Celia Hunter was Alaska’s modern era John Muir – a bold adventurer, tireless conservation advocate & inspirational leader

Celia Hunter came to Alaska long before the steady march of civilization reached the far north, with its widespread threats of reckless development. Arriving in 1947, she was looking for adventure in Alaska, not to save it.

She ended up staying a lifetime, leaving behind a treasure of well-protected natural wonders and a strong movement to defend and expand them. Among her many legacies is the Alaska Conservation Foundation, which she helped launch in 1980.

Celia Hunter was Alaska’s modern-era John Muir – bold adventurer, tireless conservation advocate, inspirational leader. Few have done more to save Alaska’s wilds from exploitation at the hands of man.

Searching for adventure

When Celia first came to Alaska she did not consider herself a conservationist or an environmentalist. “I don’t think ‘conservationist’ existed in my vocabulary at that time. We were just looking for adventures!” she once remarked.

Celia was no stranger to adventures. As a young adult, she had learned to fly just as World War II was looming. On her first solo flight, she made a rookie mistake and nearly killed herself by taking off under another plane.

 She persevered, and the war gave Celia a chance to put her flying skills to work. After joining the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP), Celia flew planes of all kinds from factories to training centers and shipping ports throughout the Lower 48.

Heading to Alaska

The military wouldn’t let women deliver planes to Alaska, though – and that piqued Celia’s curiosity. After the war, she and her good friend and fellow WASP, Ginny Wood, decided that they would get to Fairbanks on their own “Just to see what the fellows had been talking about.”

It was a long, cold trip.

She and Ginny made a deal with an Alaskan pilot who was in Seattle buying planes and needed them delivered to Fairbanks. Taking off in early December, “It took us 27 days to fly from Seattle to Fairbanks,” Celia said. “Ginny’s plane had unairworthy fabric and no heat—we nicknamed it ‘Lil’l Igloo’. On the leg between Watson Lake and Whitehorse, a three-hour flight, we had to chip her out of the cockpit when we landed; she was so cold she couldn’t move!”

In Fairbanks, they found themselves stranded by 50 degree below zero weather.

That kind of cold has scared off many a would-be Alaskan, but Celia and Ginny were unfazed. They found work as flight attendants and flew the first-ever tourist trips to the remote coastal towns of Kotzebue and Nome.

At summer’s end, their thirst for adventure took Celia and Ginny far from Alaska. They spent a semester at school in Sweden, then spent 10 months bicycling throughout Europe, which was still suffering the devastation inflicted by the war. To get back to America, they hitchhiked across the Atlantic Ocean on a tanker.

 Upon arriving, Celia explained, “We bought a jeep station wagon and drove cross-country to Seattle, but found the U.S. too affluent for our tastes [so we] headed back to Alaska.”

Ecotourism entrepreneur

 They could have found work with their old employer, Chuck West, at his growing tourism business.

 “But catering to large-scale tourism such as [Chuck’s] Westours was not our style,” Celia said.

 Along with Ginny’s new husband, the two women decided to start something that was their style. Inspired by the hut system in Europe, they looked for a wilderness setting where they could offer simple accommodations with outdoor activities that encouraged appreciation for the natural world.

 They found it along the western boundary of Denali National Park, and filed a Homestead Act claim on land with a magnificent view of Mount McKinley.

 Camp Denali opened for business in 1952.

“Although the term had not yet been invented, Camp Denali was probably the first eco-tourism venture in Alaska, possibly the U.S.,” Celia once wrote.  Located some 90 miles from the park entrance, accessible only by small plane or a long drive on the national park’s primitive road, Camp Denali closely reflected Celia and Ginny’s philosophy on life and the natural world and continues to do so under its current owners. (In 1975, Celia and Ginny sold Camp Denali to Wally Cole, who gave them two snowshoe rocking chairs as a down payment.)

 As Celia’s and Ginny’s business grew, so did their deep respect and love for the natural world. But Alaska was changing rapidly before their eyes and they realized it was going to take a lot of work to protect the Alaskan wild-lands they loved.

 “Flying across bush Alaska, the entire landscape was a seamless whole, unmarred by manmade boundaries. Most Alaskans assumed it would always be like this, and they resisted strenuously the setting aside of particular lands to protect them,” Celia said.

 She and Ginny found themselves becoming increasingly involved in Alaska’s issues.

