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Ranching on Public Lands Is Complicated

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Marvin’s Legacy, a short film by Michael C.B. Stevens, is the story of one rancher’s unconventional alliance with the conservation group WildEarth Guardians as he fights to save his land. WildEarth Guardians has pursued permit retirement as a means of injecting badly needed private capital into rural economies and, ultimately, to help shape the future of the American West.

Corrections: (03/10/2021) An earlier version of this video incorrectly referred to the grazing regulations in relation to the Bureau of Land Management. The statement has since been updated to reflect the U.S. Forest Service regulation. We regret this error.

Video Transcript

MARVIN CROMWELL: Come on. You got to get up and cook biscuits and gravy.

SUBJECT 1: I'm going to get up.

MARVIN CROMWELL: Come on. We're burning daylight. Time to get up. Oh, you got no covers now.

SUBJECT 1: Stop!

MARVIN CROMWELL: I can still do it.

SUBJECT 1: I got up, because I had to cook breakfast. And then I had to get Granddad to get the oven started. And now I'm doing this.

MARVIN CROMWELL: Keep going. Keep going, just keep going. So what are you going to do?

SUBJECT 1: I'm going to push to release.

MARVIN CROMWELL: Perfect. Do it. Put it out. Right there, whoa.

INTERVIEWER: What do you like about the type of work?

MARVIN CROMWELL: This is not work. It's something I enjoy. This is what I want to be doing. When you're doing what you want to do, your passion, it's not work, is it? It's fun.

SUBJECT 2: The risk involved-- we lost almost everything except the ranch. We had to go back and rebuild. That was tough. What keeps Marvin going? He's just driven. Through everything, he's a go-getter. There is nothing stopping Marvin, ever. I never said I was a cowgirl.

MARVIN CROMWELL: No, she didn't. But I'd say, OK, how many frogs does a horse have? And right there I would know if they were cowgirls or not. Because if they didn't know a horse even had a frog, it was over.

But she was honest and said, no, I've never rode a horse. I'd love to. But the day I fell in love with her and knew I was going to marry her, we had rounded up cattle.

We were branding and castrating. And she goes, I want to do that. And I go-- what, brand? And she says, no, I want to castrate. So she castrated a calf.

SUBJECT 2: I don't know when I knew I loved Marvin. I just-- it was a gradual--

MARVIN CROMWELL: It wasn't love at first sight was it?

SUBJECT 2: No, no.

MARVIN CROMWELL: Well, I first came down to the ranch in 1981. I was 21. My Great Uncle Ken called me into-- I sure could use some help, come on down. So they dropped me off on a canyon. And after that, I was in love with horses and this ranch.

I took this ranch over in '94, when they got too old to do it anymore. We were having dreams come true. We ran cattle for a lot of years-- horseback vacations, guiding professionally, elk hunts, bear hunts and all that. When the economy died, you couldn't give away a horseback vacation or a roundup or anything.

SUBJECT 2: I'll tell you what, I've seen him work his tail off. We would come-- I know he-- aw. It's been hard, but it's been good. He just-- once he commits, he just does it. He's not a quitter.

MARVIN CROMWELL: They can take it all away and we'll do it again.

SUBJECT 2: Right. Right.

MARVIN CROMWELL: We've got cowboy hats on the wall in there. And the cowboy hat from my great uncle, the cowboy hat from my dad-- (EMOTIONALLY) they're still here. I don't know. But my hat will be on their someday.

I'm like a sailboat out there on the ocean. I can go directly into the wind if I have to. And I've done that. This is not sustainable the way it is.

We've talked about selling it and doing something else and all that, because we just can't run cattle anymore. It breaks my heart that we'd even have to think that. But that's the crossroad we're at right now.

Like my little brother says, it's just a waste of time. It's a money pit, Marvin. You've dumped all your money your whole life in that thing. It's more than just the wide open spaces. It's us, it saved us. It's just part of us. It's our heart and soul. It's who we are. It's just back to the roots basics. It's us on the land, close to nature, close to God, and it's fantastic.

We want to protect that. And we're struggling on how we do that, because we're out of capital to keep throwing at this ranch. We could sell it. And what's going to happen is what happened with neighbors.

The guys that bought the ranch down below have made us a nice offer for this place. But that means it's done, it's buried. They'll come in here and they will scrape this land. All this stuff means nothing to them.

MADELEINE CAREY: I'm Madeleine with Wild Earth Guardians, and I've come down here to talk with Marvin and his family about retiring his grazing permit.




MARVIN CROMWELL: Good. Welcome to the Pearson Ranch.

MADELEINE CAREY: It's good to finally be here.

MARVIN CROMWELL: You know, we've been kind of closet cowboys on the whole thing with talking to the Guardians. We've got neighbors that are, like, you're sleeping with the enemy-- and not happy about it at all. Hey, everybody-- Madeleine. That's the grazing allotment. So now we've got to decide what we want to do.

The Guardians have come up with this-- take the permit and turn it back to the forest, and then it's retired forever. Nobody will run cattle on here again. It'll make more space for wildlife, which will mean more elk. Would you like more elk out there?

SUBJECT 1: Yeah.


MADELEINE CAREY: And it paying your family for the action of waving it back to the Forest Service. So permit retirement is really trying to provide a tool for us to take private capital and deliver it to rural communities. Because of climate change, because of global animal agriculture, because of changing values in families, permit retirement is a way to allow families to keep their private land, which is really where all the memories are.

MARVIN CROMWELL: It's a win-win for us. We're not saying, hey, we're anti-cattle on the forest. We're just saying the fact that we have another way, without selling 40 acres and really get our money out of this asset that I've sunk a lot of money into protecting. And it's just me and my horse and God in the world.

New Mexico