Environmental warrior Martin Litton is still fighting at 95

  • Martin Litton runs a rapid in the dory Sequoia.

    John Blaustein
  • Martin Litton

    Jane Braxton Little

Martin Litton, 95, wastes no time on proprieties. "I'm supposed to be dead, you know," he growls on a January morning, leading me through a thicket of potted plants into his home in the hills near Palo Alto, Calif.

A towering presence with a booming voice, Litton has spent his life battling developers, extractive industries and federal agencies on behalf of iconic Western landscapes. He is among the last of a generation of take-no-prisoners environmental activists. With David Brower and Edward Abbey in the 1960s, he successfully fought the damming of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon and helped kill a Disney resort planned near Sequoia National Park. He campaigned for the creation of Redwood National Park and federal wilderness in the southern Sierra Nevada. Yet Litton remains restless: "I worry about the fate of the Earth. I still have time -- and a million things to do."

His imposing frame is stooped with age but he moves with purposeful strides, his cane more annoyance than support. Before I can sit down, he curses his hearing aid, tosses it aside and unleashes an invective against the U.S. Forest Service. "They're so crooked and corrupt it's hard to believe," he fumes, blue eyes flashing beneath unruly eyebrows and a thatch of snowy hair. "What they are doing is not only stupid, it's evil."

What has him pissed off right now is the continued logging of Giant Sequoia National Monument, adjacent to Sequoia National Park in California's Sierra Nevada. Litton and others fought for decades to preserve these trees, among the Earth's largest and oldest. Finally, in 2000 President Clinton created the monument and assigned its management to the Forest Service, which had prioritized timber production there for nearly a century. "That was the kiss of death," Litton mutters.

The Forest Service has continued to log, saying it's harvesting trees that pose a public hazard or to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire. Litton is livid, and so he's working to transfer the monument to the National Park Service, which puts more emphasis on preserving natural resources. Then the sequoias, "these groves as holy as the Sistine Chapel," he says, will get the protection they deserve.

I first met Litton among those sequoias, where he has taken many journalists to promote his cause. Now wobbly and with two artificial knees, he relies more on political connections and the telephone. But his voice still resonates with conviction, and he's convinced 81 U.S. representatives to sign a letter asking President Obama to authorize the transfer. "Martin has never been one to let anything get in his way," says Carl Ross, executive director of Save America's Forests, which is coordinating the effort in Washington, D.C.

Litton's living room is filled with photos of him posing with political dignitaries and maneuvering rapids in a dory boat. He's prone to conversational tangents, from how he met Esther, his wife of 69 years, to encounters with four different U.S. presidents. As he rambles, Esther brings out black-and-white photographs, old magazines and yellowed newspaper articles bearing Litton's byline. A chronology of his career gradually collects on the sofa and floor.

Litton grew up in Gardena, near Los Angeles. His environmental conscience blossomed on early hikes in the southern Sierra. At 18, he wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Times denouncing dewatering Mono Lake for L.A.'s expanding population. And in the 1940s, while working in the paper's circulation department, he began freelancing stories about environmental issues.

In 1952, they got the attention of Brower, then executive director of the Sierra Club. Litton's exploration of the Green and Yampa rivers in a small wooden dory became a centerpiece of the club's campaign against two proposed dams in Dinosaur National Monument. The resulting publicity, including the book This is Dinosaur, helped persuade Congress to vote against them. "That was the first time to take on the whole nation and win," Litton says.

The Sierra Club used a similar strategy in 1964, when Litton led a Colorado River dory expedition through the Grand Canyon to galvanize public opposition to additional dams. And a cover story he wrote for Sunset Magazine, where he was travel editor from 1954 to 1968, first drew national attention to the destruction of California redwoods. Litton later founded Grand Canyon Dories, the outfitting business that provided his livelihood for 20 years. Ever the contrarian, as a river runner Litton prefers dories to inflatable rafts. In 2009, at age 92, he broke his own record as the oldest person to run the Grand Canyon in a dory.

