Martin Litton - In Memoriam

A Giant in Protecting the Earth

February 13, 1917  - November 30, 2014

Founding President - Sequoia ForestKeeper®

Martin LittoMartin Litton smiles on the Colorado River. And image by John Blaustein.n spent his 97 years walking on this earth with a single mission: to lessen man’s impact upon the natural world. Whether protecting Giant Sequoias or giant rivers, he was at the forefront, educating the public and legislators about why reducing forests to rubble and damming rivers until they are a trickle were bad ideas. Martin’s legacy will live on with the ancient sequoias and will be told in the geologic timetable that is found on the walls of the Grand Canyon.

Martin was quoted in the movie: The Good Fight; “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.”

This far too brief article will attempt to encapsulate the magic that was Martin.

Born as the United States was entering the First World War; Martin seemed to learn that a just fight was worth waging. He was born in Los Angeles, California on February 13, 1917 and lived in the Japanese-American community of Gardena until he was seven.  His father, Clyde, a veterinarian, was native to Tennessee and Martin’s mom, Elsie Martin was native to San Francisco. Martin was the oldest of four children raised during the Great Depression. The family moved to Inglewood when he was in second grade. One of his favorite childhood memories was sitting in his backyard watching spectacular sunsets with his family. At 12, the family moved again into the new animal hospital with living quarters that Martin designed for his father.

Martin graduated from Inglewood High School in 1934 and entered UCLA where he graduated in 1938 with a degree in English. When Martin was in college he enrolled in the mandatory two-year ROTC program and then continued onto the optional officer training program for his final two years at UCLA. He became a reserve officer after graduation.

At 18, Martin wrote his first letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times decrying the destruction of Mono Lake at the hands of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.  Quoting from that letter; "The people of the entire state should rise up against the destruction of Mono Lake. Mono Lake is a gem-among California's greatest scenic attractions."

Martin was drawn to the granite peaks of the southern Sierra as a young teenager, when he and a friend climbed Mt. Whitney with the help of a pack burro they rented for 75 cents a day. When he was in college, he and some friends started the club called “California Trails” to protest the proposed roads over Kearsarge and Olancha Passes. World War II directed Martin’s attention elsewhere but his group’s mission was successful as the roads were not built (although the Hwy 190 extension remains on CalTrans books).

Martin’s first job after college was as the Public Relations person for a local “dude ranch”, The Wigwam. For Martin documenting daily activities and nature comes naturally. He bought a Kodak Senior Six-20 camera in the late 30s and went about life,  photographing everyday things in the midst of chaos.

During WWII, in July 1941, Martin was called to active duty to serve as the campaign in Europe was heating up. His fascination with flying had him choose to serve with the Army Air Corps. Due to his colorblindness, Martin was disqualified as a P-40 fighter pilot but with his stubborn tenacity he found a way to beat the tests and convince the doctors that he had no such problem when he applied to become a glider pilot. He trained on every aircraft available before they allowed him to train as a glider pilot. It takes a special kind of pilot to fly gliders because every mistake can prove fatal, so Martin was thrilled to be among the elite group of glider pilots to serve.

In 1942, he married the love of his life, Esther, but their honeymoon was cut short by his immediate deployment to the 82nd Airborne’s 325th Glider Infantry Wing to fly sorties over Europe.

His unit was involved with Operation Market Garden which successfully kept the German Army from destroying the bridges in the Nijmegen sector of Grave, Netherlands. Martin piloted the 15-troop glider the Waco CG4A. They flew behind enemy lines on September 18, 1944. The glider came under fire as Martin flew his payload of troops and equipment toward Nijmegen. One wing was shot through and one of the soldiers on the plane was hit with shrapnel in the buttocks. After they landed, another soldier used his bayonet to dig out the metal and filled the wound with sulfa before bandaging it.  

As Martin and three of his men walked through the battlefield toward the newly liberated towns of Belgium; they surreptitiously advanced along the road but at times had to avoid being detected by enemy troops by breaking off reeds from nearby marshes and then using them as snorkels to swim completely submerged in roadside canals. A few times they were forced into firefights with the enemy and even captured a few prisoners in the process. After many days they finally made it into Brussels and noticed other soldiers in town who were all in clean uniforms. They on the other hand, were quite a sight, covered in mud and manure from head to toe. Their smell matched their look and Martin felt quite embarrassed slinking into town and trying to stay unnoticed but they were discovered. Instead of recoil, the newly liberated townspeople grabbed them up and treated them as heroes. They were given food and drink as they related the success of the 325th Glider Infantry Wing during the second day of Operation Market Garden.

Soon they found their way to an inn where they were able to clean up and rest. Most of the gliders were recovered from the battlefield, rebuilt, and then reused with Martin flying several more missions.

While he was resting in Brussels before heading back to England where the 82nd Airborne was stationed, he had time to explore a bit with his Kodak Senior six-20 camera. As the war continued and R&R was mandated, Martin wouldn’t rest but spent his time exploring the natural marvels of Europe. After Market Garden he rested at Ullapool, Scotland on the eastern shores of Loch Broom. When the 325th base was transferred to France, he would take R&R on the Mediterranean around Monaco. He took photos of people shopping, doing laundry, going to church, children playing, all while the war raged around them. Occasional gunfire from random combat was juxtaposed by everyday living. The reality of war is that life continues until it is stopped.

