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This article is shared with MinnPost by MNopedia, the digital encyclopedia created by the Minnesota Historical Society and supported by the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

Educator and conservationist Sigurd Olson was instrumental in protecting the Boundary Waters

photo of sigurd olson
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Sigurd F. Olson, ca. 1949.
Sigurd Ferdinand Olson was a prominent American conservationist in the twentieth century who is remembered for his work to preserve the northeast Minnesota wilderness. His career can be separated into two parts: the first as an educator and wilderness canoe guide, and the second as an author and national leader in conservation. He wrote and published eight books. His first book, The Singing Wilderness (1956), is perhaps his best-known work.

Sigurd Olson was born in Chicago, Illinois, on April 4, 1899, to Swedish immigrants Lawrence Olson, a Baptist minister, and Ida May Cederholm. While Sigurd was young, his family moved to Sister Bay on Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula. The Olson family later moved to Prentice, Wisconsin, a few years later, and finally to Ashland, Wisconsin, where Sigurd graduated from high school. As a child, he developed a passion for nature and the outdoors.

Olson’s education continued at Northland College in Ashland and culminated at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1920. He earned a bachelor of science degree in agriculture, but biology and geology also sparked his interest. He met Elizabeth Dorothy Uhrenholdt at Northland College, and they married in 1921.

After college, Olson taught in northern Minnesota and then returned to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for graduate work in geology. Deciding against a career in mining, and with his first child on the way, he left the university in 1922 and moved his family to Ely, Minnesota. Although Olson traveled for his work, he always considered Ely and the Quetico-Superior Region as his home. In Ely, Olson taught high school biology and was a faculty member of the biology department at Ely Community College (now Vermillion Community College). In the summer, he worked as a wilderness canoe guide and outfitter.

The move to Ely also marked the beginning of Olson’s career as a conservationist. He opposed the construction of roads and dams in the Quetico-Superior Region. His advocacy aided in obtaining a proclamation by Secretary of Agriculture William Jardine that restricted road building. He also promoted the passage of the Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act of 1930, which helped to preserve the Quetico-Superior region by limiting logging and prohibiting the alteration of water levels.

Olson entered the graduate program at the University of Illinois in Champaign in 1931, earning a master’s degree in zoology the following year. His thesis focused on the timber wolf, an animal he had studied since the mid-1920s. Upon graduation, he returned to Ely and began to teach full time at the Junior College. He became dean of the college in 1936. After World War II, Olson went to England and Germany to teach biology and geology to American soldiers in Europe.

Olson resigned from his career in education in 1947 to focus on writing and conservation. His advocacy for restricting the flight of aircraft over the Quetico-Superior area in the late 1940s gained national attention. Thanks to his efforts, an executive order issued in 1949 and legislation passed in 1951 set regulations for air and water transportation in the region.

Olson published his first book, The Singing Wilderness (1956), at the age of fifty-seven. He published eight books in his lifetime, and several more have been published posthumously.

Throughout his career, Olson received environmental awards, including the Founder’s Award from the Izaak Walton League and the John Muir Award from the Sierra Club. Institutions such as the University of Minnesota and Carleton College conferred honorary degrees on him. Not all recognition was positive, however. For example, an effigy of Olson was hanged in Ely in 1977 during the debates on the wilderness status of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA).

Olson’s conservation efforts in the Quetico-Superior region aided in the establishment of Voyageurs National Park (the name is credited to Olson) and the designation of the BWCA as a wilderness area in 1978.

Sigurd Olson died in Ely, Minnesota, on January 13, 1982, while snowshoeing near his home.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Peder Otterson on 06/01/2020 - 12:00 pm.

    Thanks, Karl. Your report is timely as I am just re-reading Sig’s book, Runes of the North. He writes in such a way that it fully captures the feelings of my own canoe trips, beginning at the age of four. Things have changed up in Canoe Country since those early days–and not for the better. Even so, we have Sig and others like him to thank for helping to keep it a place of awe and wonder. My days of canoe trips are long behind me, but I still have Sig’s books to stir the memories and the coals of many past campfires along the way.

  2. Submitted by BJ Moore on 06/01/2020 - 04:40 pm.

    I wish he were alive today to help protect the Boundary Waters from mining. I am so appalled that Minnesota is considering this an acceptable thing to do.

  3. Submitted by BK Anderson on 06/02/2020 - 01:21 pm.

    The people on the doorstep of the Quetico-Superior have never been much in favor of having it designated as wilderness, and its protection was mostly the result of the mass of opinion in other parts of the state/country. As proof things haven’t changed, we can see the current absurd push for dangerous mining in the watershed, an industry which cannot credibly promise protection from dangerous pollution and which couldn’t possibly set aside the funds necessary to even remotely clean up the damage which is likely to result. Indeed it’s hard to see how a “clean up” could be possible even with unlimited funds.

    All for [x] number of jobs, which of course will quickly decline as all resource extraction work declines over time and needs to move on to the next area to ruin. And now this fight is reduced to arguing to wreck the last 1% of unexploited primordial land.

    The BWCA was created because public opinion in the 70s came to largely support the restoration of the (trashed) environment and protection of the last shreds of wilderness in America. Hence the passage that decade of every major environmental law in existence. But as a result of decades of garbage fed to Americans by the “conservative” [what irony!] movement, most Americans no longer place a high value on protecting the environment, and wilderness is simply off the radar entirely. Likely most Minnesotans no longer care about preserving the BWCA, as the mining permitting demonstrates.

    It is difficult to envision what Sigurd Olson saw on his canoe trips of the 1920s. But in any event, while he had a huge part in saving the area from total exploitation/destruction for over 100 years, even he couldn’t do anything about (now looming) climate change, which will fundamentally alter the natural character of the area forever–and likely in just a few short decades, based on the unimaginably fast pace that global warming is setting up north.

    So if you have the slightest interest, see the BWCA/Voyageurs while you can, the sooner the better. It won’t be long and it will be effectively gone, just like Venice….

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