It was 1979, and Denny Wilcher was nearing age 65, coming to the end of almost two decades at the Sierra Club. His leadership of the club’s publications and development operation had helped turn the organization into a national political force.
At the same time, Congress was nearing the end of the decade-long battle to pass the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). The bill would protect over 100 million acres in new or expanded national parks, refuges and national forests in Alaska.
From his post at the Sierra Club, Denny had helped convince people around the country to give money to pass the historic Alaska lands bill.
As part of that work, Denny got to know Alaska conservationists like Celia Hunter and Peg Tileston.
After the Alaska land bill passed, Tileston says, Denny knew “there were going to be a lot of people who said ‘Phew, that’s over’ and a lot of the interest in Alaska would be diverted to other areas. He saw there was a need for a foundation that focused on Alaska.” She says Denny also recognized “once the bill was passed, then you’d have the management questions of who’s going to take care of [the newly protected lands] and whether the agencies would really pay attention to what they needed to.”
Alaska groups would have to take up that challenge, but they were mostly shoestring operations, run largely by volunteers. If they were going to succeed, Denny knew they needed to be more professional – and that meant they needed more help. But Alaska didn’t have long-time residents with big fortunes and a passion for protecting the environment. That’s where Denny came in.
Denny first became intrigued with Alaska during WWII which eventually led to a family road trip to Alaska in the 60’s. His love affair with Alaska continued, and by the 80’s his family was living in Alaska half-time. With his contacts across the country and interest in Alaska, he was the perfect person to start a foundation to aid the conservation cause in Alaska.
With help from Robert Allen of the Henry P. Kendall Foundation and Aggie and Louise Gund, Denny joined the matriarch of Alaska conservation, Celia Hunter, in launching ACF.
In the early years, Peg Tileston says, “the foundation ran on Denny’s little black book, frankly” – referring to the list of donors he’d worked with over the years. He traveled the Lower 48, contacting potential funders.
Denny also realized that the new foundation could help by training the staff and boards of Alaska’s fledgling conservation groups, and getting them to coordinate for maximum impact.
Early on, he guided the Alaska Environmental Planning Project. It produced a new set of organizations that to this day help coordinate conservation work across the state, especially in the Legislature and in election campaigns.
“After 3 or 4 years, he said, ‘it’s going great, let’s move on,’” Peg Tileston says. “And we said ‘Hey, wait!’”
Denny stayed at ACF for ten years, stepping down in 1990.
To honor him, ACF created the Denny Wilcher Award for Young Environmental Activists. The Sierra Club had also honored Denny, back in 1980, by starting the Denny and Ida Wilcher Award for outstanding work in membership development and fund-raising for conservation projects.
Skeptics predicted Denny’s bold venture in Alaska would last only a couple years. Thirty years later, ACF is still going strong. Without ACF, the state’s conservation groups would still face financial, basic organizing and communication challenges across Alaska’s vast distances.
Denny Wilcher was Alaska Conservation Foundation’s founding father – our George Washington, as it were. He was a visionary and effective leader who took the helm of the enterprise he helped create and steered it on the course to long-term success.
“His ability to spin off ideas and make them happen was pretty incredible,” says Peg Tileston.
Denny died in 1993, en route back to Alaska from his ranch in California.
His obituary in the Anchorage Daily News lauded his work at ACF, saying he “positioned the foundation as the major driving force in the Alaska environmental movement.”
Denny’s spirit lives on in the work ACF and our partners do — and in the passion and energy displayed by those who win the Wilcher Awards each year.