Her first battle: The Arctic National Wildlife Range

Celia’s transformation into conservation activist – and the modern Alaska conservation movement – started when she met two biologists who had been exploring the foothills of Alaska’s Brooks Range. Olaus and Mardy Murie dreamed of protecting a large area that extended from the Arctic Ocean, across the Brooks Range, and down into the boreal forest on the southern side. After seeing this unspoiled expanse in 1956, Olaus proposed the Arctic National Wildlife Range, which would protect an ecosystem large enough to support the great Porcupine River Caribou herd and other wildlife.

“We really supported very strongly what they were trying to do,” Celia said. “Olaus went home and drew lines on the map and we started fighting for setting aside the area.”

The strongest support for the Arctic National Wildlife Range came from congressional delegates and other conservationists outside of the state of Alaska, and there was nothing that got the Alaskan delegation more riled up than a bunch of outsiders coming in and telling Alaska how to manage its resources.

In response, Celia and others formed the Alaska Conservation Society (ACS), Alaska’s first statewide conservation organization, in 1960.

Celia explained, “Okay, if you don’t want to listen to people from Outside, you better listen to us.” Voting members of ACS were required to be Alaskan residents.

Their efforts helped make the difference. Despite strong opposition from Alaska’s senators and lone congressman, President Eisenhower, urged on by Secretary of the Interior Fred Seaton, created the Wildlife Range shortly before Eisenhower left office in 1960.

Next up: Rampart Dam

Soon after its formation, ACS found itself fighting two other major battles: Rampart Dam and Project Chariot.

Damming the Yukon River at Rampart would have created a lake 300 miles long, flooding numerous Native villages and individual homesites, and swallowing up millions of acres of land needed by waterfowl and wildlife. Rampart Dam was meant to supply cheap hydropower for an aluminum smelter. Celia and others showed that the project was not only a devastating assault on the environment, it was also a colossal waste of money because it was so costly and so much bigger than anything Alaska could reasonably use.

Fighting the A-bomb in Alaska

The second battle ACS fought was known as Project Chariot, a proposal to use a nuclear bomb for blasting a harbor out of the northwest Arctic coast near the Native village of Pt. Hope. Dr. Edward Teller and others from the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) courted Alaska’s business and political leaders by touting the spin-off benefits of experimenting with atomic technology and creating a deepwater port in the shallow seas of Northwest Alaska.

Academics at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks were not so easily convinced, however. Professors demanded to know how Dr. Teller and the AEC could predict what damage a nuclear blast would inflict since they knew nothing about the existing conditions of the land and its people.

“That was how they got the first environmental investigation – the first Environmental Impact Statement investigation,” Celia said. “This was ten years before NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) became law under [President] Nixon. What they found really pulled the plug out from under the project, because it was one of the richest areas in Alaska.”

“They thought that they could push everybody around and they suddenly discovered they were up against an informed citizenry…” Celia explained. “This is how close the U.S. and Alaska came to having their own Chernobyl catastrophe”

However, disaster was not entirely averted. Before the Atomic Energy Commission left Alaska, it imported several tons of radioactive waste and buried it near the proposed harbor to see how it disseminated through the ecosystem.

“They were turned down,” Celia said. “They realized that they couldn’t go ahead and make a nuclear blast because people were already loaded to the gills with the radioactivity. So what did they do but import a bunch of it and bury it and didn’t tell anybody and so now, 33 years later, it suddenly comes to light. I think those people were absolutely dastardly.”

Wolf bounties, another big dam, and more

ACS took on many other battles. It was instrumental in removing bounties on wolves, a fight that lasted nearly a decade. ACS fought the Susitna Dam, another horrendously expensive environmental boondoggle similar to the Rampart Dam. The group worked on community projects such as preserving open spaces in Fairbanks, building trails and improving alternative transportation.

Residents in many Alaskan communities started local ACS chapters to fight issues in their own backyards. The organization steadily grew for 20 years, before Ginny and others realized that they no longer had the resources to run such a large organization.

“Why don’t we go out of business while we still have money left and divide the money up-we had between ACE (Alaska Center for the Environment), SEACC (Southeast Alaska Conservation Council), and NAEC (The Northern Alaska Environmental Council)?” they asked. And that is what they did, knowing they had established a strong conservation movement throughout the state to carry on with needed work.

By 1969 Celia’s work had drawn national attention, and she was offered a position on the Governing Council of the Wilderness Society. In 1976 she was made the group’s president and later executive director — the first woman to head a national environmental organization.