Litton has his share of enemies, who call him ego-driven and rigid, difficult and dogged. Even his 60-plus-year affiliation with the Sierra Club had its tempests. It began inauspiciously when he was in high school, and was invited to an L.A. chapter meeting. "The women sat there knitting and talking about the next outing," he recalls. "I didn't see any fire at all." Litton worked with Brower to enflame the group's political temper, warning of one catastrophic threat after another. Even after he left the board of directors in the early 1970s, he continued to demand action on various causes. The organization's bottom-up process relied on the input of local chapters, but Litton ignored all that, says Joe Fontaine, a former Sierra Club national president: "He'd go straight to the board. He was impatient. Negotiations are not Martin's style."

"Someone had to do something," explains Litton, still sounding irritated.

For all his bombast, Litton exudes a genteel charm. When we step out to lunch, he orders a martini and scrupulously opens doors for every woman we encounter. In the car, he recites Rudyard Kipling -- "Something lost beyond the ranges ..." -- and we trade couplets from Alice in Wonderland. He speaks particularly tenderly of Esther, "All that time she put up with me."

After a day of rabble-rousing recollections, Litton disentangles his long legs from enlarged photos he'd brought out to impress upon me the destruction still being visited upon the sequoia groves. As he escorts me out, his gravelly voice softens. "Try to behave," he says. The moment doesn't last: "That's just something I say. I don't know why. I never did."

kevin nelson
kevin nelson
Mar 06, 2012 02:42 PM
As someone who is fighting the insanity of massive over-development in So Cal, and even more disgusting against a Shell/Exxon subsidiary effort to pave the last 400 acres of native wilds along the coast, I could not agree more with Martin. Stop the destruction of mother earth. Leave beauty and wildness un-fragmented. The "compromise" we are advised to take was struck a long long time ago. Now, its just putrid greed. Stand up for those who will one day wonder what the h... we were thinking.
Gary  Lane
Gary Lane Subscriber
Mar 09, 2013 08:41 AM
As a former USFS wildlife biologist back in the early 70’s, fighting bureaucratic bio-politics, red tape, and increased office mire, the drudgery precipitated my seeking other meaningful outdoor employment. In short, it led me to Martin’s Grand Canyon Dories and 5 years with his company up north (Snake and Salmon River’s), before branching off on my own.

Early on I was impressed that Martin had named all his boats after various areas that had been immensely degraded or destroyed altogether, by the hand of man. That he was (is) such a grand fighter for maintaining the natural integrity of many of our treasured rivers and landscapes was also a big draw for me in joining his cause. His courage to buck the system and strong conviction to carry on face to face with the never ending exploitative assaults to our natural heritage was both contagious and inspirational.

And the group of dory guides I came to work with were similarly inspired and became more like a band of river warriors, doing their part in sharing those special places with folks whom would hopefully also catch the same bug. It only takes one rock to start an avalanche and the ripple effect from a single stone pitched into the water spreads out in all directions. (the Martin Littons of the world).

The battles never end, and as long as we keep cranking out more people on the planet, our environmental problems will continue to parallel that human growth. Though everyone (except the politicians) seems to hate politics (specially these days), it’s an unavoidable engagement all the same, and the only game in town. This is why I have been a subscriber to HCN for so many years now. Their sound journalism and promotional awareness of broad scale issues affecting our natural resources make HCN my favorite way of keeping up on the challenges.

I continue to row wooden boats, use toilet paper, and know where wood comes from. My professional time with the USFS was spent coordinating timber sales with fish and wildlife resources when Jack Ward Thomas was head of wildlife research in LaGrande, OR. Like Martin, he was an impressive warrior for the wilds too, so when he became disillusioned by atrocious politics after his eventual stint as head of USFS, it was disheartening to me.

There is something seriously wrong about cutting down trees the size of which a circle of six or more people can’t put their connected hands around. Like denying climate change, denying increased demands for preserving more, not less, old growth trees comes with great consequences. The Sequoias are a profound natural wonder. Their unique age and ecological and significance seems important enough culturally to warrant listing as a Natural World Heritage Site with protection via (UNESCO) designation, or transfer of management to the Park Service as Martin suggests. Or at the minimum to be managed as a non-harvestable timber area within a National Forest, by the USFS.

Though historically I have made a couple trips to DC for testimony in favor of more ID roadless areas, and will continue paying attention to various natural resource mgt concerns, it is nice to see Martin is still out there leading in his way and setting ever more fires-of-passion and casting stones to help excite others. Hopefully more will catch the wave.

Thumbs up to Martin, keep-on keepen-on.

Gary Lane
Wapiti River Guides
Riggins, ID