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A matter of grove concern

Veteran conservationist Martin Litton, 89, has long been a thorn in the Forest Service's side. His latest battle: protecting the giant sequoias.

December 21, 2006|Bettina Boxall | Times Staff Writer

Giant Sequoia National Monument, Calif. — MARTIN Litton eased his bulky frame out of the cramped back seat of a Subaru sedan and walked across the road.

"Let's get a look at the mess they've made here," he said, his blue eyes darting to fresh tree stumps and logging trails gouged into the pale, dusty earth of the southern Sierra.

He climbed slowly up an embankment and started snapping photographs. Litton is two months short of 90, hard of hearing and equipped with two artificial knees. He ruptured an appendix many years ago and has undergone angioplasty.

But none of that has stopped this stubborn, legendary figure of California conservation from waging yet another campaign.

"Logging in the monument is a slap in the face of the American people," he growled. "They're thumbing their nose at the monument."

"They" is the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the Giant Sequoia National Monument, where more than half the world's giant sequoias grow in copper-hued splendor, scattered in clusters amid fir and tall pine on mountain slopes east of Bakersfield.

Created in 2000 by President Clinton to protect about three dozen sequoia groves in the Sequoia National Forest, the monument was supposed to quiet the chain saws.

But it didn't.

The logging operation Litton photographed is one of a number of pre-2000 timber sales of non-sequoias the Forest Service allowed to continue several years after they were supposed to end. And a monument management plan -- recently thrown out by a federal judge who found it "incomprehensible" -- called for still more logging, including the removal of young sequoias, on the grounds that the cutting was needed to thin out overgrown groves.

So with visits to Congress, tours of the groves and photographic evidence of perceived transgressions, Litton and a small band of big-tree huggers have pressed their case. The only solution, they insist, is to wrest control of the 328,000-acre monument from the Forest Service and transfer it to the adjacent Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

"If we don't save them, they'll disappear from the Earth," Litton said, adamant that logging near the sequoias endangers the shallow-rooted giants by exposing them to wind as well as drying out the forest floor.

*

OVER the decades, Litton has repeatedly gone to battle. A pioneering Colorado River dory man who eschewed the ease of motorized rafts to run the rapids in the tradition of 19th century explorers, he fought to keep the Grand Canyon free of dams. He tried, unsuccessfully, to stop the construction of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in Central California. He lobbied for creation of Redwood National Park to protect what was left of the state's great coastal redwood forests.

"They're always lots of things to be concerned about," he said. "But now, this is it."

There is something sequoia-like about Litton. He is big -- and, though bearing the marks of age, thus far unvanquished. He walks slowly, listing slightly forward, led by a generous belly. Runaway eyebrows, a thatch of white hair and a trim beard wreath his strong features.

Litton still pilots a small plane around California from his Bay Area home in the Portola Valley. He still rows his own dory through the Grand Canyon. "There's no other way."

He begins lunch and dinner with a martini. "They keep you alive."

So does the fight for what's left of the wild California he grew up with.

"The passion is always there," said his son John, the oldest of four children. "He wants to see that beauty that he always saw as a kid. Every time he goes back to it, that just rejuvenates him -- to go out and stand in the shadow of the sequoias, the ponderosa pines."

The son of an Inglewood veterinarian, Litton worked as a circulation agent at The Times and as travel editor at Sunset magazine before founding the river guide service Grand Canyon Dories in 1964.

He has been drawn to the granite peaks of the southern Sierra since he was a teenager, when he and a friend hiked in with a pack burro they rented for 75 cents a day and climbed Mt. Whitney.

A state proposal to push Highway 190 through the mountains from Lone Pine to Camp Nelson in the 1930s launched Litton on one of his first conservation crusades. He and his hiking buddies formed an opposition group, collecting a dollar in dues from each member. Years after the route was blocked, he was still getting money in the mail.

"I was always running away from growth," he said.

Litton can't remember when he saw his first sequoia. It was probably when he was a youngster, on a family stop at the Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park.

Coast redwoods are taller than giant sequoias. Bristlecone pines are older than sequoias, which nonetheless can reach an age of 3,000 years. But nowhere are there grander trees. Sequoias can measure 100 feet around at their base and tower 20 stories or more above the western slopes of the Sierra, the only place in the world they grow.

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