A pivotal figure in the Alaska conservation movement died over the weekend.
Chuck Johnstone was one of the co-founders of the Sitka Conservation Society. He was instrumental in the creation of the West Chichagof Wilderness — one of the first wilderness areas created in the state.
Chuck Johnstone looked every bit the part. He was the son of a Southeast Alaskan lighthouse keeper, and his experience of this environment seemed to radiate right out of his steel-gray eyes.
“There’s an art to seeing outside. Lots of people go outside and they just don’t notice what’s going on around them. If it isn’t homo sapiens, they don’t see it. But we tend to see what’s there.”
The “we” Johnstone refers to, in this documentary film produced by the Sitka Conservation Society, is he and his wife of 74 years, Alice Johnstone.
The couple were at a parent night at Sitka High School in 1967 discussing their son, Greg, with teachers, when they discovered that not everyone was excited about the extensive old-growth logging occurring in the region.
The teachers who shared the Johnstones’ views were Tom Johnson and Gail Denny.
“We were really concerned about the fact that we were losing Southeast Alaska. They were just wiping it out with the logging. And we were concerned that it was just going to keep going, and there wouldn’t be any more of this well, beautiful area as we know it. That we didn’t want.”
And so the Sitka Conservation Society was born. The Wilderness Act had been passed three years earlier, but no areas in Southeast had been selected for preservation. Alice Johnstone says Chichagof Island, with its rugged coast, secluded bays, and remote and largely untouched valleys would be perfect.
“We thought that the western third of it would be a great area for a wilderness, because it was almost like an island itself. There was a very small isthmus of land that connected it to the rest of the island. And everybody thought it was a wonderful place. So we chose that.”
After a dozen years of work, planning, and advocacy, the US Congress created the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness in 1980. For this tall, lean son of a lighthouse keeper, it was a tremendous political score — you would think.
Chuck Johnstone did not see it that way.
“I’m not political at all. I don’t feel any political blood running in my veins anywhere. But I can feel strongly about what the country should remain.”
Chuck Johnstone was 93 years old.