Kin to the Earth - Martin Litton

February, 2015

People who knew conservation stalwart Martin Litton use words like “determined,” “uncompromising” and “strong-willed” to describe his approach to saving important places in the American West. 

Lucille Vinyard, former head of the North Group of the Sierra Club who lives above Moonstone Beach, recalled that Litton “stuck to his guns” when confronted with opponents of efforts to save Redwood National Park from logging, the Grand Canyon from dams and Mineral King in the Sierra from a Disney resort. Latimer Smith, a young river guide who has rafted the Colorado River through Grand Canyon all of his life, uses the word “Resolute.” That word rings true. Martin Litton died on November 30th, 2014 at age 97, in his home in Portola Valley. He is survived by his wife and two sons.

Martin’s fierce determination came at an early age. In 1935 at the age of 18 he wrote a letter to the editor for the Los Angeles Times:  “The people of the entire state should rise up against the destruction of Mono Lake. Mono Lake is a gem.”

Litton was awarded an Air Medal in 1944 as a motor-less glider pilot in WWII.  That spirit continued as he became the first person to row wooden dories the entire length of the Grand Canyon in 1955, accompanied by his equally courageous and activist wife, Esther. 

A decade after that first trip, Lucille Vinyard recalls first meeting Litton when she accompanied him in a dory down the Colorado while Martin was fighting against one of several  attempts to dam the canyon.  “Martin is one of my great heroes. I put my life in his strong hands on those oars as we went fearlessly through the rapids. He was wonderful.”

Then at night, around a campfire on a sandbar in the depths of the Grand Canyon on a star-filled evening, they talked about the effort to create Redwood National Park which was “getting pretty hot.” As travel editor for the notoriously non-activist Sunset Magazine, Litton had authored the article “Redwood Country” in 1960, landing the effort on the national radar. 

As a pilot in a small plane, Litton saw the huge clear-cut devastation beyond the public roads and it made him angry. As an editor he had an opportunity to spread the word and “what was inside came out,” he said about his articles about redwoods. “I felt real mad, and some of it snuck in [to his writing].” In 1969, after First Lady, Ladybird Johnson dedicated the new Redwood National Park at what is now Ladybird Johnson Grove, Litton returned to find his publisher at Sunset Magazine had canceled his article on the event at the request of the head of Arcata Redwood Company.  Litton’s resolute response to his boss:  “One time in our lives we have a chance to do something timely—do it when it happens! So I quit. I walked out and never went back.”

In 2011, he returned to the forests he helped preserve to film the KQED documentary “Redwood National Park: Preserving Ancient Forests” with Esther, Lucille Vinyard and former Sierra Club photographer, Dave Van De Mark.

Litton was a member of the board of the Sierra Club from 1964 – 1974 when he resigned, feeling that the organization was not doing enough to stop Disney from destroying Mineral King in the southern Sierra. Sierra Club President, David Brower, dubbed the “Arch Druid” by  New Yorker Magazine,  wrote:  “Martin Litton is my conscience. Even when I would waver in various conservation battles, he would put a little starch in my backbone by reminding me that we should not be trying to dicker and maneuver.”

Latimer Smith, recent president of the non-profit “Grand Canyon Guides” credits Litton with saving the Canyon.  “The Sierra Club had given up, thinking the dams were going to be built, but Martin and Brower fought on,” he recalled.   

The legacy of Litton’s unwillingness to compromise is all around as people hike along Redwood Creek, snowshoe in Mineral King which is now part of Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, or raft the wild rapids through the Grand Canyon.

At 87 and again at 90 years of age, Litton set the record as the oldest person to run the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in his beloved wooden dory.   “It’s my world, and I don’t want any other.”

Martin requested friends to consider making a donation to Sequoia ForestKeeper, which protects the last of the giant Sequoia and its forest ecosystems in the southern Sierra Nevada.  Visit www.sequoiaforestkeeper.org.

Litton attributes his un-compromising inspiration to camping trips with family and friends in Yosemite. On a 12-day trip into the wilderness, they never saw another person. “That was the thing that changed my life,” Litton would recall decades later. Today, you can honor his resolute spirit by getting out into the nearest, wildest place you can find—and better yet, take a young person with you.