The living legacy of Sigurd Olson

Sigurd Olson
Sigurd Olson stands in front of a canoe in 1959. Photos courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

In April 4, 1899, Sigurd F. Olson was born in Chicago, son of devout Swedish Baptists. He’d soon grow up into one of Minnesota’s most passionate environmental conservationists. 

When Olson was a young child, his family moved to woodsy northern Wisconsin. He spent his childhood playing in the wilderness, which fostered a passion for nature. He received a bachelor of science degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1920 and later a master’s of animal ecology. 

He became a biology teacher, teaching high school and junior college classes. Olson, his wife Elizabeth, and two sons eventually settled in Ely, where from 1936 to 1947 he served as dean of Ely Junior College, now Vermilion Community College.

The Minneapolis Star. (Minneapolis, MN) 1977-07-08 [p 9].
The Star Tribune covered protests about the BWCA in Ely in July 1977.

Early conservation efforts

Olson first began his conservation work in the 1920s with a campaign to keep roads and dams out of the Quetico-Superior area. In the 1940s, he led a successful campaign to ban airplanes from flying into the region. The ban set a precedent for other protected areas in the country and made Sigurd F. Olson a popular name and leader in the conservation movement. In 1947, he decided to retire from teaching to pursue conservation work full time. 

Olson’s launch into fame presented many opportunities to protect areas beyond Minnesota. He was a key figure in establishing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and Point Reyes National Seashore in California as well as Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota. 

Olson served as president of the National Parks Association from 1951–1959 and as an adviser to the National Park Service and Secretary of the Interior from 1959 into the 1970s.

He was also a talented writer. His first book, The Singing Wilderness, became a New York Times bestseller in 1956, thanks to his lyrical, empathetic and humanistic style, which included depections of small moments of clarity and contemplation during his experiences in northern Minnesota. 

He said: “Wilderness to the people of America is a spiritual necessity, an antidote to the pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium.” 

Olson went on to write eight more books on the subject, and his writing was well-awarded: In 1974, Olson received the John Burroughs Medal in nature writing.

Save the BWCA button

Protecting the wilderness

In 1964, Olson aided in creating the Wilderness Act, which President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law. The act created the National Wilderness Preservation System, which protects federal lands across the country. 

Olson passionately fought for the protection of the Boundary Waters in the 1970s. He was most concerned about mining in the wilderness and the effects it could have on the ecosystem. Olson wrote to politicians and gave occasional speeches on the subject, too.

His rhetoric and environmental efforts weren’t always met with praise, however. In 1977, opponents in his hometown of Ely hung effigies of members of the Sierra Club — including Olson and other environmentalists — outside a congressional hearing about the creation of the federally protected Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA). Olson’s critics — who were advocates of logging and motorized vehicle use in the wilderness — worried restrictions would hurt their industries.

Olson remained unwavering against the protests. In fact, he stated he was grateful for the incident.  

Nonetheless, the campaign to protect the northern wilderness proved successful in 1978 when President Jimmy Carter signed a law protecting and creating the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness. 

In January 1982, Olson died of a heart attack while snowshoeing near his home. But his legacy continues on: Thanks in part to Olson’s long-term commitment to the BWCAW, it has become the most visited wilderness area in the country, with almost 250,000 visitors annually. 

In 1971, Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, where Olson grew up, created the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute. Today the institute serves as an education center, leads regional conservation efforts and works to foster “the next generation” of environmental leaders.

In northern Minnesota, conservationists and campaigns continue Olson’s legacy of environmentalism, including working on some of the same issues Olson devoted himself to, including pollution of ecosystems and freshwater sources, loss of critical habitat and biodiversity. 

Abigail Thompson is a public relations intern with the Minnesota Historical Society.