Celia Hunter + Denali National Park

Contributed by Zachary Czuprynski

What ingredients are required to create change, defend what is important, and, above all, do what is necessary? Celia Hunter embodies an example that teaches conservationists that we do not need overwhelming money, resources, and power in order to ignite a spark of change.

There is no secret ingredient.

As Celia said, “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.”

This is precisely how Celia led her life as a conservationist of the breath-taking Alaskan wilderness and the Yukon River. However, Celia’s life began not as a conservationist nor an environmentalist. Born in 1919 and raised as a Quaker in Washington State, Celia Hunter learned perseverance and other strong qualities early in life as she grew up during the Great Depression. She was an adventurer, a bold explorer looking for thrills and unusual opportunities that were entirely uncommon for a woman of her time. As a young adult, Celia took up flying just prior to World War II which gave her the opportunity to join the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP).

After flying some of the most sophisticated fighter planes for WASP, Celia began dreaming of flying over Alaska. She loved the perspective flying offered and wanted to observe the incredible Alaskan landscape from the bird’s-eye:

The viewpoint from on high is so different, and so much more comprehensive… just that whole feeling of being aloft. It gives you a feeling that birds must have. In fact, I think if I wanted to be reincarnated, I’d like to be a bird of some sort.

Unfortunately, the military did not allow women to fly over Alaska, so Celia Hunter and her friend, Ginny Wood, decided to fly themselves to Fairbanks, Alaska. The twenty-seven day journey was challenged by extremely cold temperatures and ice storms; however, the two friends remained unfazed and even worked as temporary flight attendants on the first-ever tourist trips to Alaska.

After a one-year intermission of bike touring throughout Europe, Celia and Ginny slowly made their way back to the Alaskan scene. They hitchhiked a tanker across the Atlantic, bought a station wagon to drive cross-country to Seattle, and eventually arrived back in the tundra. Here, the two women opened a small camp on the western boundary of Denali National Park that offered simple accommodations, warm, hearty meals, and outdoor activities that inspired an appreciation of the natural world. Hence, the official opening of Camp Denali in 1952.

Celia-Hunter-and-Ginny-Wood_Portrait-19601 (1)
Celia Hunter and Ginny Wood, 1960 (Alaska Conservation Foundation)

As the camp grew in popularity, so did Celia’s respect and connection with nature. Changes started to occur in Alaska that threatened its environment and the surrounding indigenous communities. Celia knew that saving the land she grew to love would take hard work and devotion. In 1960, Celia Hunter and others formed the Alaska Conservation Society (ACS) and, thus, began her life as a conservation activist along with the modern Alaska conservation movement.

Two major battles Celia fought with the ACS were Rampart Dam and Project Chariot. Rampart Dam was a proposed dam on the Yukon River that would supply hydropower for an aluminum smelter. However, the project would create a massive lake, effectively stop one of the largest salmon runs in the world, flood several indigenous communities, and overtake millions of acres of land utilized by local wildlife. Celia showed that this project was an absolute environmental hazard and an economic travesty. While this battle was fought successfully by Celia and the ACS, their second battle proved to be much more challenging.

Project Chariot was a proposal to unleash a nuclear bomb on the northwest Arctic coast at Point Hope. False advertisements and propaganda were used by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to further the project with Alaska’s business and political leaders. However, the academic community remained skeptical and demanded information regarding the extent of damage and the current conditions of the land and people at Point Hope. Celia’s leadership proved crucial:

That was how they got the first environmental investigation – the first Environmental Impact Statement investigation…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.

Although a nuclear bombing was avoided and Project Chariot was dismantled, the AEC still used the bombing area as a test site for observing the effects of radioactive waste on the surrounding ecosystem. Several tons of radioactive waste were buried near Point Hope.

Midnight on Denali, Denali National Park (Will Rice)

The ACS and Celia fought many other battles up until 1969 when Celia’s dedication and hard work led to a position on the Governing Council of The Wilderness Society. For seven years, she worked her way up rank in the organization until she became the group’s president and, shortly after, the executive director, making Celia Hunter the first woman to lead a national environmental organization.

Celia’s persistent fighting behind The Wilderness Society led to increasingly successful conservation battles. One of the biggest celebratory moments for Alaska occurred in 1980 when the Alaska Lands Act protected 43.6 million acres of parkland, created 10 new national parks, and doubled the size of the national refuge system. She also worked to establish the Alaska Conservation Foundation (ACF) in 1980 with Denny Wilcher which supported groups such as the Renewable Energy Alaska Project, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, and Alaskans for Responsible Mining. Celia continued to serve ACF for 18 years inspiring young leaders and helping groups grow to their full potential.

At 82 years old, Celia still fought to protect the beauty of Alaska. She would stay up late at night writing letters to Congress to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling. On December 1st of 2001, Celia passed away, leaving her extensive legacy to all the young leaders she had inspired over the years.

What is truly incredible is Celia’s unyielding and unrelenting fight towards protecting a cause she believed in. For 50 years she battled businesses, political leaders, and Congress for protection of the Alaskan wilderness she fell in love with as an adventurous youth. Celia could have easily turned her back on the vulnerability of Alaska when she was young. Instead, she saw an opportunity, a cause worth believing in and fighting for endlessly. She had no money, no power, but she held a fire in her belly like no other:

Change is possible, but you have to put your energy into it…And you’re going to have to bite the bullet and really decide what kind of world you want to live in.

Cover Photo courtesy of Northern Alaska Environmental Center

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