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Issue date: September 13, 2000

Martin Litton: Fifty years of conservation Martin Litton: Fifty years of conservation (September 13, 2000)

A conversation with Martin Litton of Portola Valley is sure to traverse the highlights of the last 50 years of efforts to save the great forests and rivers of California and the West.

In his roles as a freelance writer for the Los Angeles Times, a notable leader of the Sierra Club, an editor at Sunset Magazine, a pilot and photographer, and a crusader, Mr. Litton has made his mark in the great conservation battles of the last half century.

And he is still fighting.

Two issues dominate his concerns: forests and rivers. And he's played a major role in saving both.

Forests forever

Mr. Litton recalls the family camping trip to the Northern California redwoods to research a travel article focused on the redwood state parks.

"What I saw appalled me -- not just logging, but freeways," he says. "I saw what was going on."

Some of that passion energized his cover story on "The Redwood Country" in the October 1960 Sunset magazine. A picture of his family in an autumn grove graced the cover.

"Letters started to pour into Congress, and that was the beginning of the Redwood National Park," Mr. Litton says with satisfaction 40 years later.

Mr. Litton did lots of lobbying and testifying, and put many miles on the Sunset plane, before the freeways stopped and the park happened.

He particularly remembers tackling Governor Pat Brown on the subject of Freeway 199, which was planned to slash through the northern redwood forests between Crescent City and Grants Pass in Oregon. The following day, Governor Brown cancelled the freeway. "We stopped them cold," Mr. Litton recalls with delight. "The State Division of Highways was the enemy then -- the way Stanford is now."

Redwood National Park was created in 1968.

Man and the river

In the early 1950s, Mr. Litton learned that the Bureau of Reclamation was planning to build a couple of dams across the Colorado River in Dinosaur National Monument. As he often did, he went camping with his family to check out the area. And took lots of pictures.

Not long afterward, Sunday features appeared in the Los Angeles Times with Mr. Litton's stunning pictures and lively text. Titles such as "Reclamation Bureau Plan Perils Scenic Wonderland," "U.S. Dams Threaten Land where Dinosaurs Roamed," and "Children in Boats Run Utah Rapids," reached an audience of 400,000 people. "I wanted to stop the dams in Dinosaur National Monument. I didn't mince words. I was an advocate," he says.

How did he get away with it? "Los Angeles did not want any dams that would diminish the flow of Colorado River water. So I could write anything I wanted," he replies.

About this time, Mr. Litton hooked up with David Brower and the newly energized Sierra Club, and a major public campaign halted the dams.

Unfortunately, in Mr. Litton's opinion, the Glen Canyon Dam -- downstream from and much bigger than the dams proposed for Dinosaur National Monument -- slipped through without major opposition from the Sierra Club or anyone else.

By the time the federal government began promoting two dams that would back up water into the Grand Canyon itself, Mr. Litton had his dory business and knew more about that spectacular stretch of river than almost anyone.

In 1964, Mr. Litton led a rafting trip with David Brower, photographer Philip Hyde, and author Francois Leydet on a dory down the Grand Canyon. From that trip came a famous Sierra Club book, "Time and the River Flowing," which, Mr. Litton says, "is given a great deal of credit for keeping dams out of the Grand Canyon."

Mr. Litton contributed to that fight in many ways. Most public, perhaps, was the 1969 expedition that celebrated the centennial of Major John Wesley Powell's first voyage down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. The Sierra Club sponsored the expedition, Mr. Litton's dories provided the transport, and Mr. Litton, himself, played the one-armed Civil War veteran. They put in at Green River, Wyoming, where Major Powell and his 10 men started in 1869, and stopped and dressed up in costume for ceremonies at key points along the route.

Mr. Litton remembers the final celebration where the Virgin River meets the Colorado, now at the head of Lake Mead. He had donned Major Powell's uniform, with the sleeve pinned to his jacket, for the final approach.

"Kids came running down the slope with a watermelon (just as they did 100 years ago for Major Powell and his exhausted crew). They stumbled and fell on their face, and broke the watermelons."

The Grand Canyon dams were never built either. Now Mr. Litton and many others would like to get rid of the Glen Canyon Dam, which he believes is useless, dangerous, and should be drained. "The water that is lost by seepage is worth more in money than the electricity generated," he says. "It makes sense to get rid of it."


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