The Legacy of Martin Litton

The Legacy of Martin Litton

What is wilderness? It’s mankind’s acknowledgment that there is a higher value, a higher purpose. It ceases to be wilderness when we’re here. But we are its stewards. It is vital to our souls. It is the source of much of our inspiration. ~Martin Litton, 1917 – 2014

On November 30, 2014, the river community not only lost a legend, but a hero—Grand Canyon river-running pioneer and renowned conservationist Martin Litton.

The founder of one of the original commercial river running companies on the Colorado River—Grand Canyon Dories—and a longtime activist for the Sierra Club, Litton will be remembered for his critical role in some of the most important environmental battles in history.  In fact, no single person had a greater impact on saving the Grand Canyon from being dammed than Litton.  But his passion for the environment stretched far beyond the Colorado River and the Canyon.  In his long career as an environmental crusader, Litton also helped block two dams inside Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument, several dams along Idaho’s Snake River and won countless other battles.

Later in life, Litton became passionate about California’s redwoods, and in 2001, he helped create Sequoia ForestKeeper, a non-profit organization to serve as the “eyes, ears and voice of the forest.” And though his focus may have shifted over the years from rivers to forests, it was clear to those who knew him best that the Grand Canyon always held the most special place in his heart.

Martin Litton with O.A.R.S. founder George Wendt

At the age of 87, Litton set the record as the oldest person to run the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.  On that trip he shared this of the canyon, “It’s my world, and I don’t want any other.” He continued, “What it hasn’t got is not worth having, and what it doesn’t know is not worth knowing.” Later, in 2007 at the age of 90, he would take his final dory trip down the Colorado River.

A longtime friend of OARS, we celebrate his life and dedication to the natural environment along with all of those who had the chance to be inspired by him throughout his 97 years. George Wendt, OARS Founder and President, shares this…

“Martin was an amazing guy and the entire Grand Canyon community owes him a tremendous debt of gratitude for the vital conservation work he did.  I am happy to remember him as a good friend from the time we first met in the canyon in 1968 and I feel privileged to have done a river trip in the Grand Canyon with him in 2004 when he—at age 87—rowed all of the rapids, including Lava Falls.  The stories that he shared were legendary.  His contributions to the preservation of the Grand Canyon and the redwoods in California need to stand as an inspiration to us all as to what one man, supported by a wonderful wife (Thanks, Esther!), can accomplish.”

In Litton’s own words, “It doesn’t take many voices to make things right, just strong voices.”

Martin Litton, 1917 - 2014

This short tribute to Litton cannot even begin to encompass his many achievements, all he has done for the planet, and the many ways he’ll be remembered.  For more great words from and about our dear friend, keep reading…

Martin Litton – A Legend by Sequoia ForestKeeper Staff

River Runners of the Grand Canyon, Documentary by Don Briggs (1994)

“The Old Man and the River” by John Balzar, Los Angeles Times (1997)

“Ain’t It Just Grand” by Kevin Fedarko, Outside Magazine (2005)

VIDEO: Meet Martin Litton, Grand Canyon Dories by Lauren De Remer, The Eddy (2012)

“Martin Litton Dies at 97; Passionate Wilderness Conservationist” by Betina Boxall, Los Angeles Times (2014)

“Martin Litton, Conservationist, Dies at 97,” Outside Magazine (December 1, 2014)

“Martin Litton, Legendary Conservation Leader, Dies at Age 97,” San Jose Mercury News (December 1, 2014)

“Appreciation: Lessons From the Man Who Stopped Grand Canyon Dams,”,National Geographic (December 2, 2014)

“Martin Litton Remembered at Fervent Conservationist,” NPR (December 4, 2014)

“Martin Litton, Fighter for Environment, Dies at 97,” New York Times (December 6, 2014)

“Adventure Travel Industry Remembers River-Running Conservationist Martin Litton,” Adventure Travel News (December 17, 2014)


Make a Donation in Martin Litton’s Honor

The family of Martin Litton wishes to thank everyone for their condolences. In response to the inquiries concerning a memorial service, Martin was adamant in his desire that there be no memorial. His philosophy was that people should be doing what needs to be done, not just talking about it.

Martin’s hope was that his friends and those who knew of his work would consider making a donation to Sequoia ForestKeeper, the organization where he was the active President for the last 13 years, that protects the last of the giant Sequoia and its forest ecosystems in the southern Sierra Nevada. Donations in his memory can be sent to Sequoia ForestKeeper, P.O. Box 2134, Kernville, CA 93238-2134 or online at the Sequoia ForestKeeper website:

Martin used to say, “People always tell me not to be extreme. ‘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.”

Photos: John Blaustein

  • Steve Perreira

    Thank you for this story Cari. I didn’t know Martin was looking after the Sequoia Redwoods here in my backyard. What I appreciate most about Martin is that his stance was UNCOMPROMISING. Too many neo-environmentalists are willing to trade-off a piece of nature a little at a time. Recently I was shocked to hear a young Forest Service biologist tell me there is a tradition of cattle in the high Sierras, so we should continue it. The fact is, that tradition does not extend back to the time when nature determined what lived here. Until the cattle are removed, the meadows and riparian areas will not recover. Compromises will not get them out.

  • Gary

    In remembrance of and tribute to an iconic earth warrior.

    Back in 1975, while kayaking on the Yankee Fork and Upper Salmon River, I asked the group of boaters I had just met, floated with, and then watched the stars come out around a blazing campfire, if they knew of an outfitter whom had a good conservation ethic and long season that I might seek employment with. Unanimously, they suggested Martin Litton, whom I had never heard of.

    So the next day after yaking, I went to the nearest phone booth, called the company and talked to a lady about potentially becoming a guide, as I was fed up with my wildlife position with the USFS and the frustrations of bureaucracies. She thanked me for my interest and I thought I would never hear from the company again, but a week later they called and said I could apprentice a trip in Hells Canyon with them the following week.

    I did. They liked me. I liked them. So, I gave the USFS a week’s notice (of a permanent job that was extremely difficult to land in the first place) and went to work for the company, and a high paying guide’s job, with benefits. That is, if you count the wonderful influence of outdoor living in terms other than dollars and insurance policies.

    Aside from the beauty of the rivers, canyons, and outdoor freedom, what I appreciated most about Grand Canyon Dories was that Martin named all his boats after spectacular places that had been in some way despoiled by man. This was significant because it gave us dory guides a much broader purpose than just taking people down rivers for fun. The fight for maintaining the integrity of wild places that was Martin’s essence rubbed off on many of us in the guiding community and dory family.

    But, it wasn’t until 1976 that I was actually on my first Grand Canyon river trip with Martin Litton, and a crew of National Geographic writers and photographers. The purpose was for doing a story about the bicentennial (200year) celebration of Independence Day and the significance of the Grand Canyon fundamentally fitting into the total schematics of that theme: “Let Freedom Ring.”

    It was my second year as a boatman, and I had never seen a dory flip yet. But, watching Martin row Lava Falls, I was certain I was about to see him tip over as he went into the magnum wave coming off the “Black Rock.” But as water came crashing over his head, I could see his sheepish grin as he emerged right-side up below all the mayhem. The river paid him back one.

    After the trip I hitched a ride with Martin in his Cessna from Hurricane to Lewiston, where I mostly worked for his northern division, and got my second surprise with him. We cruised along the rim of Hells Canyon, wing-tip too near tree top, as he suddenly dipped the nose and dropped wildly to buzz a campsite of another commercial dory trip. Not very high above their camp, I dropped a head scarf with a message in it out a side window to the guides below, as Martin suddenly aimed at the moon and dashed upward just as audaciously. The ferocious acrobatics of it all scared the holy molly out of me and I couldn’t wait to touch down, too many painfully long minutes afterwards.

    He flew his plane like he rowed his boat, and lived his life on the fine edge between right-side up, and wrong-side-down. Fortunately, for me right-side-up meant being on the right side of the fight for earth justice that he so magnificently represented. His intense defense of wild places rubbed off on a lot of people, in a lot of powerful ways, and has continued to ripple outward exponentially, like the roots of a large tree spreading out tendrils in all directions to help stabilize the soil.

    Little did I know at the time when I left the USFS to escape into the wilds, that I would re-learn from the rivers, canyons, and exceptional conservation/preservationists like Martin, that there is no real escape. Erosion is a constant, and his life example, is an elegant testimony to the importance of continued organic resistance to the political processes that continue to eat away at our environment.

    His sphere of influence has been felt by an enormous amount of people, and he was a great earth/river warrior on many fronts.

    Keep on, keeping on, Martin. We will miss you, but never forget your wisdom, tenacity and legacy.

    Gary Lane

    Wapiti River Guides

    (a vine)

    • Cari_Morgan

      Great story. Thank you for sharing with us.

  • RationalThought90036

    We were lucky enough to be on that 2004 trip with Martin (and George, and J.B., and Kevin Fedarko). I smile whenever I see that stock photo of Martin taken at Poncho’s, as my wife and also I had our picture taken with Martin at the same time/place.

    Martin was truly one-of-a-kind. The planet will miss him.

    I won’t bore anyone with stories from that trip – but if anyone would like to see photos of a 21-day full-GC dory trip with Martin Litton, I have them on my website:

  • JollyRoguer

    What a legend. He will be missed. Just FYI, there seems to be some confusion about Martin’s last GC trip. Was he 90 or 92? This site says he did a trip in 2009 at age 92.

    • Cari_Morgan

      Hi Jolly, there was some confusion about his last trip, but according to his son Donald, Martin’s last trip was in 2007 at age 90. Both Donald and Martin’s older son John were with him on that trip.