RANGE magazine
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Current Features

He came at me like a leopard, just disturbed from his wine-sipping perch among the artifacts and ancient bones of the University of Colorado’s little Natural History Museum. It was here RangeNet was hosting the reception for its third annual conference.

“Don’t you take my picture,” snarled Jon Marvel, shoving aside Ed Jolley and John Yeager, the two Sheridan, Wyo., residents I had just met. “I know who you are, you’re from RANGE. Don’t take my picture!”

Damn camera had jammed anyway, so I just said, “Okay, Jon, I guess we got you covered. But I was wondering why you were spreading out from Idaho into Wyoming? You trying out some new influence with the Forest Service?”

“They don’t need my influence,” Marvel slashed back. “People up there know what’s going on; they want the criminals out.” With that, he turned back into the small crowd, smothering himself in the pack.

All that week, I was going to have trouble with my cantankerous Canon, but Jon was going to have troubles of his own in putting enough energy into the pale intellectual cast of his and RangeNet’s third annual rendezvous on its march to buy out or wipe out grazing on public lands by 2010.

“One thing we need to do is put some color in this group,” keynote speaker and Babbitt BLM director Jim Baca told some 200 RangeNetters in attendance. Baca, the former mayor of Albuquerque, and an energetic left-wing Democrat who became even too radical for Babbitt, still seemed somehow overwhelmed by the big dais in CU’s Law School courtroom.

“Look around you,” he said. “Is anybody out there African American? Native American? Hispanic? Asian?” One young fellow who didn’t look it sort of tentatively raised his hand, but Baca was right. This was pure whitebread and aging ’60s forms of revolution Baca was warning to recognize “George W. Bush as the most dangerous man in American history. If he wins [re-election] our work is going to be impossible.”

Andy Kerr, whose alliance with RangeNet stretches back to his role with the Sierra Club in serving up the surrogate spotted owl to stop old-growth logging, even felt compelled to step down a little from his usual Pattonesque tactics in the battle for public resources. “We need to lighten up a little,” he told the unconvinced crowd, “get a little sense of humor here and there.” Conniving, clever, and litigious, as he most definitely is, Kerr can do that when it serves the purpose of winning another ally. He presents a rotund, fuzzy friendliness even in threatening “death to public grazing.”

But wild-haired Jon Marvel quite obviously takes it personally. He and his Western Watersheds Project (WWP) is in this for blood, and he doesn’t mind a bit that people get hurt. “They ought to be in jail,” he says of the Wyoming ranchers who are his current target. “The only thing saving them is their old-boy influence.”

Up in Sheridan, cut off from the Colorado border of self-imposed intelligentsia by an early November blizzard, Chas Kane blinks back at that like a big-eyed alien fresh off a third-kind encounter. Chas, as everybody calls him, refers to himself as “about 10 foot 8,” but his wife admits that, at 71, Chas is shrinking from even the 5’7” fencepole stature he once carried into the presidency of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association (and from that to a seat on the county commission). The kind of authority and respect he earned along the relentless wild prairie stretching off the eastern slope of the Rockies is the kind that comes from three and four lifetimes of hard work in an unforgiving place. The kind you imagine being built by generations into a man whose name sounds somehow appropriate to a tough land. It gives him the right to wear that creamy white Stetson without a hint of a sweat mark whenever he comes to town.

Jon Marvel hates those hats. To him they symbolize the kind of influence that made cattle king in the West, the kind that allowed one of his own neighbors back in Hailey, Idaho, to allow cow pies to be dropped on Marvel’s property. Above all, Marvel seems obsessed with cow pies.

So last summer when Ed Jolley and his friend John Yeager were shown by some of Marvel’s people what they were told was evidence of gross overgrazing (“It was chewed right down to the nubbins,” said Yeager.), they found it easy to believe that a big, powerful rancher like Chas Kane was getting away with something.

“I don’t know him, but I know he’s just ruining that land up in the Big Horns,” said Jolley. “He’ll kill it for all wildlife and ruin that whole region.”

It seems likely that if that really was Chas Kane’s and his family’s intentions, they’ve had plenty of time to do it in the four generations since Chas’ grandfather first homesteaded their grazing range in the Big Horn Basin in 1880. Some of Custer’s men still lay unburied not far away when the Kanes first took on the task of what Marvel claims is the destruction of the Big Horns.

Jon Marvel, head of Western Watersheds Project, takes everything personally. He demands that “the criminals” should be removed from federal lands. (Photo by Tim Findley)

Marvel rather seems to enjoy making villains out of people in big white hats, even when they turn out to be mild-mannered senior good citizens with a strong family background and a newly surprised look on their face like Chas Kane.

