Sigurd F Olson

Sigurd Olson - IWLA's Wilderness Ecologist (1899-1982)

"Men will always be drawn to the last frontiers, where they can recapture some of the basic satisfactions and joys of the race, renew the sense of mystery and wonder and even some of the dreams their forebears had known," wrote Sigurd Olson in his 1958 book, Listening Point.

Not one to merely wish, Olson set out to insure that future generations would find the wilderness solitude he knew they'd need. And he found a ready ally in the Izaak Walton League.

From the fateful day in 1922 that he, as a young wilderness guide, shared a evening campfire on Ottertrack Lake with IWLA (Izaak Walton League of America) founder Will Dilg in Minnesota's a canoe country, Olson fought diligently not only for this wilderness, but for all. During their canoe trip, Olson showed Dilg the cut-over Minnesota shores of Knife Lake, mirrored by the untouched Ontario pines across the international boundary. So impressed was Dilg with the canoe country and Olson's impassioned plea to protect it, and the stark reality of what logging was doing to the American side, that he promised Olson the League's undying devotion to the cause. Olson joined the League and fought for the canoe country doing so even when it was grossly unpopular in his home town of Ely, MN, where wilderness opponents once hung him in effigy.

A college professor, a biologist, an essayist and a visionary, Olson took great pride in his role as the IWLA's Wilderness Ecologist, a post he held until his death in 1982. Elected to the IWLA Hall of Fame in 1963, his hand print is still to be seen in League wilderness policy.

He was, and is still, the spiritual leader of those Ikes who fought for eight decades to protect what became the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Sig Olson Debunks Secret BW Take-over!!

Not long ago, I was at a friend's house when he received a call from someone asking "What's this I hear about the United Nations taking over the Boundary Waters and stationing troops there?" Such paranoid behavior, as weird as it is, isn't new. See what Sigurd Olson had to say about similar rumors over forty years ago.

The wise-use movement (the so-called "multiple use" advocates who have stolen a noble idea that meant "a place for everything" and twisted it to mean "motorized use everywhere") has aligned itself with the far right of the political spectrum, indeed is its offspring. These factions have sprung up around America wherever there are significant amounts of federal lands.

From time to time there is a diatribe in a northern Minnesota paper by one of these paranoid delusionals that there is some secret plan afoot to wrest the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park away from Americans, turn them over to some secret entity run by the United Nations, all to the benefit of the New World Order (whatever that is), and all in an effort to keep local folks from enjoying these areas.

But lest you think this paranoia is a purely contemporary phenomenon, guess again. It has plagued the Boundary Waters region for fifty or more years. Beginning in the 1920s, wilderness advocates sought to establish the International Peace Memorial Forest along the Minnesota-Ontario border. This forest would have encompassed what have since become the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Quetico Provincial Park, and Voyageurs National Park, as well as some surrounding canoe country that has since become highly developed, roaded, logged over, or all of the above. The Peace Memorial Forest would have been administered by the U.S. Forest Service on the Minnesota side, and Canadian authorities in Ontario. It was endorsed by all the conservation organizations of the time, as well as the American Legion and its Canadian counterpart, since it was conceived not only to protect wilderness, but to serve as a lasting tribute to those who had served these nations in time of war.

The plan succeeded in only part - by the separate creation of each of the units of wildlands mentioned above. And it was not immune to its share of controversy, or the same kind of "secret take-over" rumors we hear today.

Reporting in a 1950 edition of Outdoor America, the magazine of the Izaak Walton League of America, a conservation organization at the lead of the canoe country preservation efforts, famed conservationist and essayist Sigurd Olson, the League's Wilderness Ecologist, told of the rumors floating around in Ely and elsewhere on Minnesota's Iron Range:

"People who say we are trying to turn this country back to the Indians are guilty of faulty thinking. We merely want to preserve the precious interior waterways and to keep them in a wilderness condition. We have no idea of trying to sew up the entire area."

"The accusation that the conservationists are interested in prohibiting the use of all natural resources is also false. Actually, our aim and objective is to utilize effectively, and for their proper purposes, the recreational, wilderness, and timber values of the area, each in relation to is public value. Neither will the area be turned over to some nebulous international authority to take away from present administrative agencies any power to control these areas. The administrative agencies will be exactly as they are now, and people need not be afraid that international agreement on management of the area will upset present jurisdictional rights."

It is a sobering thought that nearly fifty years after Olson wrote of the "nebulous international authority" there are those who still believe such a plot is afoot, and those unscrupulous enough to use such a tool to frighten their friends and neighbors.

NOTE: In the following news report from the January, 1950 issue of OUTDOOR AMERICA, the magazine of the Izaak Walton League of America, Sigurd Olson announces the signing by President Harry Truman of the air space reservation in, and over, the area that is now the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Olson's, and the League's, vision of the International Peace Memorial Forest as referred to in this article, which would have encompassed both the Boundary Waters and Quetico Provincial Park, and wildlands to their west, never came to full fruition. However, with the eventual creation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Quetico Provincial Park, and finally, Voyageurs National Park to the west (another project in which the IWLA was a major player), the majority of the geographical region envisioned for the Peace Forest has been set aside in some protected form.

