Celia Hunter has inspired many people in the importance of preserving our priceless wilderness and conserving our irreplaceable natural resources. She led by example and exemplified living lightly in her daily life. Her remarkable legacy of conservation triumphs radiates in the wilderness she loved so deeply, the lives of the people she inspired, and the legislation she relentlessly pursued in order to protect the land she adored (Miller).
Hunter was born on January 13, 1919 in Arlington, Washington. She grew up in a logging community during the depression, and her Quaker heritage instilled in her the confidence to follow her dreams, regardless of whether or not they were the conventional path for women (Wikipedia, 2007).
Following high school, Hunter worked as a clerk for Weyerhaeuser Timber Company for fifty dollars a month. She drove past Everett Airport every day on her way to work, and as an admirer of Amelia Earhart, she decided to learn to fly. She embarked on her first flight a week following her 21st birthday and was immediately addicted (Miller). In describing her first flight, longtime friend Debbie Miller recalls Hunter stating, "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" (¶ 5).
Hunter's love of flying prompted her to train with the Women's Air Force Service Pilot Program, where she became accomplished at flying several different models of aircraft. She ferried aircraft across the country during World War II, but she dreamed of one day flying to Alaska to see the vast wilderness which other pilots spoke of. Finally, she was granted her wish. In December 1946, she and a pilot friend, Ginny Hill, were hired to fly a couple of Stinson airplanes from Seattle to Fairbanks. Various weather delays plagued the nearly month-long trip, but they eventually arrived at Weeks Field in a blizzard. The pair adored Alaska, so they decided to stay and work in the tourism industry (Miller).
Hunter and Hill found jobs with a travel agency in Fairbanks where they ferried visitors to a travel lodge in Kotzebue during the summer. In the fall, the adventuresome duo was dissuaded by plummeting temperatures, and they left to study in Stockholm, Sweden. However, the freedom and challenge of the Alaskan wilderness had infected them both, and they were anxious to return (Summer, 2004).
In 1952, the pair, along with Hill's new husband, Morton "Woody" Wood, a Denali park ranger, staked out Camp Denali on public lands north of Mount McKinley in the Kantishna mining district near Wonder Lake. The camp was designed for people who prefer experiencing nature without modern conveniences such as television. They sold the camp in 1975, but it remains a highly popular ecotourism retreat.
To this day, the sleeping cabins at Camp Denali do not have electricity or running water. Instead, they provide wood stoves, propane lights, and a sensational view of Mount McKinney. The camp also offers educational programs about nature and the environment administered by naturalists, authors, and scientists. There is also a library and meeting hall stockpiled with plant and animal collections (Summer, 2004).
Hunter and Ginny Wood (formerly Ginny Hill) founded Alaska's first statewide environmental organization, the Alaskan Conservation Society (ACS), in 1960. This small group labored to establish the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and protect the unspoiled lands of Alaska. Soon following its formation, the ACS found itself in two heated battles: Project Chariot and the Rampart Dam Project (Miller).
Project Chariot was a proposal that involved using a nuclear bomb to blast a harbor out of the northwest Pacific coast, only 30 miles south of Point Hope. Members of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) had traveled to Alaska to convince residents of the economic benefits that atomic power in the Arctic would bring to the state. The tour convinced the Alaskan delegation and the Anchorage and Fairbanks Chambers of Commerce of the monetary potential, but not everyone was so quick to jump on board.
The ACS became involved, and the March 1961 issue of the ACS news bulletin investigated the broader implications of Project Chariot. The dispatch featured an article by Hunter and was widely distributed throughout Washington, D.C. It was reprinted by other organizations such as the Sierra Club. This networking brought the issue to a national level, and it soon attracted the attention of the Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, who was puzzled why the AEC had not gone through him on the project. Hence, the ACS developed a connection with the Department of the Interior and effectively undermined the AEC (Wikipedia, 2007). In response to the proposed devastation, Hunter enlightened:
"This is how close the US and Alaska came to having their own Chernobyl catastrophe and the perpetrators of the plot were government employees of the AEC and the Lawrence Radiation Lab - people so intent on their own narrow goals that they would willingly have sacrificed everything within northern Alaska to achieve them (Wikipedia, 2007).
Rampart Dam was proposed to be built on the Yukon River at a location known as The Ramparts. It would have created a lake 300 miles long and affected climates and ecosystems as far away as the Yukon Territories in Canada. As a byproduct, the lake would have submerged several small villages and individual cabins in the region, destroyed millions of acres of thriving waterfowl and wildlife habitat, and relocated innumerous mammal populations. Hunter, Wood, and others involved with ACS labored vigorously to expose the irreparable environmental deficiencies of the proposal. Debates were held in Fairbanks and were largely attended by the public. Hunter did her homework, and she was successful in illuminating the insurmountable problems with the proposal (Wikipedia, 2007).
In the late 1970s, Hunter served as Executive Director for the Wilderness Society, and she began writing environmental columns for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. For over 20 years, the fearless and outspoken Hunter fastidiously studied numerous diverse issues and wrote eloquent and convincing columns (Miller). Her devotion to environmental preservation led her to help found the Alaska Conservation Foundation (ACF) in 1980 to bring more resources to the Alaskan conservation movement and continue the statewide networking that had been started with the ACS. Hunter served on the ACF board of trustees for over 18 years (Wikipedia, 2007).
Hunter and Wood also labored to help create and pass the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) (Miller). ANILCA protected over 100 million acres of federal lands in Alaska, doubling the size of the United States' national park and refuge system and tripling the quantity of land designated as wilderness. Many of the largest wilderness areas managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service were designated by ANLICA. It expanded the national park system in the state by over 43 million acres and created ten new national parks while increasing the acreage of three existing parks (National Parks Conservation Association, 2007).
Hunter's contributions have been vital to the wilderness movement, and she has received several prestigious awards. She was recognized with the Sierra Club's highest honor, the John Muir Award, in 1991 for a lifetime of devoted conservation work and an illustrious record of environmental achievements. In 1998, she was presented with the Wilderness Society's highest honor, the Robert Marshall Award, for her conservation efforts and promotion of an American land ethic. Hunter and Wood were presented the Alaska Conservation Foundation's first ever Lifetime Achievement Award. The foundation also has an endowment fund named for Celia M. Hunter which educates young people pursuing environmental careers (Wikipedia, 2007).
On December 1, 2001, Hunter passed away peacefully in her log cabin in Fairbanks at 82 years of age. She had remained absolutely dedicated to wilderness preservation to the very end, and she was writing messages to senators in Washington, D.C. the night before she died, persuading them to vote against proposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Miller). In her final radio interview, just two weeks prior to her death, she gave some advice for the future:
"I think what I'd like to leave with people your age is the idea that change is possible, but you're going to have to put your energy into it… I'm past eighty and I'm not going to be the mover and shaker of this, but people like you are. And you're going to have to bite the bullet and decide what kind of world you want to live in. (¶ 3)
Miller, D. (n/d). "The Wilderness Society: Profile of Celia Hunter."
National Parks Conservation Association. (March 4, 2007). "Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act."
Summer, S. (2004). Women Pilots of Alaska: 36 Interviews and Profiles. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Wikipedia. Celia M. Hunter.