In Speaking Out for Wilderness Protection, He Sent a Powerful Message

Conservation Hall of Fame® Inductee: Sigurd Olson

  • Robert Darland
  • Aug 01, 2000
Few Americans have worked as hard as Sigurd Olson to safeguard the habitat of the great blue heron and other wildlife in the streams and lakes of the Upper Midwest and elsewhere. One of the nation´s most respected outdoor writers and conservation activists, Olson was inducted into the NWF Conservation Hall of Fame in 1993. In his numerous books and articles, he wrote eloquently about America´s wild heritage.

"All is still," observed Sigurd Olson in "Cruising God´s Country," a 1921 article about the Wisconsin North Woods. "The water is smooth as glass except when disturbed by the jumping of a lake trout. The heavily timbered shores are reflected as from a mirror in the waters and as you gaze you sometimes catch yourself wondering which is which, the reflection or the shore. A white throated sparrow calls so far away and sweetly, you can hardly believe a note could be so clear and faint and still be heard. You stand in awe, the silence almost overcomes you."

Olson was only 22 at the time he penned those words for The Milwaukee Journal, but his passion for the wilderness areas of the Great Lakes region was already in full bloom. Born in Chicago in 1899, he had been whisked off to northern Wisconsin in his sixth year when his father, a Baptist minister, accepted an assignment in the region. Growing up amid the area´s vast forests and lakes, Olson developed a powerful connection to the natural world.

His professional ambitions were not clear to him early on, however. In 1920, after first considering a career as a missionary, he completed a degree in agronomy and took a job as an agricultural agent in northern Minnesota. There, he fell in love with the rugged boundary waters-so much so that when he married in 1922, he and his bride spent their honeymoon canoeing.

The couple moved to the North Woods town of Ely, Minnesota, where Olson taught biology first in high school, then in Ely Junior College. By 1925 he was head of the the college´s biology department. But ever since giving up a future as a missionary, he had searched for another spiritual commitment in his life. He found it in nature. In the late 1920s and into the early 1930s, he launched a career as an outdoor writer, making his reputation with advocacy pieces in support of protecting wild lands and pristine waters.

Olson´s commitment to conservation eventually landed him in Washington, D.C., where he became an ecologist for the Izaak Walton League. He fought to keep airplanes out of the Quetico-Superior lake country of northern Minnesota, seeking to protect the silence of the wilderness that he called "a spiritual necessity, an antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium."

In 1956, Olson´s classic book The Singing Wilderness was published. It soon received critical acclaim and became a best-seller on The New York Times list.

Later in his career, he served as a consultant to the President´s Quetico-Superior Committee, which dealt with protection of the northern lakes. He helped draft the Wilderness Act of 1964 and identify lands later protected under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which set aside 104 million acres as national parks, wildlife refuges and forests. Olson´s proudest moment may have come in 1978, when President Jimmy Carter signed a law granting full wilderness protection to Minnesota´s Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

Olson went on to serve as president of both the National Parks Association and the Wilderness Society. He also became an advisor to the secretary of the Interior and the director of the National Park Service, beginning during the Kennedy administration.

He stayed true to the wild Upper Midwest country right to the end. He was still active in protection of northern lakes into his 80s, and when he died in 1982, he was snowshoeing a favorite trail. "With his love of the northern woods, his ability to share that love evocatively in words and his lifelong activism, Sigurd Olson is one of the past century´s greatest conservationists," says NWF President Mark Van Putten. "His writings and the example of his life will continue to inspire and guide this century´s conservation leaders."

Robert Darland

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