A few minutes with Martin Litton

Portola Valley to honor a life of activism

Click on pictures to enlarge.

By Dave Boyce

Almanac Staff Writer

Here's a softball question for an environmentalist: With climate change largely absent from the national consciousness, if you could issue royal decrees in your corner of the planet and set an example, what would you order to be done? Noted environmental activist and longtime Portola Valley resident Martin Litton played along one recent morning while sitting in the shade at a Triangle Park picnic table.

After a moment, he smiled, shrugged and said he'd take down the Golden Gate Bridge, restore Marin County to its natural state and bring back ferry boats as the means for crossing San Francisco Bay. If the Bay Bridge were to remain, he'd restore passenger train service to its lower deck. "A lot of these people who go back and forth across the Bay Bridge would rather be sitting in a train," he said.

He would also end promotion of the Peninsula as a home for new business ventures. "Let 'em keep it in New Jersey," he said.

Mr. Litton, a glider pilot for the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II, came to the Peninsula himself in 1954 with his wife Esther to take a job as travel editor for Sunset magazine in Menlo Park. He had acquired a reputation for nature writing with the Los Angeles Times and as an ardent defender of natural wonders, including the wonders of an untamed Colorado River. He helped prevent dams that would have flooded Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado and parts of the Grand Canyon; the one that flooded Glen Canyon he could not stop. It was his idea to bring wooden dories to the Grand Canyon, and he owned a river-running business there for decades.

The town of Portola Valley will be honoring Mr. Litton and his environmental activism on the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 16, at the Blues & Barbecue Festival. The event is at Town Center at 765 Portola Road, and proceeds go to support the purchase and maintenance of open space in town.

Mr. Litton's friend David Brower, founder of Friends of the Earth, recommended him to Sunset, he said. After residing in Menlo Park for a year and Los Altos for four years, the Littons in 1959 moved to a steep four-acre parcel in what is now Portola Valley and built a house on the one spot suitable for construction, a house in which they raised four children and in which Martin and Esther still live.

In the 1950s, trains passed through Los Altos, and Mr. Litton is a fan of trains. The transit corridor for Foothill Expressway then accommodated two rights of way: a road and a railroad connecting Monterey and Los Gatos to San Francisco. "Something to enjoy looking at," Mr. Litton said, referring to the steam engines that passed by. Steam engines would be memorable for someone who is 95 years old. "I'm 95 and a half," Mr. Litton replied when asked if he was 95.

The drama of steam engines is long gone, and Mr. Litton is now a fan, at a distance, of the MetroLink, the 20-year-old, 512-mile commuter train service in Los Angeles, where he grew up. "LA has erupted in trains," he said. "I'd love to go down there and spend the day on the trains."

Portola Valley has no trains, nor has it electricity transmission towers, due mostly to the efforts of Peninsula residents, including Mr. Litton. Members of "Save our Skyline" went to court and in 1965, beat back a plan by the Atomic Energy Commission to run power lines to feed the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park. "They were going to come right through here," Mr. Litton said, looking around Triangle Park. "We beat them out of Portola Valley. They would have really been ruinous here."

Asked his impression of Portola Valley, he described it as "not really a town. We pretend to be." With no downtown and no grid of streets, "it doesn't fit the usual concept of a city," he said. "It's a scattering of neighborhoods, you might say."

The word "alpine" -- as in Alpine Road, the Alpine Inn, the Alpine Hills Tennis & Swimming Club -- bugs him. "What in the world does that (word) mean?" he asked. "Some real estate agent's idea. There's nothing alpine about it. We're not in the Alps."

One thing that Portola Valley does have in common with the Alps: they're on the same planet. Whose job is it to save it from climate change? "It's too late, too late," Mr. Litton said wearily. "It's unbelievable that (the debate) has gone the way it has."

What should be done? "Stop multiplying right now," he said. A big part of the problem, he added, are religions that encourage large families and preach human subjugation of the Earth. How do you reach people not in the environmental choir? "A lot of them aren't reachable because they don't care. They don't feel the problem in their individual lives.

"It's not a popular subject because it's unpleasant. People don't want to hear about it (but) who's kidding who. Global warming is here. The polar ice is breaking up."

The ice that used to appear in his birdbath for three or four days every winter is also gone, he noted.

Begone, HP!

On the royal decrees question, Mr. Litton did note one more that he would have issued before the others: Require HP Corp. to move off the Peninsula. Why? "Because I don't like David Packard," he said, then recounted an incident from the early 1960s outside HP corporate offices in Palo Alto.

Mr. Litton was a founding member of the then-recently formed Committee for Green Foothills. On this evening, he was parked along the street standing outside his car and photographing HP offices ablaze with interior lights. Mr. Packard, the company's co-founder, had claimed that keeping lights on, even at night, was more efficient, Mr. Litton said.

Mr. Packard drove by Mr. Litton "in his Cadillac" and stopped to ask him who he was and what he was doing, Mr. Litton said. He told him he was with the Committee for Green Foothills and that he was taking pictures of the buildings with their lights on. According to Mr. Litton, Mr. Packard replied: "I thought you might be one of them stupid bastards."

Asked to comment, Michael S. Malone, Mr. Packard's biographer, said in an email that it was a "funny story" he hadn't heard before, recalled Mr. Packard driving an Oldsmobile Toronado, and that the words attributed to Mr. Packard "are his style." Mr. Malone continued: "The light thing is interesting because I remember that argument about keeping them on. Might be true, as those were some very powerful lights that probably did consume much of their power being turned on. But if justified as engineering, it certainly was a PR mistake."

The incident continued, according to Mr. Litton, whose wife was with him in a separate car. Mr. Packard allegedly took down the license plate numbers of both cars, scaring his wife away in the process, then following her home; she lost him on Portola Valley streets, but Mr. Packard was back in the neighborhood the next morning with a car full of "men in fedoras," Mr. Litton said.

"Chasing people through the night in his car doesn't seem like Packard," Mr. Malone said.

Mr. Packard's foundation later provided the initial financial backing for the Monterey Bay Aquarium and its associated marine research institute, and became a major supporter of environmental causes.

Sunday: Portola Valley Blues & Barbecue honors Martin Litton.


Like this comment
Posted by Nicole
a resident of Portola Valley: other
on Sep 12, 2012 at 12:14 pm

You can learn more about Martin Litton and his work by watching 'The Good Fight: the Martin Litton Story' on Thursday, Sept. 20, 7PM, at the Portola Valley Library!

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