A matter of grove concern

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

Wrapped in thick layers of paper-soft bark, they are so outsized they can look like cartoon trees, muscle-bound and broccoli-topped. Some species inspire with their graceful limbs. Giant sequoias strike awe with their almost incomprehensible bulk. It's all about trunk.

Litton has his own names for some of the giants, including a 12 1/2 -foot-diameter sequoia he jokingly calls the Martin Litton tree. He remembers which way to turn on rough, unmarked forest roads to find a particular colony of sequoias.

On a drive through the monument, he rattled off sequoia trivia -- "their roots can spread out over an acre" -- and admired the late-afternoon light on a lone tree. "Isn't that neat?"

He quoted James Whitcomb Riley: "Where every prospect pleases, and only man is vile."

And Rudyard Kipling: "Something lost beyond the ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!"

Inevitably, he returned to the sins of the Forest Service.

"This is a crime. This is wider than a car," he fumed, his voice rising with anger as he held out his big arms to measure the dusty, raw expanse of the newly reconstructed Freeman Creek Trail. "It was a mossy little trail before."

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LAST summer, the Forest Service widened and graded an old hiking and bridle path that runs through the never-logged Freeman Creek Grove, the most pristine of the monument's sequoia stands. The agency said it was bringing a hard-to-follow trail back to life.

Now the path is big, smooth and wide, cutting into hillsides above the burbling, fern-shaded stream that gives the grove its name. It looks like a little highway for all-terrain vehicles -- even though they're illegal on monument trails.

Litton has been fighting sequoia forest managers for two decades.

It was 1987 when he and another venerable agitator, the late David Brower, got a call from Charlene Little, a Kernville artist who had moved from Manhattan Beach a decade earlier with her family. She had come across a logging project that appalled her. "It was total devastation," she recalled. "There were, out of 20 logged acres, maybe two giant sequoias left standing."

The Forest Service had embarked on "grove enhancement." The agency wasn't cutting down big sequoias -- but in five- to 25-acre patches, they were logging just about everything else. "We were screaming and yelling without contacts. And Martin was the one who got the word out," said Carla Cloer, a Porterville schoolteacher who had joined forces with Little. "He's very flamboyant and had lots of friends from the Colorado."

Environmental lawsuits, a legal settlement and, finally, Clinton's monument proclamation followed.

But that declaration, bitterly fought by local timber and off-road-vehicle interests, didn't satisfy Litton. It was, he complained, "vague and mealy-mouthed," filled with loopholes. Though it banned commercial logging, it allowed pre-existing timber sales to proceed. And it permitted tree cutting for "ecological restoration and maintenance" -- a contradiction in terms, as Litton sees it.

Worst of all, as far as Litton was concerned, by leaving the Forest Service in charge of the monument, Clinton had left the fox guarding the henhouse.

"They wanted to please everybody, so he didn't take it away from the Forest Service," Litton grumbled.

Pleasing everybody is not Litton's way.

He calls a pro-logging California congressman "a sleazy son of a bitch."

He tangled with the late Ansel Adams, the renowned photographer and conservationist, over the need for the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. "We have to remember the needs of society," Litton said, mimicking Adams in an unflattering voice.

Forest Service personnel call Litton bombastic and ego-driven. "I just think he wants to make sure that maybe the Sequoia National Forest would turn into Litton National Park," said an old adversary, Del Pengilly.

Recently retired, Pengilly was a district ranger for nearly 30 years and oversaw much of the logging that Litton abhors. "He wanted us to do nothing," Pengilly said. "He's just very, very difficult. Very, very rigid in his beliefs."

Still, Pengilly added, "I actually kind of like Martin.... You got to give him credit for being so dogged."

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IF Litton sounds like an unyielding zealot, he can be self-leavening.

After condemning cattle grazing as the bane of the West, he conceded, that yes, he eats beef. "Yeah, I'm evil. I'm wicked." Then he sang the praises of the meltingly tender petit filet and saucer-size martinis at Johnny McNally's, a steakhouse a few miles from the monument.

When Litton tells how long he and his wife, Esther, have been married, it's with an air of amazement. "Sixty-four years! Sixty-four years of putting up with each other!"

Both he and Esther still drive. But Litton prefers to travel at 163 mph, 8,000 feet off the ground, in his silver Cessna 195, circa 1951.

"You know what it's like down there? Isn't this better?" he asked after he took off from the Bakersfield airport. "It gets you there faster and it's prettier. You're not so close to the ugliness."

Flying over the mountains, he looked down at Converse Basin, the site of an orgy of wasteful logging in the late 1800s. Millenniums-old sequoias were toppled, often splintering into useless pieces as they crashed to the ground.

"This was the greatest of all groves," Litton said. "The biggest trees in the world were cut down."

He nodded toward a rock-clad peak. His wife once rode to the top of it on horseback. Over there is a set of high-country lakes he and his family packed to when his children were growing up.

The Cessna skirted Mineral King Valley, where the Walt Disney Co. wanted to build a major ski resort in the 1960s. When surveyor stakes for a road cropped up, opponents waged guerrilla warfare.

"We'd go up every weekend with college students and pull them out."

The Cessna circled a cluster of sequoias, their bark glowing like burnished red sandstone in the soft autumn light. "A lot of these trees have never been measured. I expect a lot of 'em are real champions."

He banked the plane for a better view of old clear-cuts in the national forest -- wounds he will never forgive. "They really butchered these mountains."

The logging that fired up Litton two decades ago is still very much in evidence. In one grove, the monster trunk of a sequoia lay prone, a downed Gulliver. It was blown over by winds, Litton said, after timber cutting removed its buffer.

After all these years, isn't he tired of the sequoia battle?

Yes. "But what else can you do? Somebody has to do something."

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bettina.boxall@latimes.com

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