A Victory For Wilderness! (January, 1950)

ONE of the most bitterly contested conservation measures of the year came to head on December 19 with the signing of an Executive Order by President Harry Truman creating an Air Space Reservation over the Roadless Areas of the Superior National Forest in Minnesota. This request was supported by the Department of Agriculture and Interior, the President's Quetico-Superior Committee, the Izaak Walton League, and all major conservation groups in the United States. It was opposed by commercial interests and aviation groups. The preservation of the wilderness character of the famous canoe country lying along the Minnesota-Ontario border was at stake - an area which has been fought for consistently for over a quarter of a century.

First was the battle to keep out roads to the inland lakes, then power development, logging of lake shores, and finally the airplane. In every one of these battles the League has taken a leading part. The saving of the wilderness canoe country has been one of the League's major efforts since its organization. It has been the old story of a few exploiters seeking to commercialize the area, opposed by conservationists who believed its wilderness values should be kept unspoiled.

This Executive Order, the first of its kind to preserve wilderness values, recognizes once again through official action that this area is worth fighting for. In 1930 Congress passed the Shipstead-Nolan Bill to save the shorelines. In 1933 the State of Minnesota passed a similar law covering state owned lands within the area. In 1934 the International Joint Commission denied a pending application for an enormous power development which would have made a reservoir out of these lakes. In the same year President Roosevelt established by Executive Order the first Quetico-Superior Committee to work for the area's preservation. In 1939 the U. S. Forest Service established formally the Roadless Areas of the Superior over a million acres of superlative wilderness. In 1948 Congress passed the Ball-Thye-Blatnik Bill authorizing an appropriation of half a million dollars for acquisition of private lands within the region. In 1949 Congress made the first allocation of funds for this purpose. And now the President of the United States has signed the Air Space Order, once again preserving the area from exploitation.

This order will go into effect January 1, 1951 banning all indiscriminate flying. On January 1, 1952 all flights to Roadless Area resorts will be halted. After that, only official governmental flights will be permitted with the exception of emergency or rescue operation. In the future all planes must maintain an elevation of 2000 feet above ground level except where lower navigation is necessary for safety.

This victory is a great step forward toward the realization of the plan to create, by treaty with Canada, an International Peace Memorial Forest in the Quetico-Superior area. This proposal will have as one of its major tenets the preservation of the wilderness interior on both sides of the border. The recent Air Space Reservation, the first of its kind in the history of the world, not only recognizes the value of all wilderness, but gives new incentive to the Quetico-Superior program and is a major victory for the Izaak Walton League and dozens of other individuals and organizations who have given so much time, money, and effort to preserving the wilderness canoe country.

Sigurd F. Olson, Wilderness Ecologist, IWLA

(April-May 1956 issue of OUTDOOR AMERICA, the magazine of the Izaak Walton League of America. In this excerpt from the Endowment Board's report, famed wilderness essayist Sigurd Olson, the IWLA's Wilderness Ecologist relates to the League the status of the battle for what has become the Boundary Waters. In particular, he tells of the recently instituted ban on airplanes flying into or above the wilderness, and the League's commitment to the wilderness, which, by 1956, had already spanned three decades.)


SIG OLSON, wilderness ecologist for the League, who has spark-plugged the League's wilderness program in the roadless area of the Superior National Forest, addressed the Endowment meeting with a report on that program to date. He outlined the history of the efforts to preserve the area of the Superior beginning in 1924 - the successful fight to prevent the invasion of the area by automobile roads and by proposals to build 7 high power dams; the satisfactory fight to protect state owned land within the area in the Shipstead-Nolan bill of 1930 which included provisions for prohibiting timber cutting within 400 ft. of the shore line of the thousands of magnificent wilderness lakes in the region; and finally the successful conclusion of a battle to prevent commercial airplane exploitation of the wilderness through the signing by President Truman last December of an air space reservation over the roadless area of the Superior National Forest which will ultimately prohibit any flying in the area except for emergency purposes.

Olson emphasized the historical precedent of the air space reservation. "It is the first time," he said, "an air space reservation has ever been proclaimed in the history of the world for anything but national defense or some similar objective. Never before has an air space regulation been declared for the purpose of preserving wilderness values. It is historical because it gives significance to the idea of wilderness preservation. What the effects of that air space reservation will be are hard for us to determine today, but in future generations people will point to it as a milestone in the whole concept of preserving wilderness." He pointed out the long, and sometimes discouraging, battle which led up to the ultimate signing of the air space reservation by President Truman, and concluded with a resume of the current and final steps being worked out with the governments of Canada and the United States for the establishment of an international peace memorial forest on both sides of the border which would include the roadless area.

"I just want to say this further word," Olson said, "the League has a long history of consistency and of purpose in this matter of wilderness preservation. When an organization hers fought for something steadily and consistently without losing its ideals for 28 years it means something. The League has believed in wilderness preservation as an ideal; the League will continue to believe in wilderness preservation until, not only, this fight is finished successfully, but many other fights are finished successfully."