The "John Muir of the Santa Monicas" had some advice for mountain-lovers who gathered last week on an Agoura ridge to dedicate a scenic overlook in her name.
"Grab all you can, as fast as you can," Helen Martin urged.
The wheelchair-bound Martin, 79, was looking beyond her new bronze plaque Friday, which was attached to a stone wall next to Mulholland Highway. She was gazing down the mountain toward new, custom houses in the distance.
Expensive luxury homes are popping up with increasing frequency in the 250-square-mile Santa Monica mountain range. Each one brings the city closer to the countryside that conservationists love.
28 Years of Work
Martin, a retired social worker and the widow of character actor Strother Martin, knows that as well as anyone. For 28 years, she worked to protect the fragile mountains that look so rugged to flatlanders from the city.
In 1961, Martin was one of the organizers of the first Southern California Chapter of the California Native Plant Society.
She later became a director of the Nature Conservancy and joined the board of the Topanga-Las Virgenes Resource Conservation District, the scrappy soil conservation service that former President Ronald Reagan helped start when he owned a ranch in Agoura.
In 1972, she helped create the network of state and federal park sites that are spread out over 56,000 acres between the Hollywood Bowl and Ventura County's Mugu Rock.
The mountains have changed since 1966, when Martin married and moved to Agoura's Malibu Lake in the center of the Santa Monicas. Then, windows and doors were left unlocked.
"We had an eight-party telephone line, and the electricity went out every time it rained," she recalled Friday. "The freeway did not come out here. The closest grocery store was at Shoup and Ventura down in Woodland Hills."
Martin admits it was coincidental that she became an environmental activist before it was chic to be one.
While her husband was away filming, she made friends with a "crowd of old ladies who . . . all had land and all were conscious of the environment," Martin said. "Things sort of snowballed. You get involved in one activity, and it leads to another."
Her husband often tagged along to Martin's steady stream of parkland study sessions and environmental meetings. "Strother was very proud of me. I had no connection with the movie business. He appreciated what I was doing."
So did the crowd of 75 that gathered Friday at the new Helen Martin Overlook.
"Because of people like Helen, you see some open hills up here instead of all the sides of mountains gone," said Lesley Devine, president of the Topanga-Las Virgenes Resource Conservation District.
"Ten years ago, Helen came to our rescue," said Bill Webb, acting superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. He told the crowd that Martin had information about the Santa Monica Mountains and insights about its personalities that were available nowhere else when the federal recreation area was being established.
State Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) compared Martin to the legendary 19th-Century conservationist credited with saving Yosemite Valley and other areas of the Sierras from development. "She's truly the John Muir of the Santa Monicas. God may have created these mountains, but Helen Martin gets credit for keeping them safe."
After the ceremony, the crowd left for a reception down the hill.
Gary Mosler, a Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy ranger, unbolted the plaque from the stone wall and removed it for safe-keeping. It will be coated with an anti-graffiti chemical and cemented on the wall with industrial-strength glue, he said.
"We have to make it vandal-proof," Mosler explained.
The mountains have changed.