The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) wouldn’t be at the center of such continuous controversy had Ginny Wood not stepped up more than 50 years ago. If she hadn’t advocated for the wild lands of Alaska, it’s not too a big leap to assume that oil companies would have had carte blanche to drill baby drill – with easy approval, without controversy, and without discussion of the intrinsic and ecological value of the area.
Ginny Wood didn’t ride into Alaska on a white horse and introduce the concept of conservation, nor was she alone in her efforts to protect the extreme beauty in front of her. But she was one of the first people to formalize the conservation movement in the state, and one of its most persuasive and passionate champions.
Upping the Ante on Rosie the Riveter
Virginia “Ginny” Wood (née Hill) was born in 1917, in Oregon. Raised in rural Washington, she grew up with an independent streak and a love of the outdoors. She was an avid swimmer, hiker, and angler. As a teenager, she guided horse packing trips deep into the Cascades. In college, she seized on an opportunity to take a year off and bicycle through Europe. It was 1938 – still in time to experience the continent before the bombing raids and cultural upheaval of World War II
Back in the U.S. after her bike tour, Wood became one of 2,500 women to take part in the Civilian Pilot Training Program – the program that provided a watershed moment in equality of opportunity for women and African Americans (think: Tuskegee Airmen). In exchange for learning to pilot a plane, she ostensibly would be at the ready to go into combat. Of course, women were not allowed to fight in the military at that time so many of the newly minted female pilots – including Ginny Wood – flew for the stateside war effort in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) organization.
Wood and her fellow WASP pilots delivered military planes and flew cargo missions across the country. Of 25,000 applicants, only 1,074 women were accepted into the prestigious program. The freedom of flight and the lure of new places was a perfect fit for Wood.
It was a WASP mission that would change the course of Wood’s life. She and her close friend, fellow WASP pilot Celia Hunter, were each delivering a plane from Seattle to Fairbanks, Alaska. They arrived on New Year’s Day, 1947, and the temperatures dropped too low to fly back out. Hunter and Wood decided to hang out for a while, and they took seasonal jobs as bush pilots for tourist flights from Fairbanks to Kotzebue.
After a brief stint in Sweden and a second bike tour around Europe in 1948, Wood and Hunter returned to explore Alaska. Wood was taken by the enormity and the wildness of the place. At the same time, she was increasingly interested in the works of Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold. The two world wars had dampened the momentum of the early 20th century conservation movement, but Leopold’s 1949 opus, A Sand County Almanac, was once again raising questions for society about the value of nature. Widespread environmentalism wouldn’t gain traction for two more decades, but Wood was already a firm believer in the intrinsic value and rights of nature as Leopold had so articulately expressed.
In 1950, Ginny married Morton “Woody” Wood, an Alaskan park ranger. Two years later, the Woods and Hunter found land about as close as you can get to base of 20,320-foot Mount Denali. (Though Alaska wouldn’t become a state until 1959, Denali was already being managed as a national park.) They bought the land through the Homestead Act and built Camp Denali to serve as a tourist base camp for the area.
Camp Denali sits right at tree line, which at the 63rd parallel is just 2,400 feet in elevation. On a clear day, Denali looms large in the view. During summer solstice, there are more than 20 hours of daylight to explore the taiga and tundra out the doorstep. At winter solstice, the five(ish) hours of daylight are typically spent cross-country skiing or scavenging for any fix of Vitamin D you can find. From a lifetime of appreciating nature, it was here at Camp Denali that Wood found her profound connection and dedication to protecting the land.
The 1950s were a contentious time in northeastern Alaska. At the same time, the broader world (with due respect to the indigenous peoples who’d lived there all along) was discovering the majesty of the region, another contingent was angling to capitalize on the energy producing capacities of the area. The Sierra Club published an article in 1953 calling it, “The Last Great Wilderness,” and the president of the Wilderness Society spent years studying the ecology from land to sea.
Wood jumped right into the fray. She protested the damming of the Yukon and Fortymile Rivers (1954), as well as the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline. She argued against wolf bounties in one their last remaining intact, native territories. In one of the stranger sagas in modern history, the US Atomic Energy Commission proposed using nuclear bombs to create a manmade harbor in the Chukchi Sea, in 1958. Aside from the obvious radiation hazards, no one wanted the harbor – not the locals, the oil companies, or anyone. Wood was a vociferous opponent to the plan, which was scrapped in 1962, but interestingly, never officially cancelled.
That grey area of “protected, but…” is a common theme throughout northeast Alaska. Among the many battles for land and sea in the 1950s, Wood joined the fight to designate the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). She testified at a special Congressional hearing in Fairbanks on behalf of protecting and conserving the area in tact. Her side won, but…
ANWR and the Legacy of Ginny Wood
While ANWR was listed as federally protected area in 1960, the door was left open for a more liberal definition of management down the line. It was a victory for Wood and her fellow environmentalists, but not a secure victory. In 1980, more acreage was added to ANWR in exchange for the refuge becoming part of the Alaskan National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Eight million acres were designated wilderness areas. Over 10 million acres were added and designated as “minimal management” areas. Another 1.5 million acres – the most sought after by oil companies – were listed as 1002 areas. This designation gives greater power to the “energy needs” argument, allows easier access for test drilling, and effectively provides less protection overall.
The original protection of ANWR, along with squashing the dam and nuclear proposals, were successes. Though the Sierra Club has begun some activism in the lower 48, there wasn’t a powerful environmental lobby from which to draw support. Wood and her colleagues were organizing from the ground up, and building arguments that pitted intrinsic value against monetary interests. To win as many battles as she did is a testament to her persuasiveness.
In order to ensure continued success and to establish some institutional guidance for fellow conservationists, Wood and her husband founded the Alaska Conservation Society (1960-1993). It was the first official environmental organization in the state. Though the society ceased operation in 1993, it continues on today as the Alaska Conservation Foundation, co-founded by Wood’s dear old friend, Celia Hunter.
Ginny Wood guided hiking, rafting, and backcountry trips until she was 70 years old. She cross-country skied into her 80s. Her feisty column for the Northern Alaska Environmental Center newsletter was always a poetic and politically savvy call to protect the lands that you love. She sat on two statewide boards for trails and recreation for a combined total of 34 years. Among her many honors, she earned the Sierra Club’s John Muir Award, the Northern Alaska Environmental Center Florence Collins Award, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Citizens Award for Exceptional Service, and the 2010 Congressional Gold Medal for honorable service to the country.
She was a pioneer of the Alaskan frontier and of conservation in the broadest sense. Ginny Wood died in 2013 at the age of 95.
Photos by Camp Denali and Pamela Miller