Appreciation: Lessons From the Man Who Stopped Grand Canyon Dams — National Geographic

From the National Geographic (Kenneth Brower):

“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…

Stopping the Dam-Builders

Litton is most famous for his crucial role in some of the first great conservation victories: the defeat of a series of ruinous dams in the Southwest. It was an article Litton wrote as a Los Angeles Times reporter—a story on a pair of dams proposed by the Bureau of Reclamation for Dinosaur National Monument—that started it all.

The dams would have flooded a national preserve and ruined some of the most beautiful desert country we have. The story caught the attention of my father, David Brower, who had just become the first executive director of the Sierra Club, then a small hiking fraternity. He, Litton, and the Sierra Club led a grassroots campaign to kill the two dams proposed for Dinosaur.

It was the first time that American citizens had stopped a big government dam project.

A decade later, the two men led the Sierra Club and other groups in stopping a similar pair of dams in Grand Canyon, which would have flooded a stretch of the Colorado River well into the national park. These victories over the dam-builders catapulted the Sierra Club into prominence, and it quickly became the most powerful conservation organization in the country…

Henry David Thoreau, one of the fathers of environmentalism, spoke of “men with the seeds of life in them.” For the daunting challenges ahead for the ecosystems and landscapes and species of this planet, the environmental movement will need men and women with the seeds of life in them—individuals, visionary, maddening, stubborn, obnoxious, fiery, impolite, fearless people like Martin Litton.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here.

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