“I’m not sure where they came from, or why,” said Kane, whose three sons are also ranchers in the area, “but all of a sudden this year this fella Marvel and his people were all over us. I heard of him down in Owyhee [Idaho], but, shoot, seems to me those people in Owyhee are about as crazy as he is. I just don’t know what started him in after us.”

Marvel had indeed driven folks in the Owyhee nuts for years (see Range, Winter 2002) before deciding to open a new branch of his Western Watersheds Project in Pinedale, Wyo., to be headed by biologist Jonathan Ratner. Ratner, already a self-established anti-grazing activist in Wyoming, may have tipped the hand a bit when he wrote, “In truth, a major part of the impetus to open an office in Wyoming is the result of desperate pleas from federal agency personnel with professional integrity.”

Specifically, that would be PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility), a limited group formed in the 1990s among federal forest workers who claimed they were threatened by loggers and ranchers. “[They] feel they are being steamrolled,” said Ratner. “Higher up officials are asking them to do illegal things and ignore the law.”

And even more specifically than that, affidavits submitted in the lawsuits swarming around the Big Horns testify that Marvel already had Idaho associations with a BLM superintendent who wound up in Worland, Wyo., threatening to “turn Marvel loose” on ranchers unwilling to bow to the Clinton-era bureaucrat’s authority.

Whatever brought Marvel to narrow his new intentions along the eastern borders of Yellowstone, the move was calculated with the sort of well-financed public propaganda campaign that accompanies the Idaho architect’s impassioned obsession against grazing. Two years earlier, a young University of Wyoming professor, Debra L. Donahue, had produced a controversial thesis that nearly got her fired for claiming that grazing had already wrecked the Big Horn Basin in particular. Marvel and his associates at RangeNet regarded her as a prodigy, despite heavy criticism by other scientists.

When Ratner was ready to head up the new WWP headquarters in Pinedale, Marvel’s already established media operation was waiting to go into gear with press releases naming their targets like wanted outlaws.

“Ranchers, too, have had run-ins with Kane, chiefly over water diversions they allege are illegal,” said one such WWP news release without naming any such ranchers. “He’s been warned by many people for many years about his practices…. His attitude has always been ‘Let ’em try.’” Those “many years” must have included the 10 up until 1995 when Kane was the elected president of the Big Horn National Forest Grazing Association.

The kind of authority and respect Chas Kane (left) earned along the relentless wild prairie stretching off the eastern slope of the Rockies comes from three and four lifetimes of hard work in an unforgiving place.

At far left: Chas Kane’s grandfather, Philip Kane.

The news release, set to follow Forest Service cancellation of two Kane grazing permits early in 2003, quoted Ratner as saying, “Times change. The era is over when you could abuse public lands and get away with it.”

Something similar to that PR setup had been done before in this part of Wyoming in the 1890s when certain Cheyenne interests decided that their hired gun, Tom Horn, had become a liability. Horn, probably framed, was hanged. Marvel, moving in multiple directions among other ranchers, hunters and federal regulators, wanted something only slightly less drastic for not just Kane, but at least a pair of “bad guys” singled out in an early fall media blitz leading up to the November RangeNet conference in Boulder.

Even the Casper Star-Tribune fell neatly into the program with a headline claiming Kane had been “booted off” his allotments. But stable citizen Kane took the least of it in comparison to the lynch-mob news release on “rogue” and “renegade” “hobby rancher” Frank Robbins. Marvel’s group, aided by PEER and the bit-chomping Worland BLM, launched a lawsuit against Robbins, claiming that his family’s “close ties to Republican Party leaders” had padded the way for a “special agreement” on Robbins’ grazing permits in another part of the Big Horn Basin near Thermopolis.

“Mr. Robbins is one of the worst renegade ranchers in the West,” said Marvel himself in the WWP news release. “BLM has tried to make him obey federal laws, but he thinks the public lands are his backyard to abuse as he wants. Our lawsuit seeks to put an end to political favoritism by the Bush Administration for its ranching cronies.”

Although they live and ranch within about 200 miles of each other, Chas Kane and Frank Robbins have never met. They are, in fact, more than just a generation apart. Kane has earned that calm Stetson over years of established leadership around Sheridan. Robbins, 48, can hardly be seen apart from the darkly stained headband of the hardworking Texas peak he wears like a helmet. He has been building and operating his three-ranch High Island spread for 10 years, yet almost no other rancher in Wyoming seemed to know him until Jon Marvel proclaimed him the state’s worst “renegade.”

“It’s true,” said Robbins, “up until recently, we didn’t really know anybody. I thought I was in it all alone.”

