By Kevin Fedarko
In the annals of wilderness conservation, Martin Litton is a singular force of nature—a Category 5 hurricane of eloquence, passion, and pig-headed obduracy quite unlike anything that has ever blown across the American landscape. Born in 1917, he spent World War II crash-landing gliders across Western Europe, then returned to California and started raining his fire down on U.S. industries and government agencies bent on ravaging the country’s wild places during the boom years of the 1950s.
In his roles as a freelance writer for the Los Angeles Times, an editor at Sunset magazine, and the only commercial outfitter to ever guide the Grand Canyon exclusively in wooden dories, Litton elbowed into the front lines of some of the most important environmental battles of his day. He wracked up a number of impressive victories and an even longer list of painful defeats, but the greatest of his crusades took place inside the grandest canyon of all, where he helped to spearhead a battle against a trio of hydroelectric dams that were designed to drown the unearthly paradise at the bottom of the abyss and to still the river running through it.
The key to that campaign involved Litton’s decision to join forces with another ex-soldier—a veteran of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division by the name of David Brower—who working as the executive director of an obscure group of alpine picnickers in San Francisco known as the Sierra Club. The story of how Litton, Brower, and their friends whipped the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is one of the best river legends we’ve got—and the consequences of their victory are still reverberating today.
And while the Sierra Club transformed into America’s most iconic conservation lobby and Brower was heralded by Life magazine as “his country’s number-one working conservationist,” it’s the old dory captain that Brower once called “my environmental conscience” who, at age 91 [now 95, eds], remains one of the nation’s greatest unsung conservation heroes.
This story first appeared in the March, 2009 issue of Canoe & Kayak, as part of our “Heroes” feature.