Appreciation: Lessons From the Man Who Stopped Grand Canyon Dams

Martin Litton, who died this week, was passionate, combative—and effective.
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Martin Litton, who launched the environmental movement as we know it, stands at Granite Rapid in the Grand Canyon.

"If you have to get old, get as old as you can get," Ansel Adams would often say, raising his glass in a toast to this principle. The great outdoorsman Martin Litton, Adams's friend and colleague in nature photography and environmental activism, certainly followed that advice. Litton, one of the last of the pioneers who shaped the modern environmental movement, died on Sunday at 97.

It was Litton who first understood the damage that a Marble Canyon Dam would inflict on Grand Canyon National Park. It was Litton who uncovered U.S. Forest Service mismanagement of the giant sequoias of California. It was Litton who knew which stands of redwoods would make the best Redwood National Park, for he had scouted them all by foot. When things began to go wrong in Kings Canyon National Park, it was Litton who alerted the rest of us.

He and a handful of others launched the environmental movement as we know it—or at least how we once knew it—as combative and to be reckoned with. "Passionate, original, tempestuous, stubborn, charming, obnoxious, courteous, inappropriate, dogged, fiery, and impossibly effective," says Barbara Boyle of the Sierra Club, summing up the man. So go the adjectives now bouncing around the country in Litton's wake, and in the emails of environmentalists who miss him already.

They describe, it strikes me, exactly those qualities that have gone missing from environmentalism itself. Environmental organizations are much bigger and richer than they ever were in Litton's heyday. They are also less stubborn and passionate. Many are now run by MBAs, with more and more corporate influence on boards. There is much more preoccupation with fund-raising, much more deal-making with the other side, much less fire in the belly.

Litton's generation brought us the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Environmental Protection Act, a great expansion of national parks, and a raft of other good environmental legislation. We could use that sort of explosion again. (Read about the Wilderness Act's 50-year legacy in National Geographic magazine.)

Stopping the Dam-Builders

Litton is most famous for his crucial role in some of the first great conservation victories: the defeat of a series of ruinous dams in the Southwest. It was an article Litton wrote as a Los Angeles Times reporter—a story on a pair of dams proposed by the Bureau of Reclamation for Dinosaur National Monument—that started it all.

The dams would have flooded a national preserve and ruined some of the most beautiful desert country we have. The story caught the attention of my father, David Brower, who had just become the first executive director of the Sierra Club, then a small hiking fraternity. He, Litton, and the Sierra Club led a grassroots campaign to kill the two dams proposed for Dinosaur.

It was the first time that American citizens had stopped a big government dam project.

A decade later, the two men led the Sierra Club and other groups in stopping a similar pair of dams in Grand Canyon, which would have flooded a stretch of the Colorado River well into the national park. These victories over the dam-builders catapulted the Sierra Club into prominence, and it quickly became the most powerful conservation organization in the country. (Related: "Gray Wolf Spotted in Grand Canyon for First Time in Decades?")

Litton's gifts were his good reporter's antennae for what was happening on the ground and his knowledge as hiker and boatman. He knew the canyons of the Southwest as well as anyone. (As a sideline, he founded a company called Grand Canyon Dories, in which he ran our desert rivers in dories of his own design. He holds the record as the oldest man ever to row the Grand Canyon, which he did at age 87.)

My father used to call Martin Litton his "conscience," and he served that function—gadfly, when his fellow conservationists waffled—for the entire conservation movement. He would not compromise his principles, or roll over when somebody else did.

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Litton boats down the Colorado River below Glen Canyon Dam, in Arizona. He holds the record as the oldest man ever to row the Grand Canyon, which he did at age 87.

Control Tower in His Head

A glider pilot in the Army Air Corps during the Second World War, Litton continued to fly into advanced old age. In the two days since his death, many of the reminiscences being told have to do with Litton's Red Baron style as pilot. The reason, I think, is that his approach to flying was so representative of his approach to life.

"I'll never forget the time he took me and an intern from our office up in his small plane to see the giant sequoias in all their majesty from the air," Barbara Boyle of the Sierra Club remembered in an email this week.

"Once we were circling to gain altitude, he mentioned that his plane was grossly overdue for preventive maintenance but that he'd get around to it eventually," she says. "Dropping us back off in Oakland, he insisted on having me and my white-knuckled intern for dinner at the airport restaurant, at which he proceeded to down at least two double martinis and, once done eating, promptly bid us adieu to fly the short hop down to his local airport near Palo Alto, brushing off our pleas to stay on the ground."

My mother, on dropping my father off at this same Oakland airport for a flight with Litton to an unimproved airstrip by the Grand Canyon, said, "Be careful."  She remembered my father's account of how Litton flew him under Navajo Bridge across the Colorado River. She also remembered how Litton, when commuting home to Palo Alto from the headquarters of Grand Canyon Dories, in Hurricane, Utah, would set his alarm. He didn't want to be asleep at the stick when it came time to gain elevation and fly over the Sierra Nevada, to avoid flying straight into those mountains.

And she had not forgotten my father's tale of the time Litton flew him, along with my little sister Barbara, over and around the construction site for the nuclear reactors at Diablo Canyon in California. Litton was photographing the site for a campaign he and my father were waging against the nuclear plant. When it came time to change film, my father said, Litton simply headed his plane up, "aimed at some unnamed point in interstellar space," while he changed the roll.

"There's nothing but room up there," Litton reassured him. "And this plane doesn't fly fast enough to hurt anybody."

This was the essence of Litton. He listened to his own control tower, the one in his head. The rules he followed were his own.

Henry David Thoreau, one of the fathers of environmentalism, spoke of "men with the seeds of life in them." For the daunting challenges ahead for the ecosystems and landscapes and species of this planet, the environmental movement will need men and women with the seeds of life in them—individuals, visionary, maddening, stubborn, obnoxious, fiery, impolite, fearless people like Martin Litton.

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