Robbins’ trouble stemmed from the attempts of the Worland BLM to force an easement or outright purchase of the High Island even before Robbins bought it. The seller neglected to inform Robbins, and the BLM in Worland greeted him like a second-class citizen with a tourist map.

Frank Robbins has been building and operating his three-ranch High Island spread for 10 years, yet almost no other rancher in Wyoming seemed to know him until Jon Marvel proclaimed him the state’s worst renegade with too much influence. “It took eight years for me to get a meeting with people in Washington, D.C., and that didn’t include Kathleen Clarke herself,” says Robbins. “If that suggests Republican influence, well, I guess it also says something about being willing to fight.” (Photo by Tim Findley)

“I walked into a hornet’s nest,” the rancher said. “I was either going to pay for their road or sell them the land or face the consequences.”

The consequences included relentless accusations against Robbins for trespass, overgrazing and even dude pollution on the 150,000 acres of permits he held in addition to his 80,000 acres of deeded land. “We have 300 miles of fence, and up to 175,000 AUMs,” Robbins said. (An “Animal Unit Month” is the amount a cow/calf eats in a month.) “They were citing me like a criminal for a total of about 100 AUMs that strayed into trespass over a nine-year period.”

Maybe it’s too much to say that Marvel wanted to carry those two Wyoming heads on a platter into his Boulder confab—one, the old prominent icon of the way it was in the cowboy state, and the other an Alabama interloper who Marvel vowed would never get away with it again. As said, though, it didn’t all work out perfect for Marvel either.

The same writer for the same Casper paper that already had Kane “booted off” his century-long permits was prompted in October with a Marvel news release to describe Robbins as being, “way beyond anger,” with federal agencies.

“His is a cold, bitter rage, focused on the BLM’s Worland field office which manages public-lands grazing in the area,” said the story penned as if by PEER itself. “‘No one is going to tell me what to do with my property,’ he says.”

Said the WWP-Marvel news release, “In a memo written in March, 2002, the Worland office manager [of the BLM] noted that ‘Mr. Robbins has shown a complete disregard for the terms and conditions of the permits and of the authority of the BLM to manage public lands. His conduct was so lacking in reasonableness or responsibility that it became reckless or negligent and placed significant, undue stress/damage on the public land resources’.”

You could just about hear the echoes of nails hammering into the gallows built for Tom Horn, but the truth was that Kane had nearly a century of evidence of good stewardship on his side, and Robbins didn’t really need more than a collection of affidavits and simple letters appealing his case to get beyond the real renegades of Clinton-Babbitt leftovers claiming they were being steamrolled by the new administration.

On his end, Kane, a man you don’t want to play poker with, calmed his surprise at the winter decision to eliminate his allotments and offered the green-blind bureaucrats a solution of his own.

“I told them for one thing that if they were going to try to put me out of business that way that I might just as well open up my deeded land for development,” said the “10-foot-8” Wyoming native. “I’ve got the prettiest piece of property in the region, and The Nature Conservancy holds easements on either side of it. I figured they might be interested in what could go up as a subdivision in between.”

For Robbins it was different. “It was always just a simple question over an easement the BLM wanted across my property. What made me mad was the way they tried to force it on us, and force me to pay for it, with all their stupid harassment. I was willing to negotiate. They said the federal government, like God, doesn’t negotiate.”

Still apparently unknown to the readers of the Casper Star-Tribune, Kane and Robbins both effectively won their cases even before Marvel could brag in Boulder about starting it all. “Higher ups” apparently got ahead of him and Ratner and PEER again. And that only infuriated Marvel more.

Andy Kerr, whose alliance with RangeNet stretches back to his role with the Sierra Club in serving up the surrogate spotted owl to stop old-growth logging, even felt compelled to step down a little from his usual Pattonesque tactics in the battle for public resources. “We need to lighten up a little,” he told the unconvinced crowd, “get a little sense of humor here and there.” (Photo by Tim Findley)

By November, the largest of the two allotments taken from him were rapidly returned to Chas Kane by Washington authorities who said there had been a mistake, and the other cancellation was under “review.” The trespass and other violation claims against Frank Robbins were set aside in an agreement to swap parts of the high country with the BLM for more manageable land. BLM director Kathleen Clarke ordered her Worland office to back down in its pursuit of Robbins long enough to give the settlement a chance. And although Marvel’s case against the so-called Alabama renegade and his Republican connections is still pending, Robbins and his attorney, Karen Budd Fallen, have filed a federal suit of their own claiming RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization) criminal conspiracy actions by lower-level federal bureaucrats who apparently shared their moves with Marvel and the Casper Star-Tribune even before notifying Robbins himself.

