One-of-a-kind environmentalist Martin Litton speaks about being an activist, how he saved Mono Lake, and what it means to sometimes stand alone.
Martin Litton passed away November 30th, 2014 at the age of 97. Martin was known a cantankerous rabble-rouser and eco-warrior for the past seventy years. At the time of our interview, when he was 95, he showed no signs of quieting down about the environment. Since childhood, Mr. Litton has been outspoken about the environment and never feared speaking truth to power. When he saw something wrong he acted to correct it! At age 18 he wrote his first letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times denouncing the degredation of Mono Lake, whose water was siphoned to the expanding Los Angeles basin. Mr. Litton was closely affiliated with the Sierra Club for more than 60 years. He led numerous environmental charges and is the author of The Life and Death of Lake Mead. He is known for resisting and stopping proposed dams on the Colorado River as well as fighting the U.S. Forest Service over logging public treasures like California’s giant Sequoia forests. He often used direct experience and nature photography to inspire others to act. Mr. Litton was also known for his outfitting business, Grand Canyon Dories, which provided his livelihood for 20 years. As a 92 year-old, Martin broke the record of being the oldest person to run the Grand Canyon in a dory.
Martin Litton: I just loved the beauty of the earth and of course, I didn’t realize that even when I was a little kid and was enjoying all this, it was going to hell right then and there. I mean, roads were being built and cities were growing and so forth and so on. The native land with its animals, all that was starting to diminish — nature was starting to diminish. And the more I saw of that the more I didn’t like it.
Martin Litton: I had contact with some boat builders in Oregon and I got them to adapt their kind of boat to the Grand Canyon, and after a while I was in the business of running the Grand Canyon, remember that?
Huey Johnson: Yeah I do.
Martin Litton: The next thing you know we’re going and after a while more people wanted to go and more people wanted to go and I was kind of stuck with it — and then it became a business, you know.
Huey Johnson: Yeah.
Martin Litton: And we stuck to our principles in rowing and having the kind of boats we should have had. Everything worked out all right, but eventually that wasn’t the way I wanted to spend the rest of my life. It’s been part of a movement of some kind, an effort of some kind, maybe an organization. I didn’t ever think I was trying to show myself as a winner. The point is, you know I used to write a lot of things that went in — ended up in the Los Angeles Times and [unintelligible]. I mean pictures and the works. And I wasn’t thinking about what it would do for me because I was a freelance. See, I had a job at the Times but I wasn’t in the editorial department. It was just that the thing was in there. I want it to be said — like litter. I did a big thing on litter and it really, oh, it raised hell all over Southern California because I showed the pictures of the mess on the streets. And I’ve always said to compromise is to lose. You’ve given up at least part of your intention.
Huey Johnson: That’s a good point.
Martin Litton: Compromise is a loss to both sides. If one side’s going to win, the other side has to lose. So let’s be on the winning side and let’s not lose. Mono Lake was about to go because the streams that were feeding it were kidnapped and sent off into the Los Angeles Aqueduct for a while, and then we had to stop that, and we did. And that is — that was a success. Mono Lake came back up again. It was actually down below, way below where it is now and the islands in Mono Lake, which were breeding grounds for birds, millions of birds, different kinds, because they were isolated from predators — they weren’t islands anymore, they became peninsulas as the water went down. And all of a sudden we realized that something had to be done or there would be extinction all over the place. So we got LA to stop taking out of Lee Vining Creek — the water, and they’re not getting it anymore. At least they’re not getting much of it. Environmentalists, you know the word — that’s falling on deaf ears. With me, I don’t think of myself that way. I think of things that I don’t like and a few things I do like that happen. But you know it doesn’t — you don’t have to be brave to stand alone, you just have to be ornery.
Huey Johnson: Well, you do got a dose of that.
Martin Litton: Oh you — I think…I don’t give a hoot of what people think.