Martin Litton Remembered As Fervent Conservationist Melissa Block speaks with Kevin Fedarko of Outside Magazine for a remembrance of conservationist and outdoorsman Martin Litton. He died Sunday at his home in California at the age of 97.
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Martin Litton Remembered As Fervent Conservationist

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Martin Litton Remembered As Fervent Conservationist

Martin Litton Remembered As Fervent Conservationist

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MELISSA BLOCK: If you've hiked Redwood National Park, you can thank Martin Litton. He helped lead the push to establish the park and save the redwoods from logging. There are no dams in the Grand Canyon, also largely thanks to Martin Litton and his work as a fervent conservationist is just one part of a fascinating life. Litton died on Sunday in his home in California at the age of 97. He was a glider pilot during World War II, then a journalist. He was a businessman and a legendary boatman too, operating a company that guided trips on the Colorado River. Kevin Fedarko knew Litton's passions well. He profiled him for Outside Magazine in 2005 and stayed in touch with him over the years since then. Welcome to the program.

KEVIN FEDARKO: Thank you so much, Melissa.

BLOCK: And you rode the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon with Martin Litton for that profile. He was 87 at the time and he sounds like he was still fearless and still very much in love with that river.

FEDARKO: Very much of both. He was still vital at that point. That was one of a number of what were seen at the time as farewell trips staged as Martin's last journey through the Grand Canyon. Part of the problem was that at the end of each one of these trips, Martin continued to remain healthy and someone would phone him up and invite him to come down on another farewell river trip a few years later. So that was my chance to get to know Martin, floating down that 277 mile stretch of the Colorado through the Grand Canyon.

BLOCK: Yeah. One of the things he said on that trip was, floating a boat down the Colorado River, why, it's simply the best thing one can do. And he apparently ran the canyon many, many times over his years. What would the Grand Canyon be if it weren't for Martin Litton and his environmental activism, do you think?

FEDARKO: The Grand Canyon would be a very different place today if it were not for Martin and a number of other important conservationists who embarked on a series of battles during the 1960s to prevent the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation from constructing two enormous hydroelectric dams directly in the center of the Grand Canyon. Had those dams been constructed, the Grand Canyon as we know it today, the bottom of it would consist of a stair-stepped series of stagnant reservoirs that would be crowded with houseboats and jet skiers.

BLOCK: Martin Litton served on the board of the Sierra Club for about a decade and it's clear that he did not see reasonableness as a virtue in pushing for environmental causes, and I want to take a listen to a recording of him made back in 1994. This is from the library at the University of Northern Arizona.(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN LITTON: To compromise is to lose. When you're willing to compromise your principles, you've given up. You've abandoned them. As Dan Looten(PH) said, when you compromise nature, nature gets compromised.

BLOCK: And that seemed to be his guiding principle throughout his life, right?

FEDARKO: I think so. I mean Martin was somebody who found the idea of compromise and negotiation a vile thing when it came to conservation and the environment and the reason he felt that way, I think, was because environmental battles are different from almost any other kind of battles because once you give something up, once you lose an extraordinary piece of landscape, you will never, ever be able to get it back again, and so he felt that giving in, that negotiating, was to concede defeat before the fight had even started. And I think that was a central element, not only of how he conducted himself as a conservationist but how he lived his life as a human being.

BLOCK: I mentioned that Martin Litton served as a glider pilot in World War II. Did he talk to you about that experience and what may have carried over into his later life?

FEDARKO: He did talk about it and people sometimes ask, where did Martin get this fire and this rage from? And I think that part of the answer resides in his experiences in World War II. His job was to pilot a motorless glider with no defense system, often crammed with ammunition, or gasoline, or medical supplies or soldiers. The men who piloted those machines crash-landed their gliders behind enemy lines. Often they would be piloting their gliders through a hail of antiaircraft fire and these were extraordinary missions. They required an exceptional degree of courage and I think after having gone through that experience and endured that ordeal, standing toe-to-toe and battling with engineers of the Bureau of Reclamation or logging companies in Northern California paled in comparison. I don't think that there's anything that Martin confronted later in his life, including running class 5 rapids at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, that ever really seemed quite as bad as crash-landing a glider behind enemy lines in Europe.

BLOCK: Well, Kevin Fedarko thanks so much for talking with us.

FEDARKO: Thank you so much, Melissa. It's been a real pleasure.

BLOCK: Kevin Fedarko is a contributing editor for Outside Magazine. We were remembering the longtime river runner and conservationist Martin Litton who died on Sunday at age 97.

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