. Photo George Wuerthner 

Marvel quickly realized that most grazing lease bids were ridiculously low and robbing the state’s education fund of financial support, which violated state constitutional law.

He immediately ran into opposition from not only the ranchers but the state of Idaho’s Land Board and legislature, who characterized him as an environmental “terrorist.”

He wore a button that said he supported “welfare ranching” in one state auction. After the state land board awarded a lease to a lower bidder, he dumped a suitcase with $5000 on the table to make the point that the land board was refusing to follow the law and award leases to the highest bidder. Such theater did not endear Marvel to the livestock industry.

The origins of WWP, like all small NGOs, begin with a dedicated individual who seeks to the right some wrong. In Marvel’s case, the more he learned about the livestock industry grip on public lands, the more motivated he became to end the rancher oligarchy.

Cattle destroying riparian area on the Challis National Forest, Idaho. Photo George Wuerthner

Marvel has a dry sense of humor, a good grasp of history, and a comprehensive understanding of public lands grazing. He is one of the environmental heroes of the West.

I recently interviewed Marvel about the origins of the Western Watersheds Project. Here is his story in his own words.

In the summer of 1969, we moved to Stanley, Idaho. One of the first things we found out was that cows were next to our place on Forest Service lands all summer long. There was a falling-down fence, so the cows would eat everything down to the ground on the public land and then push the fence down and come into our place. The ranchers were from Challis. As far as the ranchers were concerned, their cattle trespass was entirely our problem. We had a small vegetable garden, and one time a 2000-pound bull was eating everything in the garden, and when Stefanie tried to shoo it away, the bull came after her.

From the late 1960s on, we tried to get the FS to correct its management of the cows next to our place. Over many years we succeeded in getting the time the cattle were present cut down to only 12 days of use each summer. There haven’t been any cows there in the last six years, but, unfortunately, they could return.

Our negative experience in the 1970s with cattle near Stanley got me wondering what the conditions were like on other lands in Central Idaho. It was a terrible mess. I learned quite a bit in the 80s by articles written by George Wuerthner.

One telling experience for our family happened because our kids had a subscription to the National Wildlife Federation magazine, Ranger Rick. In the 1980s, a cartoon in the magazine identified cattle as having the largest negative environmental impact on public lands. The NWF came under a lot of flak from ranchers for having such a cartoon.

In the 80s, I got more involved in public land grazing management. I became an affected interest on numerous BLM allotments in central Idaho, and I was working to influence the Challis and Sawtooth National Forests’ grazing management. Up to the time when I started Idaho Watersheds Project in 1993, I had written over 3,000 letters to federal land managers from the late 70s to the early 90s. Once we got word processors in the early 1990s, communicating with the BLM and Forest Service was a lot easier.

The start of Idaho Watersheds Project was in early September of 1993 on Lake Creek in the East Fork of the Salmon River watershed. I was on a field trip there with Lynne Stone of the Boulder-White Clouds Council and Linn Kincannon of the Idaho Conservation League. The riparian area on Lake Creek was beaten to bare dirt by cattle.

I turned to Lynne and Linn and said I think there is a state section here. I will call the Idaho Department of Lands (IDOL) and ask how they lease them out. A friendly staff person at IDOL told me that a 640-acre grazing lease was coming up for renewal, and anyone over 18 years old could apply for the lease. He further explained that applications needed to be made by Sept. 30th, 1993. I sent in an application form. I created the name Idaho Watersheds Project because it was about the Lake Creek watershed. That fall, we incorporated Idaho Watersheds Project with Lynne, Linn, and me as the required three board members.

Lake Creek Idaho where Jon Marvel made his first bid to lease state grazing lands.  He won and this photo is after cows were removed. Photo Ralph Maughan

As required by law, the Idaho Dept of Lands scheduled an auction for early December of 1993. Ranchers complained about the proposed auction. The Idaho Secretary of State, Pete Cenarrusa, an influential sheep rancher on the Idaho Land Board, got the auction delayed and blew it up in the news. The auction was rescheduled for early Jan. 1994 in Idaho Falls. I opened up the auction at $30. The rancher said that was too much and said he would not bid, so IWP won the auction. The rancher appealed his loss to the Land Board, and the Land Board voted 4-1 to reverse the auction and award the lease to the rancher. That started a lengthy round of litigation win, which IWP ultimately prevailed, thereby opening up grazing leases to competition from conservationists. Western Watersheds Project still holds that Idaho State grazing lease to this day.

I spent the next four years applying for and competing at auctions for state grazing leases. It was one of the only ways I could see to influence public lands ranching by bringing competition into play. IWP originally had a tiny budget, and I sent out little mail one-page newsletters, and over time there more and more supporters. Pretty soon, we had a workable budget.

