Martin Litton: David Brower’s Conservation Conscience 1

June 6th, 2011 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

Martin Litton, “Father of Redwood National Park,” “Grand Old Man of the Colorado River” and David Brower’s “Conservation Conscience.”

Martin Litton, Palo Alto, California, September 2009, Wikipedia. Martin Litton was 93 years old and still speaking on behalf of the Sequoia Redwoods.

The environmental organization, Save America’s Forests, on its website referred to Martin Litton as the “Father of Redwood National Park.” The Los Angeles Times called Martin Litton, “The Grand Old Man of the Colorado River.” The Sierra Club’s first Executive Director, David Brower called Martin Litton his “conservation conscience.” In the groundbreaking Sierra Club Books Exhibit Format Series, Martin Litton used several different names for his photograph credits because as Senior Editor of Sunset Magazine, Sunset did not want him involved in controversial conservation campaigns. Regardless of what he’s referred to as, Martin Litton has proved to be what Voice of the Environment called him, “The great American conservationist of the 20th century.”

In addition to being an environmental activist and conservationist, Sierra Club Board member, bush pilot, river guide, hiker, writer, journalist and landscape photographer, Martin Litton today at age 94 has held leadership titles with many environmental groups including Save America’s Forests, Lighthawk, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and Glen Canyon Institute.

Shortly after the Sierra Club Board made David Brower the first Executive Director in 1952, David Brower saw articles Martin Litton wrote in the Los Angeles Times about proposed dams in Dinosaur National Monument. David Brower invited Martin Litton to join the Sierra Club and thus a powerful alliance began. To learn more about David Brower see the blog post, “David Brower: Photographer and Environmentalist 1.”

David Brower wrote in his 1982 introduction to Martin Litton’s University of California, Berkeley, Bancroft Library Oral History: “Some people get the kudos and others, out of inequity, don’t. Martin Litton is due most of those addressed to me in error: More years than I will ever admit, he has been my conservation conscience.” In the same introduction, David Brower added:

If you look over the illustrations in the battle to save Dinosaur National Monument, you will find Charles Eggert’s color films, “This Is Dinosaur” and “Wilderness River Trail,” Philip Hyde’s beautiful work in black and white, and Martin Litton’s 16mm color, 4X5 color, and black and white photographs from cameras he happened to be carrying in battery, along with an eye and ear that missed nothing. That was the beginning, but only the beginning. The proper photo history of Martin Litton , with accompanying legends, could occupy many volumes… If there was a piece of American environment that had problems, Martin found out about it, wrote about it, photographed it from the surface or, with a hand on the stick, from the air. Sometimes he could use his own name. At other times, he was Clyde Thomas or Homer Gasquez. So you have to go through numberless publications and add all three names up to appreciate the aggregate retrospective of Martin Litton.

One year the Sierra Club directors, having voted for Grand Canyon dams and a year later reversed themselves, were ready to re-reverse. Martin’s knowledge and eloquence stopped them. They were ready to go for the wrong Redwood National Park. It was Martin who knew where the best Redwoods were, who had the creativity to propose a comprehensive Redwood National Park that would have been a monument to conservation genius. We didn’t get it because organizational jealousies within the conservation movement—one of the major threats to environment—got in the way. It was Martin who knew where the gentle wilderness was on the Kern Plateau—wilderness that should have been added to Sequoia National Park. “Old-boy” conservation trades got in the way. It was Martin, alas, who happened to be in Bagdad when the Sierra Club directors voted, without seeing it, to accept Diablo Canyon as an alternate site for the reactor proposed to be built at Nipomo Dunes. Had he been in San Francisco instead, a different history would have been written… When the Sierra Club Board was discussing what to do at Mineral King with respect to Walt Disney’s proposed ski development, and when I myself had wobbled and was about to go along, it was Martin who got me to reverse myself right there on the spot, in front of everybody.

More on Martin Litton, David Brower and Martin Litton’s travels and projects with Philip Hyde in the next and other future blog posts in this series, “Martin Litton: David Brower’s Conservation Conscience 2.”



  1. Greg Boyer says:

    There are so many that we owe what we enjoy, and sometimes take for granted, for their untiring efforts to preserve our wild and scenic places. Learning of these selfless people I hope acts as a catalyst to others. Thanks for sharing this David.

    Best Regards,

  2. Hi Greg, I appreciate your comment. Many, many environmental heroes deserve our praise. On Landscape Photography Blogger I will mainly focus on those who worked with or were associated with my father and his work in some way.

  3. Great history lesson for me David – really appreciate all of your dedication to those who laid much of the groundwork for us to continue and do our small contribution.

    Looking forward to reading more and saving these for future reference. Best, Robert

  4. Hi Robert, thank you for visiting. People like Martin Litton are a great inspiration because many environmentalists today believe that compromise is the way. Martin Litton was not only a strong negotiator, he was tough and stood his ground well. He kept asking for more and more on behalf of wilderness and gave less and less to developers. It takes all kinds, but in today’s world where the threats are growing, we definitely need those on the extremes to set the tone. Groups like Greenpeace do a tremendous amount of good by taking radical peaceful action.

  5. Greg Russell says:

    Wow, this is definitely a good history lesson. I’m about to start reading John McPhee’s “Encounters with the Archdruid” which is about the environmental movement vis-a-vis David Brower. I’ll need to do my homework on, and look forward to your next post, about Martin Litton.

    Thank you David!

  6. Greg, thank you for mentioning “Encounters With The Archdruid.” It is a must-read to understand the major environmental activists and issues of the 20th Century and this century, as well as the conversation about water in the Western US. John McPhee writes so well he makes anything interesting, but “Encounters With The Archdruid” brings together unlikely companions for a conversation that is of utmost importance and relevance, even more so today than when it first occurred. The result is a page turner. It is a good way to get to know David Brower, but is somewhat atypical of him. One of the reasons the “conservatives” on the Sierra Club Board rose up against David Brower, including Ansel Adams, was that David Brower treated the opposition caustically, which he does not do in conversations with the infamous Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Floyd Domini in “Encounters With The Archdruid.” In “Encounters With The Archdruid,” John McPhee records David Brower and Floyd Domini as quite amiable and friendly to each other while they disagree around the campfire and across the pontoons of a river boat.

  7. pj says:

    That’s a good point David. Taking what’s considered a radical position is a strong starting point. Compromise is no doubt inevitable, but starting from a compromised position is a recipe for losing big time.

  8. Hi PJ, I am grateful for your perspective because you have been following the environmental beat for years. As I’m sure you know, people like my father, Edward Abbey, David Brower, Martin Litton, Wallace Stegner, and most of the other spokespersons for conservation for many years have been extolling the next generation to be wary of compromise with industrialists. You will love the upcoming blog post in this series when you read the way Martin Litton explains this point and hear how cantankerous he was in defending wilderness. The main problem is that corporate interests will stop at nothing to make a profit at all costs, including destroying the natural world that keeps us ALIVE, while they use the excuse that they are backed by Wall Street and concerned “shareholders.” Fortunately, the “shareholders” are beginning to see through the whole shell game, beginning to understand what is truly at stake, and now that they are starting to change, the corporate climate is beginning to follow. Nonetheless, we must be awake and aware that the worst offenders will get worse before they get better.

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