Man Who Stopped Grand Canyon Dams

Martin Litton“If you have to get old, get as old as you can get,” Ansel Adams would often say, raising his glass in a toast to this principle. The great outdoorsman Martin Litton, Adams’s friend and colleague in nature photography and environmental activism, certainly followed that advice. Litton, one of the last of the pioneers who shaped the modern environmental movement, died on Sunday at 97.

It was Litton who first understood the damage that a Marble Canyon Dam would inflict on Grand Canyon National Park. It was Litton who uncovered U.S. Forest Service mismanagement of the giant sequoias of California. It was Litton who knew which stands of redwoods would make the best Redwood National Park, for he had scouted them all by foot. When things began to go wrong in Kings Canyon National Park, it was Litton who alerted the rest of us.

He and a handful of others launched the environmental movement as we know it—or at least how we once knew it—as combative and to be reckoned with. “Passionate, original, tempestuous, stubborn, charming, obnoxious, courteous, inappropriate, dogged, fiery, and impossibly effective,” says Barbara Boyle of the Sierra Club, summing up the man. So go the adjectives now bouncing around the country in Litton’s wake, and in the emails of environmentalists who miss him already.

They describe, it strikes me, exactly those qualities that have gone missing from environmentalism itself. Environmental organizations are much bigger and richer than they ever were in Litton’s heyday. They are also less stubborn and passionate. Many are now run by MBAs, with more and more corporate influence on boards. There is much more preoccupation with fund-raising, much more deal-making with the other side, much less fire in the belly.

Litton’s generation brought us the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Environmental Protection Act, a great expansion of national parks, and a raft of other good environmental legislation. We could use that sort of explosion again.

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