We didn’t have any employees until 1998, even while continuing to apply for grazing leases and competing for them at auction. However, IWP’s legal efforts did prevail in state courts, with the big win coming in April 1999 when the Idaho Supreme Court issued three unanimous decisions, all in favor of IWP on the same day. WWP also competed for state grazing leases in Wyoming and Utah.

In 2000 the IWP Board of Directors changed the organizational name to Western Watersheds Project (WWP) to reflect our larger multi-state efforts to influence public lands ranching management westwide. WWP was growing a lot due to work on all western public lands, and we had hired staff to work in six or seven states. WWP also took on livestock grazing on National Wildlife Refuges and National Park Service lands.

Cattle in North Fork Big Lost River, Challis NF, Idaho. Photo George Wuerthner

One very significant legal win for WWP came in 2006 when WWP litigated and successfully enjoined the George W. Bush Bureau of Land Management grazing regulations. The BLM had improved grazing regulations in 1995 under then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt. Still, in 2005 the George W. Bush administration rewrote them to benefit ranchers at the expense of the environment. Idaho Federal District Judge B. Lynn Winmill, appointed by President Clinton, put in place a permanent injunction that was upheld by the ninth circuit and the Supreme Court, which in 2011 declined to take the case. Since then, the BLM has been operating under the 1995 Bruce Babbitt grazing regulations.

Over the years, I had several death threats. One was left on my answering machine. The recording said “somebody should shoot Jon Marvel” and then recorded a pistol shot right next to the phone. Another guy left a message that said, “I’m going to kill that Jon Marvel .”Amusingly, he left his phone number at the end of the call. After I contacted the Hailey police, the deputy called his number and talked to the caller, who had recently lost his job and was in a bad emotional state. The deputy said the threatening caller had apologized and said he would never do that again, and he hasn’t.



  1. Mike Sauber Avatar
    Mike Sauber

    I share a lot of the same experiences that led to my activism. If one has continual trespass on your property, with a rancher that feels no responsibility, I heard from a friend that one could return what the cattle left in the garden or property (add water if needed to make a nice slurry) into the mailbox of the offender. Although I assume illegal, it proved to be effective, and the rancher who claimed no responsibility for the fence between all of us on the other side decided to make his fence secure.

    1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
      Maggie Frazier

      Good rebuttal, Mike!!

  2. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    Here is that Lake Creek grazing lease after it recovered with WWP’s oversight.

  3. Glenn Monahan Avatar
    Glenn Monahan

    WWP has been one of the few environmental organizations that I’ve continued to support. Far to many have succumbed to “mission drift”. One example is the Sierra Club, which is mistakenly venturing deeply into social justice issues at the expense of its environmental advocacy.

    I fervently hope that WWP will stay focused. I bring this up because in WWPs last newsletter the lead story had nothing to do with grazing, instead offering readers an “education” on how Indians were wronged by the US a century ago. Although there may be truth to this assertion, I was puzzled as to how this relates to WWPs mission.

    I truly hope WWP can remain laser focused on grazing, and leave social justice to the appropriate organizations.

    1. Glenn Monahan Avatar
      Glenn Monahan


      I generally agree with the broad scoped equality and justice statements in your reply.

      But given the highly complex specifics of who, what, when, where, how, and why a specific group has been wronged, and the diverse solutions to these wrongs, it is inevitable that there will be variable opinions, positions, and solutions among your membership. It’s even conceivable that some members have no interest whatsoever in social justice, but are ardent supporters of a group’s mission, for example, as is the case with WWP, grazing reform.

      And that is the basis of my opinion on the hazards of mission drift. It’s safe to say that WWPs membership, as it currently exists, consists of people who are passionate about grazing reform. But I seriously doubt that WWPs membership shares a common passion about social justice, again given the highly complex nature of this multi-faceted issue (who, what, when, how, where, why), and how to fix it.

      My basic point is that an organization risks dividing and alienating its membership when it introduces positions that are unrelated to its core mission. I have NEVER disagreed with a WWP action on grazing reform. But if WWP goes down the road of morphing into a social justice advocacy group , I can all but guarantee that there will be things that I, and likely other members will disagree – possibly strongly. And that’s the danger of traveling down this road! Why gamble with taking a membership that’s clearly united behind a single issue, grazing, and risk dividing that membership over social justice issues, despite your personal passion?

      I’ll close with an example. Recently, David Treuer wrote an article for Atlantic, in which he advocated “returning” National Parks to tribes. For many reasons I vehemently oppose this idea! If an environmental organization of which I am a member came out in support of this proposal, my membership would be terminated that same day.