Nature is that way too, so after the war Martin continued being an astute observer of things that too many busy themselves ignoring. He wrote and illustrated articles for newspapers and magazines. After he returned from the war, Martin went to work at the Los Angeles Times where he would write freelance articles about the environment.

While Martin was overseas Esther bought them a lot in Bel Air and had a house built. They raised their four children there until 1961 when they moved to northern California. That was a fortuitous move for them as the Bel Air-Brentwood fire of 1961 destroyed the house later that year.

In 1952, Martin took his first raft ride through rapids and was hooked. He realized how integral wild undammed rivers were to nature and the human experience. He enjoyed his first memorable rafting trip on the Yampa, Ladore, and Green Rivers through Dinosaur National Monument. Martin was compelled to visit the area by the clarion call from the Dinosaur park manager, who was very upset that these beautiful rivers through Echo Park and Split Mountain were proposed to be dammed. Shortly after his float, the president of the Sierra Club, David Brower, talked him into joining the fight to protect Dinosaur. The two became lifelong friends and worked together for many years. They collaborated on many more battles with the Bureau of Reclamation’s other proposed dam projects on western desert rivers with many successes, but a crushing defeat at Glen Canyon.

Martin served as the Travel Editor for Sunset Magazine from 1954-1968. During his tenure he exposed many readers to the grandeur of western landscapes.

Martin's first float through the Grand Canyon was in 1955. He was the 185th person known to have made the trip down the river first pioneered by John Wesley Powell. Martin also pioneered the huge victory against the dam on the Colorado, which would have backed up the Colorado River, flooding the Grand Canyon and making it a lake. America should be very thankful for that task was not easy and came with personal sacrifice. He didn’t run the Colorado again until 1962 but was hooked and continued to run the river many times before founding Grand Canyon Dories in 1971. He owned that commercial rafting company until 1990. Martin used wooden dories which he still prefers over the more widely used rubber rafts in use today.

The battle continues to protect waterways from destructive projects. And several dams are now being dismantled after realizing the environmentalists were right all along. You can't dam all the rivers and expect that Mother Nature can be tamed. Eventually she will break free. Martin continued to lobby for the removal of Glen Canyon Dam.

Two ecosystems that Martin knew couldn’t be fixed by undamming a river were the old-growth conifer forests of coast redwoods and the giant sequoias. Ancient forests with trees older than modern civilization itself cannot be restored once cut down, especially for the ridiculous purpose of making pencils or paper. In 1960, Sunset Magazine ran Martin’s cover story entitled "The Redwood Country," which is credited with launching a campaign which eventually led to the establishment of Redwood National Park along the northern California coast. Martin’s love for flying brought him over the Sierra Nevada and head-to-head with the Forest Service’s destructive practice of clear-cutting the forest. He became an activist working with many groups to protect forests along the spine of California.

After many years of battling Sequoia National Forest’s non-stop logging program, a slight victory was achieved with the U.S. Forest Service signing the 1990 Sequoia Mediated Settlement Agreement to restore the logged sequoia groves to their natural condition and by the Presidential Proclamation in 1992. But even though the sequoia groves were supposed to be protected, logging continued. In early 2000, President Clinton created the 327,000-acre Giant Sequoia National Monument protecting the sequoia groves in perpetuity. “These giant sequoia groves and the surrounding forest provide an excellent opportunity to understand the consequences of different approaches to forest restoration,” Clinton said. “Removal of trees ... from within the monument area may take place only if clearly needed for ecological restoration and maintenance or public safety.” Four years after the proclamation of the monument, the Forest Service returned to business as usual with even more logging proposed. 

In response, Martin and many more alarmed activists helped create the non-profit organization Sequoia ForestKeeper in 2001 to become the “eyes, ears, and voice of the forest” of the southern Sierra Nevada.

For Martin's entire life he was a staunch protector of the environment; he ran his last river trip in 2009 at the age of 92, during a fundraiser for Sequoia ForestKeeper. That day, he broke his own record as the oldest person to run the Grand Canyon in a wooden dory.

Even as he closed in on a century, Martin remained restless, he was quoted in a 2012 interview in High Country News: "I worry about the fate of the Earth. I still have time -- and a million things to do."

 Sequoia ForestKeeper is one of Martin's many legacies and we intend to keep the forests safe from harm in his memory.


2010  – Lifetime Achievement Award - Canoe & Kayak Magazine

2008 – Tissiak Award – Sierra Nevada Alliance

2006 - International Whitewater Hall of Fame

*2006 – John Wesley Powell Award – Grand Canyon Trust

*1993 – John Muir Award – Sierra Club

Martin served on the Board of Directors of the Sierra Club from 1964 to 1973. He served on the executive committee of the American Land Conservancy from 1990-2000. He was also on the Board of Directors of Save America’s Forests, the Advisory Committee of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and was an Honorary Member of the Board of Directors of the Glen Canyon Institute. Martin served as the Founding President of Sequoia ForestKeeper at the time of his death.

Websites of Interest:

Martin Litton Collection, 1937-2005:;query=;brand=default

Meet Martin Litton, Grand Canyon Dories Founder - Jan 7, 2012

Environmental warrior Martin Litton is still fighting at 95 - February 20, 2012 issue by Jane Braxton Little

Grand Canyon Dories: The Legacy Continues 

The Biomass Monitor - June 2015 - In Memory of those who have Fallen - Article about Martin that links back here.  

It was Martin's wish that in lieu of flowers and other gifts that friends and colleagues would Donate to Sequoia ForestKeeper in his Memory: