[Marxism] Martin Litton, Fighter for Environment, Dies at 97
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Sun Dec 7 09:10:27 MST 2014
NY Times, Dec. 7 2014
Martin Litton, Fighter for Environment, Dies at 97
By PAUL VITELLO
Martin Litton, an environmentalist, river pilot, writer and unrelenting
forward scout in the battle to preserve what was left of the wilderness
in the American West, most notably the Grand Canyon and the Colorado
River, died on Nov. 30 at his home in Portola Valley, Calif. He was 97.
His death was announced by the Sierra Club, which he had served as a
During his 70 years on the front lines of the American environmental
movement, Mr. Litton was less known than other figures. His open disdain
for the compromise and consensus-building paths that were often taken by
the movement’s leaders (disastrously, in his view) seemed to relegate
him to a different role.
He was the movement’s Jeremiah — the crier in the wilderness who spotted
the threats, condemned the desecraters and rallied the leadership to the
defining preservation conflicts of the early 1950s through the ’80s.
David Brower, who as the Sierra Club’s seminal leader in the last half
of the 20th century was compelled to make some of the compromises Mr.
Litton fought, was known to call him “our conscience.”
Mr. Litton’s intransigence was often the first line of defense not only
against timber and mining interests, for example, but against a broad
postwar public perception that all massive public works projects —
roads, bridges and dams — were, by definition, good. He tried to change
that view early on as a photojournalist.
In the early 1950s he rallied environmentalists, including Mr. Brower,
to fight a planned highway through the Sequoia and Inyo National Forests
in California’s Sierra Nevada. At one point he flew Mr. Brower and a
newspaper photographer over the site in his small plane to publicize the
potential harm the road posed to some of the world’s oldest and tallest
He wrote a series of articles for The Los Angeles Times later in the
decade that raised the first wide-scale alarm about government plans to
build a dam that would flood parts of the Dinosaur National Monument, at
the border of Colorado and Utah, for a hydroelectric plant.
And when the Interior Department announced plans in 1963 to bookend the
Grand Canyon with a pair of dams across the Colorado River — a federal
official claimed that by filling a part the canyon with water, more
people than ever would see its walls from boats — Mr. Litton wrote a
trenchant but truculent essay for the Sierra Club Bulletin that set off
one of the most important wilderness fights in the history of the
“Shall we fail to go into battle because it is hard to win?” he wrote.
“Could not 22,000 Sierra Club members, without strain, turn out 22,000
letters a day for a week?”
He continued, “There has never been a Congress, a president, a secretary
of interior, a governor or a newspaper editor who would not sit up and
take notice of that.”
The essay was accompanied by a list of the names and addresses of every
officeholder it mentioned, prompting the Internal Revenue Service to
suspend the Sierra Club’s tax-exempt status for breaking rules against
But the fight for the Grand Canyon galvanized activists and won wide
public support. Taking a cue from Mr. Litton, who joined the board in
1964, the Sierra Club attacked the government plan with full-page ads in
The New York Times and The Washington Post. One was headlined: “Should
We Also Flood the Sistine Chapel So Tourists Can Get Nearer the Ceiling?”
The government scrapped the plan in 1968. By then, Sierra Club
membership had grown to 78,000. Mr. Litton left its board in 1972.
“People always tell me not to be extreme,” he said in a 2010 documentary
about his life, “The Good Fight.”
“ ‘Be reasonable!’ they say. But I never felt it did any good to be
reasonable about anything in conservation, because what you give away
will never come back — ever. When it comes to saving wilderness, we
can’t be extreme enough. To compromise is to lose.”
Clyde Martin Litton was born on Feb. 13, 1917, in Los Angeles, the son
of Clyde and Elsie Litton. His father was a veterinarian, and his mother
worked in the home raising their four children.
Mr. Litton earned a bachelor’s degree in English at the University of
California, Los Angeles, in 1939. During World War II, he flew glider
planes in the Army Air Force, transporting troops and equipment behind
enemy lines during the European invasion. He became a freelance writer
and photographer after the war and was drawn increasingly to
Mr. Litton is survived by his wife of 72 years, the former Esther
Clewette; their sons John and Donald; their daughters Kathleen Litton
and Helen Litton; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
From 1971 to 1988, Mr. Litton ran a company operating trips through the
canyon in flat-bottomed boats called river dories.
Despite his accomplishments, Mr. Litton would speak more of his
disappointments when interviewed late in life. And the one that seemed
to haunt him most resulted from a compromise.
In exchange for the government’s promise to scrap its planned Dinosaur
National Monument dam, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups
had agreed in the 1950s not to oppose construction of a dam at Glen
Canyon, about 15 miles upriver from the eastern end of Grand Canyon
Since the late 1960s the dam has provided much of the power and water
used in the Southwest. Mr. Litton spent many years involved in an
unsuccessful campaign to dismantle the dam, saying it had caused
environmental problems downstream, including salinization of the water
and a proliferation of invasive plants and animals that threatened
The failure to stop the dam tormented him, he often said, though in a
1997 interview with The Los Angeles Times he said: “Between you and me,
I’m not too worried about this canyon. In 100,000 years, there will be
no evidence we were here. It will all be washed away.
“What I’m worried about is life. And those things we’re doing to
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