      Respectfully, my advice – keep it simple, stay focused, find alternative avenues to manifest your passions that are outside the mission of WWP.

      1. Chris Zinda Avatar
        Chris Zinda

        You’re easy.

        I gave up on WWP when they sold their soul for natural gas.

        1. Glenn Monahan Avatar
          Glenn Monahan

          I would very much like to know more about this. How can I learn?

          1. Chris Zinda Avatar
            Chris Zinda

            I’ve followed WWP/SHCF money over the last decade, have long thought of writing yet another piece. In short, WWP made the settlement because it was told to by its dying benefactor, it and it’s Greenfire in 2010 was in financial flames largely due to mission creep occurring again today.

            I can offer you this, now:


            Be certain to read Molvar’s response, in part saying:

            “I personally think that it’s great and laudable that CBD brought a challenge forward against the Ruby Pipeline, because it could have worked out otherwise and the project might have been abandoned. (Unfortunately, it wasn’t). And, although the settlement was struck five years prior to my arrival as executive director of WWP, I fully endorse WWP’s strategic decision to settle at the time — and create a fund that buys out and closes down grazing leases on public land — and I would hope in the same circumstances that I would have had the wisdom to settle too, and to fight and die on a different hill instead. It was WWP’s settlement that ended up having the lasting benefits for the environment, and litigating to the bitter end wound up being futile. In hindsight, it is obvious that WWP’s settlement strategy worked out better for public lands and wildlife in this particular case. It could have worked out otherwise (settlement and litigation each come with their own risks and opportunities), and CBD’s litigation strategy was absolutely worth a try. In the end, neither settlement nor litigation wound up preventing the pipeline that probably enabled a subsequent biofuels plant in eastern Oregon (that of course no one could have predicted) in eastern Oregon.

            Zinda’s bizarre positions and absurd flagellations targeting Chris Ketcham’s book, the Ruby Pipeline settlement, and professional environmentalists, are not progressive and indeed are quite pointless. Trying to shank environmentalists whom you don’t agree with doesn’t serve the environmental (or progressive) cause, it just undermines the protectors and serves the interests of corporate exploiters our western public lands who would love to pursue their profits without all those annoying laws and regulations and watchdog groups. Zinda presents only the vindictive rantings of an unhinged and misguided activist, lashing out at friends and allies until he has none left.”

            Conservation is what conservation does and it sure ain’t preservation, in the case of WWP, there is compromise in defense of mother earth.

      2. Erik Molvar Avatar
        Erik Molvar

        Thanks for clarifying, Glenn. WWP is seeking to pursue our mission in an inclusive way, to treat all members of the public equitably, and to conduct ourselves in a manner that is free from discrimination. This does not indicate any change to our mission, but instead a more conscious and deliberate approach to how we are pursuing it. For example, Indigenous groups were key to getting livestock grazing retirement language into the 2021 Bears Ears National Monument proclamation. Had WWP not been conscious of avoiding offenses to our Indigenous allies, that wouldn’t have happened. There are all manner of people out there who are in positions to influence outcomes on grazing policy, and environmental policy writ large. We’re not always going to know who they are, or what issues motivate them. With this in mind, the smart and strategic approach is to do our best to be inclusive, and avoid giving offense to our potential (and actual) allies. If there are those who want to attack the social justice movement over the recognition of 19th Century racism, that seems to us a fool’s errand and losing proposition, but they are welcome to voice their opinions and stoke that debate. We see no benefit in picking fights with the social justice movement (which itself includes many of our allies), and would rather stick to our environmental mission.

  4. Larry Campbell Avatar
    Larry Campbell

    I whole heartedly support WWP and oppose cattle on public lands. Thank you Jon Marvel!
    On my place in “open range” country Montana I have suffered from what I call “bovine extortion”. If I don’t work for my independence-minded, private property rights zealot neighbor rancher by fencing his cows out I pay the price in destroyed food crops and polluted domestic water supply. I pay the price in any case. I have to buy the fencing supplies and then work fencing for no pay, to help my neighbor make his living off of welfare grazing.
    I don’t know of any other agent of destruction that a person can turn loose on their neighbors with absolute impunity.
    Montana’s Constitution supposedly guarantees citizens a right to a clean and wholesome environment. I really don’t like standing behind cows in having my rights honored.

  5. Ed Avatar

    Tell me Jon Marvel and George Wuerthner, how does a citizen get on a list of up-coming Grazing Allotment Auctions? And another question; Jon, how do you keep trespass cattle out of your beautiful Lake Creek grazing lease without having to fence it, which is harmful to wildlife?
    Thank you for all you and the WWP team do.

