Fire in the spreadsheet - personal tribute to Martin Litton

Fire in the spreadsheet: A personal reflection on the life and legacy of Martin Litton


Martin Litton passed away November 30. From the time he abruptly quit his job as travel editor at Sunset Magazine until his death at 97, Litton was a passionate, indefatigable defender of rivers and forests in the western United States.

Among other eulogies, Bettina Boxall and Ken Brower have penned excellent tributes to Litton's legacy for the Los Angeles Times and National Geographic respectively. Brower's piece in particular inspired me to reflect on my personal experience with Martin Litton.

Ken Brower wrote that Litton was one of the last of the pioneers who shaped the modern environmental movement. He explained how Litton worked alongside Sierra Club icon David Brower (Ken's own father) encouraging conservationists never to compromise and never to back down.

Brower compared Litton's legacy to modern environmental organizations which are "run by MBAs" whose analytical minds have less "fire in the belly" and are too consumed with fundraising and too prone to deal-making - a statement considerably more discreet than the declaration his father once made that "economics is a form of brain disease."


I met Martin Litton for the first time at a Senate hearing in Washington DC. The subject of the hearing was how the largely unfettered hydropower operations at Glen Canyon Dam were damaging the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Hydropower was worth more during the day than at night, so the dam's operators liked to release flow to the river during the day and shut it down at night. This practice threatened endangered fish and exacerbated the erosion of beaches which, due to the dam upstream, were no longer supplied sediment from the Colorado River's annual floods.

My boss, Tom Graff, and I were presenting testimony on behalf of the Environmental Defense Fund. It was my first Senate hearing and I felt I had my facts straight. I'd written a computer program to analyze the alternatives that were under consideration. I'd determined with precision how much the proposed limitations on the river's hourly fluctuations would cost the local utilities as they provided protection to the riparian corridor in the Grand Canyon. I was deep in the proverbial weeds.

When it was Litton's turn to testify, it was clear he knew little about the detailed alternatives under consideration. All he knew was that Glen Canyon Dam, in addition to flooding more than 200 miles of Glen Canyon upstream, had also stopped the annual deposit of Colorado River silt onto beaches downstream in the Grand Canyon. ("Colorado" in fact means colored red and is named for red sandstone soil.)


During Litton's testimony I gestured to Graff that this guy, Martin Litton, was rather ignorant of the proposals under consideration. I thought his testimony was diminishing our panel. But Tom was thoroughly enjoying Litton's fiery oratory. He understood that the Senate Committee needed to hear a variety of perspectives on behalf of the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. I came to realize how right Tom was.

It was a good lesson for me and one I hope I have learned. I do also have fire in my belly for so much of our natural world and especially for Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley.

But we won't restore Hetch Hetchy on passion alone. We need solutions to replace San Francisco's water drop for drop and hydropower watt for watt. The details do matter. So at Restore Hetch Hetchy, we do have fire in our belly but we have fire in our spreadsheets too.