In 1989, the Exxon Valdez freighter spilled over 11 million gallons of crude oil in Southcentral Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The environmental damage from the Exxon Valdez tragedy impacted many of the Alaska communities and small businesses of this region. In response, a small group of Alaska wilderness-dependent tourism operators formed a nonprofit corporation to provide a voice for environmental protection on behalf of their industry. This group was called the Alaska Wilderness Guides (AWG). Founding members of the Alaska Wilderness Guides included Kirk Hoessle of Alaska Wildland Adventures, Carol Kasza of Arctic Treks, Ken Leghorn, then with Alaska Discovery, Don Ford, of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), and Todd Miner of the Cornell Outdoor Education Program.
The membership of AWG’s organization grew and became more diverse over time. In 1993, the organization changed its name to the Alaska Wilderness Recreation & Tourism Association (AWRTA). AWRTA is a 501(c)(6) trade association representing wilderness-based tourism businesses and individuals passionate about wilderness recreation, sustainability, environmental protection and wildlife conservation in Alaska. AWRTA was initially led by an all-volunteer board of directors, including its first executive director, Nancy Lethcoe. Nancy and her late husband, Jim, operated Alaska Wilderness Sailing & Kayaking in Valdez for over two decades and authored or co-authored several natural history books about Prince William Sound. Nancy, now retired, continues to be a tireless advocate for the sustainability of Alaska's natural resources. AWRTA created an award in Nancy's name, honoring those individuals who devote their time and passion to Alaska's nature-base tourism and conservation.
Since its founding, AWRTA has grappled with Alaska ecotourism issues such as protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, climate change, predator control, tourism marketing for rural Alaska, and insurance challenges facing smaller tourism businesses in Alaska. AWRTA is the only statewide trade association representing nature-based tourism businesses. Although AWRTA employs a small staff and currently maintains an office in Anchorage, the organization remains a grass-roots, member-led organization committed to the principles and values fundamental to ensuring environmental protection and sustainability.