Alaska’s biggest conservation battle

While at The Wilderness Society, she found herself involved in the biggest, and most successful, conservation battle in Alaska’s history: getting Congress to pass the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

The effort took more than a decade, and it provoked bitter resistance inside Alaska. Business and political leaders crusaded against the federal “lock up” of Alaska lands.

In the face of Alaskan resistance, Congress dragged out its work on what was known as the “d-2 bill.” Interim protections for many of the federal lands in question — authorized as part of the 1971 Alaska Native claims settlement — were due to expire if Congress failed to act by 1978. President Jimmy Carter came to the rescue, by declaring 56 million acres of Alaska’s endangered federal land as national monuments.

Rules for national monuments were fairly strict, and had little flexibility for Alaska’s unusual conditions. Carter became the most hated man in Alaska – he was even burned in effigy. But his decision led Congress to pass a compromise bill that protected more than 100 million acres of federal land, while creating some new management flexibility for Alaska parks and refuges.

The 1980 Alaska Lands Act has been called “the most significant land conservation measure in the history of our nation.” It created 10 new national parks and expanded three others, for a total of 43.6 million acres in newly protected parkland. The act doubled the size of the national refuge system, adding 53.7 million acres in nine new refuges and six existing ones. The 56 million acres of new wilderness in Alaska tripled the amount of land in the country now getting the highest level of protection.

Even as that battle came to a close, Celia did not stop looking for ways to advance the conservation cause in Alaska.

As her friend Ginny Wood, had said earlier, “Ironically, I know that after a d-2 bill is passed I will then be fighting to protect the d-2 lands from other development and other management by the very agencies instructed to protect them – The National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and Forest Service.”

There would be a lot of work for Alaska conservation groups to do, and not enough money and person-power to do it on their own.

Starting the Alaska Conservation Foundation

Realizing that, in 1980 Celia helped Denny Wilcher start the Alaska Conservation Foundation. This new organization would tap into funding sources and supporters in the Lower 48 so that conservation groups would not have to depend solely on membership dues and volunteer staff to do their work. The new foundation would also continue to promote networking among Alaska conservation groups, as Celia and Ginny had done through the Alaska Conservation Society.

Alaska Conservation Foundation started small, raising less than half a million dollars a year. By the late 1990s, the foundation was bringing in about $4 million a year to support Alaska conservation efforts. In 2004, Alaska Conservation Foundation raised more than $7 million. Along the way, it has nurtured and spun off a wide range of groups including Alaskans for Responsible Mining, the Renewable Energy Alaska Project, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, the Alaska Conservation Alliance and Alaska Conservation Voters.

Celia served on the Alaska Conservation Foundation Board of Trustees for over 18 years. Her talent, enthusiasm, leadership, and inspiration were highly valued by other groups, as well. She served on many other boards, including the Alaska Natural History Association, The Nature Conservancy, and Trustees for Alaska.

Starting in 1979 Celia contributed a regular column to the Fairbanks Daily News Miner offering an environmental perspective to readers of that conservative, staunchly pro-development publication.

Active ‘til the end

On December 1, 2001 at the age of 82, Celia was up late writing letters to Congress insisting that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge be protected from oil drilling. It was her last act in a life dedicated to protecting the land she loved.

Celia Hunter was a cornerstone of the conservation movement in Alaska, opening minds and halting disasters with unwavering strength and persistence.

Being raised a Quaker on a small farm during the Depression instilled Celia with values that she carried throughout her life. As friend and colleague Rick Caulfield described, “She tried to live to the best of those values: non-violence, seeing beauty in people and in the natural world, and treating all people equally.” She found the confidence to follow her dreams, regardless of whether they were conventional paths for women.

In her last radio interview—only two weeks before her death—Celia offered this advice: “Change is possible, but you have to put your energy into it. You can’t expect me, I’m past 80, to be the mover and the shaker of this, but people like you are. And you’re going to have to bite the bullet and really decide what kind of world you want to live in.”

It only takes one trip to Alaska to fall in love with this extraordinary place. Celia didn’t plan on coming to Alaska, and she certainly didn’t plan on staying.

But as Celia liked to say “Life is what happens to you while you are busy making plans.”

“You just have to keep a fire in your belly, and you just go for it, and when you do, you can make a tremendous difference.”

Thanks for the lessons, Celia Hunter.