[Marxism] Martin Litton, Fighter for Environment, Dies at 97

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Dec 7 09:10:27 MST 2014

NY Times, Dec. 7 2014
Martin Litton, Fighter for Environment, Dies at 97

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 
national parks.

“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 
political lobbying.

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 
environmental subjects.

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 
National Park.

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 
native species.

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 
extinguish life."

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