Chuck and Alice Johnstone, founders of the Sitka Conservation Society, are among the American heroes who started Alaska’s grassroots environmental movement in the 1960s. As they saw the lands and waters of Southeast Alaska being threatened by unlimited logging plans, they became dismayed, and gathered with other concerned persons in Sitka to form the Sitka Conservation Society. 

Honoring Alice Johnstone

The only challenging thing about honoring Alice Johnstone is deciding on which of her many accomplishments to focus on. From co-founding the Sitka Conservation Society to being the second woman to serve on the Sitka Assembly and serving stints on numerous non-profit boards around town, Alice’s contributions to the community of Sitka – and beyond – were not inconsequential. The Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame, to which Alice was inducted in 2015, may have put it best by writing: “Alice Johnstone’s many accomplishments are best characterized as enlightened activism: environmental, societal, and political.” Indeed, if the sum of Alice’s actions and endeavors should remind us of one thing, it’s that the many fights for justice are all intertwined. Healthy environments and healthy communities exist hand-in-hand, and we are fortunate to have had advocacy for both in Alice. 

Among Alice’s many major contributions to the community life, cultural vibrancy, and overall health of Sitka include when she helped co-found the Sitka Conservation Society in 1967. For the next thirteen years, she assisted in the eventually successful fight to have parts of West Chichagof and Yakobi Island protected as a federally designated Wilderness. In the midst of all of this, she also co-founded Old Harbor Books, a fixture still in Sitka today. Impressive as these accomplishments were, what perhaps is most remarkable about Alice’s work is that it retains its cultural and environmental relevance to this day. The bookstore she helped found and the Wilderness area she helped protect are continually loved and cherished by both local families and visitors.

In addition to her work in the environmental sphere, Alice also became engaged in politics, community health initiatives, and social justice work. Despite her reputation as a conservationist in a pulp-mill town, she won election to the Sitka Assembly three times, serving a total of seven years, and forming during this time the Sitka Women’s Commission. But her commitment to healthy and safe communities did not end there. Alice carved out a name for herself as a staunch soldier against substance abuse, serving prolonged terms on both the Sitka and State of Alaska treatment and prevention boards, working to educate the public and lawmakers alike. Throughout her engagement in these public service activities, Alice was also taking one college course a semester for her own enjoyment. Having married at 17 and becoming a mother at 19, she did not have an opportunity to attend college. After many years of classes and hard work, Alice eventually earned an associate of arts degree. 


In 2010, the environmental work Alice had begun over thirty years before was recognized by an entity that at one time would have been the most unlikely of allies: the U.S. Forest Service. When the Sitka Conservation Society and Wilderness proposal were launched in the 1960s, the environmental ethic of Alice and friends put them in the minority in an overwhelmingly pro-timber town. As Alice said upon receiving the Bob Marshall Champions of Wilderness Act from the Forest Service, “It’s a wonderful milestone in Sitka and within the Forest Service. Forty years ago, when we started our work, we never dreamed we’d see a day like this, when the Forest Service and our group would be standing together to celebrate the beauty and wilderness of the Tongass National Forest.” 

Thanks to the work of Alice, the beauty and wilderness of which she spoke remain preserved for future generations. At the Sitka Conservation Society we thank and salute Alice for the many ways in which the community and environment surrounding Sitka have benefited from her tireless advocacy efforts. Alice’s many achievements serve as a reminder that individuals can be powerful implements of change, and at the Sitka Conservation Society, we pledge to continue to fight for the healthy environment and vibrant community for which she greatly supported.  

Honoring Chuck Johnstone

Chuck Johnstone grew up on the remote coasts of southeast Alaska, where thousands of islands are bathed in spray from the seas and drenched by rains from the sky. Lighthouses were necessary two generations ago, and Chuck's dad was a lighthouse keeper and island fox farmer. Chuck and his siblings spent their early childhoods in isolated environments, which meant that Chuck learned a lot about the natural world and came to love it with a passion he continues to this day. Chuck never gets lost in the woods, but he sheepishly admits that he got lost in Washington D.C. when he came here 35 years ago to testify for Alaskan Wilderness. Chuck's  interest in conservation advocacy began on boat trips he took with fellow SCS founder Jack Calvin, beginning in 1965. Jack was gifted in interpreting the natural world and helping people understand the natural processes of the forests and bays of the Tongass.  Before coming to Alaska, Jack and Ed Ricketts authored the first and classic textbook on marine ecology, Between Pacific Tides. After getting folks interested in the splendor of the Tongass National Forest, Jack would ask for their help in saving these areas from logging.  In 1967, the Calvins and the Johnstones, and a few like-minded friends who were interested in saving parts of the Tongass from the rapidly expanding industrial clear-cut logging, formed the Sitka Conservation Society.  Eventually, Chuck and Alice bought their own boat, The Fairweather, so that they could also introduce people to special Tongass places. The Johnstones and Calvins took hundreds of people – including some very influential persons of the time – to the area for which they crafted Alaska’s first-ever citizen-initiated Wilderness proposal: the West Chichagof – Yakobi Island Wilderness north of Sitka. 

Chuck shared his love of the coastal environment with others. As a boy growing up on isolated islands, Chuck became intimately familiar with the natural world. Even without the help of the field guides we know today, Chuck observed  the natural world so keenly that he created his own natural history through his personal experiences.  

While Chuck was growing up on lighthouse islands, Alice and her family were dairy farmers in the Juneau wetlands. Alice and Chuck met when Chuck moved to Juneau to attend high school. Romance began on the school bus and flourished after they later moved to Sitka. Chuck's knowledge of Tongass wildlife, and  Alice's knowledge of Southeast flora, combined with his boating skills and her ability to craft delicious meals at sea, gave guests on the Fairweather a life-changing wilderness experience. Many went home from Alaska and became activists in support of the preservation of the wilds of Alaska and the designation of West Chichagof and Yakobi Island as a Wilderness Area.

The 1967 formation of the Sitka Conservation Society began around the untested idea of using the newly created Wilderness Act, defined by Congress to exclude logging, mining, and road building, but allowed uses such as boating, camping, hunting and recreating. Chuck remembers: “We were really concerned that we were losing Southeast Alaska. We were concerned there wouldn't be any more of this beautiful area as we know it, and that we did not want.” Alice and Chuck served as officers and board members of the Sitka Conservation Society for many years. Establishing West Chichagof-Yakobi Island Wilderness Area became the group’s first major goal. The Johnstones remained steadfast throughout the designation process, despite personal consequences such as Chuck losing three jobs and Alice's job being threatened. Conservation efforts in a town dominated by a pulp mill were not popular. It took 13 long years before West Chichagof-Yakobi Island was forever protected as Wilderness by the Congressional passage of ANILCA, (Alaska National Interest Conservation Act), and the signature of President Jimmy Carter. 

Chuck and Alice had a vision of intact coastal ecosystems, old-growth temperate rain forests, rivers filled with salmon, mountains, free roaming brown bear, and truly wild places. Thanks to their love for this place, their dedication, and their persistence we can all still experience Wilderness in the Tongass. We thank them for living their vision and including us in it. 

We honor the Johnstones’ legacies through our Living Wilderness Fund, to continue to protect and support the people and places they so deeply cared for. Gifts to the Fund can be made here.