How much is a view of the James River worth?

December 3, 2014 · 2 minute read
Martin Litton, pioneering river runner and conservationist, died this week at 97.

Martin Litton, pioneering river runner and conservationist, died this week at 97. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It was a perfect kind of coincidence: I was sitting at my computer Monday reading about the death, and life, of conservation legend Martin Litton when an email popped into my inbox from the James River Association. “Action Alert — Protect the James,” the headline read. “Voice your concerns with the Dominion high-voltage transmission line project.”

Litton, who died Monday at 97, was a pioneering voice for the natural world. He was a Sierra Club board member, and is considered the father of commercial river guiding in the Grand Canyon. According to the Outside Magazine obituary, starting in 1963, Litton, along with David Brower, the Sierra Club’s executive director at the time, formed the core of the lobbying effort that successfully derailed the Bureau of Reclamation’s plans for two dams — the Bridge Canyon Dam and Marble Canyon Dam — that were slated for construction between lakes Powell and Mead, within the last 277-mile running stretch of the Grand Canyon.

You could argue Martin Litton helped save the Grand Canyon as we know it.

From what I’ve read, Litton was cantankerous and strident in his conservation efforts. It’s not hard to imagine what his opinion would be on a transmission line crossing 4.1 miles of the James River, atop 17 towers ranging in height from 160 to 295 feet, a section of river both relatively untrammeled and, being right next to Jamestown Island, historically significant.

I wrote about what the building of this transmission line, with a few towers nearly as tall as the Statue of Liberty, would mean for that area when I was Outdoors columnist at the T-D. It’s not a pretty picture. (Click here to see the spot where the line would go as we captured it this summer for our tour of the James.)

Here's what the James looks like where the proposed power lines would be.

Here’s what the James looks like where the proposed power lines would be.

I get that power companies need to move power from where it’s generated to the people who use it (i.e. all of us), but I think the question Martin Litton would ask is, “At what cost?”

Is it worth paying more to turn on the lights to not have more giant towers crossing a gorgeous and significant stretch of America’s Founding River? It’s easy to see now how short-sighted it would have been in 1963 to drown the Grand Canyon for a couple of power-generation dams. But back then it took people like Martin Litton to convince us of that fact, to show us that once gone, our special natural places are lost forever.

Is the tidal James River near Jamestown the same as the Grand Canyon? Maybe not. But then again, maybe it is.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently considering final approval of a permit application for those transmission lines, but the process isn’t over yet. You can make your voice heard. Click here before 5 p.m. on Saturday, December 6th to learn more and to send an email to the Corps of Engineers, Norfolk District representative handling of the permit application.

You know what Martin Litton would do.