  6. Rosemary Lowe Avatar

    The Public Lands Grazing Industry is not only responsible for the demise of wild species and habitats, it is a Major Contributor to Climate Change, now upon us. I applaud those groups who continue to stand strong against this scourge. Even though Climate Change will ultimately end grazing in general, we activists need to further its end sooner. I still have my copy of “The Waste of the West” by Lynn Jacobs, and it is still very relevant today.

  7. Lyn McCormick Avatar
    Lyn McCormick

    Thank you George & Jon for the education and inspiration. Jon Marvel set the standard for how to get things done. Wondering how things turned out on the Ruby Pipeline / El Paso Natural Gas settlement. Are the leases still retired ?

  8. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    GW overlooks the Ruby NG settlement that secured WWP’s future. It would be here were it not for selling out the Sagebrush steppe for a pipeline.

    And, how about that $1.2 million from the SHCF over the years? WWP is still living on fracked gas.

    Tell the entire history, GW.

    1. Chris Zinda Avatar
      Chris Zinda


  9. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    Adding, Marvel is not retired. He still makes money being a SHCF boardmember. Natural gas is a gift that keeps giving.

    1. Erik Molvar Avatar
      Erik Molvar

      Mr. Zinda, through your bitterness, you deliberately ignore the obvious. WWP did indeed decide to settle with Kerr McGee/El Paso on the Ruby Pipeline, and to date those settlement funds have bought out half a million acres of public land grazing leases (about half of which are now closed permanently). Meanwhile, the Center for Biological Diversity did sue, and won in court, sending the federal agencies back to do a new EIS (which was completed in a few years, and the pipeline was built anyway). So in this instance, are you saying that fighting to the bitter end to win a three-year delay was, in the end, more beneficial that inking a settlement that wound up closing half a million acres to livestock grazing?

      1. Chris Zinda Avatar
        Chris Zinda

        Those 1/2 million are dubious, only a percentage truly permanently retired, those only in designed Wilderness. The SHCF has no legal right at present to buy and retire – other than through legislation (as was the case for SHCF in 2 Wildernesses). One just need look at Vya Ranch – a huge SHCF purchase without any permanent retirement.

        What you fail to get is “no compromise in defense of mother earth.” WWP lost staff because of Marvel’s decision, accepting blood money for solvency. WWP gave up the Sagebrush Steppe along the pipeline, supposedly your litigation hands tied. In effect, your organization’s insular needs took precedence, everything else be damned.

        Finally,more money has been funneled from SHCF to WWP than for grazing ‘retirements.’ GW once told me the SHCF wasn’t to be used as a WWP ‘warchest’. Well, the SHCF seems to be the only thing keeping WWP solvent with over $1.8M to date.

        (For fun, Marvel has made more than $110k so far from the SHCF).

        In sum: the settlement was ethically corrupt, the most base form of compromise. Your (and ONDA’s, we shouldn’t forget them) hands still tied in the corridor (and, beyond like RRB). I saw it first hand with Ruby/RRB. I told Ketcham and he helped cover up the story. My bitterness stems from this, that you’d do it again.

        From This Land review:

        “In the case of DoDs RRB, Ketcham instead chooses to protect this cadre by omitting their own compromise, instead hitting the usual Big Green Nature Conservancy and Wilderness Society strawmen whose foundation support demand it but never letting the reader know his hero small greens remain impotent, relegated to editorials and compromised litigators through the salt peter of settlement and their own foundational limitations – protected through omission.

        He could have capitalized upon This Land’s release, commenting that his settling protagonists are today in federal court litigating Trump Administration changes to the equally terrible Obama-Jewell era sage grouse management plan, AW’s Laird Lucas saying, “Since 2004 scientists have warned that preventing sage grouse from sliding toward extinction requires protecting all its remaining habitats and populations,” his WWP associate Erik Molvar adding, “From rolling back protections in sensitive habitats to removing habitat designations entirely, the plans could cause already fragile sage-grouse populations to disappear completely. We need to stop that.”

        Stop what? Settling for cash? Compromising public lands, sage grouse, steppe and climate for capitalism while claiming credit protecting it from the hooved maggots?”

  10. Mike Sauber Avatar
    Mike Sauber

    I could never in my life have enough thanks to Jon Marvel and George Wuerthner for doing the hard work that so desperately needs to be done. The is still the bovicentric management of our public lands and we need to keep up the fight to remove all cattle from public lands. WWP stands way far out in front of any other group dealing with the inequities of the management of our public lands. THANK YOU.

  11. Lyn McCormick Avatar
    Lyn McCormick

    Which would we rather have; underground pipelines OR “Green Renewable Energy Infrastructure” in the form of overhead Interstate Transmission Lines taking energy from industrial scale wind & solar farms?

  12. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    This was fascinating. Thanks for your perserverance and courage!


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner