California-based journalist, editor and World War II vet Martin Litton first ran the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River in 1955. As a trivial claim to fame, he was the 185th person to descend the Grand since John Wesley Powell first did it in 1869; Litton’s distinction was rendered more anticlimactic by the fact that he was unable to paddle because of a shoulder injury. Yet the journey marked the beginning for a man whose legacy is as monumental as the canyon itself.
At the time, Litton was battling two proposed dams on the Green River that would flood the spectacular rock canyons of Dinosaur National Monument. Just as congress denied the dams on the Green—one of the first environmental victories in the United States—they approved the Glen Canyon dam on the Colorado River in 1956.
Meanwhile, the Bureau of Reclamation planned two more dams for the Grand Canyon itself. In 1963, directors of the San Francisco-based Sierra Club were prepared to capitulate when Litton addressed the board. Producing hand-drawn diagrams and quoting Theodore Roosevelt, Litton laid the Sierra Club’s intentions to waste. He argued that a dam would suppress the beating heart of the Grand Canyon—the free-flowing Colorado River.
“Martin doesn’t have to prime for a speech,” said David Brower, who sat on the Sierra Club board. “Martin poured it on…and we voted ‘no.’” After a campaign that galvanized the environmental movement, President Lyndon Johnson rejected the dams in 1969.
Litton championed the intangible values of wilderness—its sublime beauty and spiritual power. He loved introducing Americans to the wild Grand Canyon, and launched an outfitting business in 1972. He was the only commercial outfitter to guide on the Colorado River exclusively in wooden dories—graceful, oar-powered boats as fragile in class V rapids as wilderness in the face of human onslaught.
But his greatest attribute was his pig-headedness. Brower, widely revered as the greatest conservationist of all-time, called Litton his conscience. “When I would waver in various conservation battles, he would put a little starch in my backbone by reminding me that we should not be trying to dicker and maneuver,” said Brower. “I guess I got some of my extremism from Martin Litton, and I’m grateful for it.”
Litton ran the Grand Canyon for the last time at age 90. He died on November 30, 2014, at his home in Palo Alto, Calif. He was 97 years old. “The American West has lost one of its great champions,” says Sierra Club director Michael Brune. “His tenacious inability to surrender was an inspiration to the generations of environmental activists who followed in his wake.”
This article first appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Rapid magazine. For more great whitewater content, subscribe to Rapid’s print editions and digital editions, download issues on your device or view the Spring 2015 issue for free on your desktop.