Among other things, Robbins accuses some BLM agents of using such tactics as secretly videotaping his dude ranch guests when they visited the trail latrine.

“It took eight years for me to get a meeting with people in Washington, D.C., and that didn’t include Kathleen Clarke herself,” Robbins said. “If that suggests Republican influence, well, I guess it also says something about being willing to fight.”

When Frank Robbins was a boy, his father was building a lucrative flooring factory in addition to raising a few cattle on the family farm in Alabama. “My dad said that if I didn’t smoke and I didn’t drink until I was at least 18, he’d make sure I got what I wanted. When I was 16, he admitted he’d lost. I said I wanted the cattle.”

That may explain the motivation behind the “cold, bitter rage” attributed to the young man who eventually took his dream to Wyoming, headlong into a political mess he had not imagined. At the peak of it in February 2002, Robbins alone rode his mule around the BLM headquarters in Worland for 25 straight days to stress his case against federal harassment. Nobody seemed to notice.

By the time he was finally invited to meet with BLM officials in the national capital early last year, he had already spent some $600,000 defending himself from federal accusations and Marvel’s nonprofit lawsuit. He had even met the mad Idaho architect himself when Marvel and a tour group showed up at High Island headquarters last summer. Never missing a useless opportunity, Marvel at the time asked Robbins, “How much will you take for your AUMs?”

“So,” questioned Range, “you actually had Marvel in your house?”

“Uh, no,” the normally cordial Alabaman replied. “He stayed outside.”

But if, after it all, Marvel didn’t yet have law working with him on the gallows for the cowmen, at least he still had Ed Jolley. “I know Kane’s destroying that country up there,” said Jolley, still proudly wearing his “Sheridan, Wyoming” stitched jacket in snowy Boulder. He did, however, reveal that as a relatively newly enthused big-game hunter, his main objection was that, “We have to pay eight bucks to camp up there for a week, and Kane only pays a price less than a bag of cat food to let his cattle graze all summer.” That distorted idea also stems directly from the WWP media machine that criticizes AUM payments as “welfare ranching.”

Marvel alone is not the pain-in-the-ass point of RangeNet. This year especially, the boundaries of its coalition formation with Forest Guardians and Kerr’s campaign to buy out permits with federal funds were a little more evident and a little less comfortable.

“What we have here is a strategy of divide and ally,” Kerr (who is still organizing legislation for his plan) told the conference. “I believe a majority of ranchers want this money [$175 per AUM]. It’s the lifestyle they love, but the older they get and the less their kids want to work the ranch, the more they’ll want the money.

“Corporations will be first to take the buyout. They’re not hung up on lifestyle. What the cattle leadership is telling others on the range is, ‘We want you to take a bullet for the team’ by holding out. But we have the names and the addresses of everybody with a grazing permit. We can mail to them all, and we’re doing that. We have to hate the sin, but love the sinner. It’s the way we’ll win.”

And in keeping with Kerr’s urging of the “netters” to “lighten up” a little, even Marvel’s humorless persona could find a human moment or two. Such as the lady jogger who told them she’s been seriously terrified since hearing of another lady charged by a cow that had just given birth. And the fellow who cares for his mother, an Alzheimer’s patient, whom he feared might wander outside and encounter stray cattle that got in through his open gate. He admitted he shot and killed one of the pregnant cows with his .22. “I was worried about a stampede,” he said.

So, in a sag of damp early winter, with Ed Jolley and John Yeager among the last 50 or so to sit through it all, RangeNet folded its annual tent from Boulder. Next year, New Mexico. Meanwhile, only 30 miles away, in Golden, Colo., professional lobbyists from the mining industry began setting up a new organization, Partnership for the West, meant to represent a coalition of western interests in ways not seen since the collapse of People For the West.

“We intend to provide a voice supporting public policies that encourage economic growth, job creation, increased prosperity, continued access to public lands and greater conservation for the future,” said director Jim Sims.

And in Thermopolis, Wyo., on the Monday following RangeNet, Frank Robbins mounted up at the head of a parade of riders and marchers demonstrating for justice in the federal West. This time, the once lonely Robbins had more than 150 ranchers and others behind him. Chas Kane, alas, was not among them.

In pursuit of this story, intrepid reporter Tim Findley drove through blinding snow, sleet and hail knows what else. As he did with stories for The San Francisco Chronicle and Rolling Stone, Findley, one of this country’s most respected journalists, showed his amazing ability to detect hypocrisy and fabrication, however cleverly concealed.

Spring 2004 Contents

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