Minnesota Author Biographies.

Sigurd F. Olson

Sigurd F. Olson

From The Singing Wilderness (1956) by Sigurd Olson

The lights of the aurora moved and shifted over the horizon. Sometimes there were shafts of yellow tinged with green, then masses of evanescence which moved from east to west and back again. Great streamers of bluish white zigzagged like a tremendous trembling curtain from one end of the sky to the other. Streaks of yellow and orange and red shimmered along the flowing borders. Never for a moment were they still, fading until they were almost completely gone, only to dance forth again in renewed splendor with infinite combinations and startling patterns of design.

Biographical Notes

Birth: April 4, 1899, Humboldt Park, Illinois
Death: January 13, 1982, Ely, Minnesota

Conservationist, author, and leader in wilderness preservation, Sigurd Ferdinand Olson earned a B.S. from the University of Wisconsin in 1920, he pursued graduate study in geology at the University of Wisconsin in 1922, and he earned a M.S. in animal ecology from the University of Illinois in 1932. He was a biology instructor at Ely High School and Ely Junior College (currently Vermilion Community College) from 1922-35, and from 1936-47 he was dean of Ely Junior College.

Called "our modern Muir and Thoreau" by Justice William O. Douglas, Olson actively advocated for environmental conservation from the 1920s until his death. He worked with conservation organizations, government agencies, and he served on several advisory boards to preserve wilderness areas. Olson played a significant role in the establishment and protection of northern Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Quetico Provincial Park, and the wilderness preservation concept. His efforts led to the passing of the 1964 Wilderness Act, which established the U.S. wilderness preservation system, and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. However, Olson’s conservation efforts were not always appreciated. The wilderness regulations created from his conservation efforts were blamed for the decaying local economy and in 1977 they hung an effigy of Olson in his home town of Ely, Minnesota.

Organizations Olson worked with to accomplish his conservation goals included the department of zoology for the American Army University in Shrivenham, England (1945), the Information and Education Division for the U.S. Army, European Theater of Operations (1945-46), the U.S. Department of Interior beginning in 1962, the Izaak Walton League of America from 1947-82, and the Quetico-Superior Committee from 1947-65. Olson also promoted wilderness conservation through writing and lecturing. His book, Wilderness Days (1972), won the John Burroughs Medal in 1974.

Olson was an active member of several conservation groups including the National Parks Association (president, 1954-60), the Ecological Society of America, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Nature Conservancy, the Wilderness Society (member of executive committee, 1956-1982; president, 1968-71), the Association of Interpretive Naturalists, the Cosmos Club (Washington, DC), the Explorers Club, and the Sierra Club.

Olson’s contributions to environmental conservation were recognized with honorary degrees from the University of Wisconsin, Beloit College, Hamline University, the University of Minnesota, Northland College, Carleton College, and Macalester College. In addition, his conservation efforts were acknowledged with several awards including the Silver Antelope award from the Boy Scouts of America in 1963, he was named to the Izaak Walton League Hall of Fame and received the Founder’s Award in 1963, the H. M. Albright Medal from the American Scenic and Historical Preservation Society in 1963, the John Muir Award from the Sierra Club in 1967, the Dimock Award from the American Camp Association 1970, the establishment of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute at Northland College in 1972, the Distinguished Service Award from the Upper Mississippi Basin Commission in 1975, and he was the first recipient of the Robert Marshall Award from the Wilderness Society in 1981. After his death, Olson was inducted into the National Wildlife Federation Conservation Hall of Fame in 1993.

Selected Works

The titles below link to the catalog record in MnPALS, the Minnesota Historical Society’s library catalog. Please click on your browser's back button to return.

The Collected Works of Sigurd F. Olson. The College Years, 1935-1944
The Collected Works of Sigurd F. Olson. The Early Writings, 1921-1934
The Hidden Forest
Listening Point
The Lonely Land
Of Time and Place
Open Horizons
Reflections from the North Country
Runes of the North
Sigurd F. Olson's Wilderness Days
The Singing Wilderness
Songs of the North

Additional Resources

Minnesota Historical Society Links

• Search MNHS Library and Archives Catalog for author - Searches for works by this author in the Minnesota Historical Society’s library
Minnesota Historical Society Collections Online
Sigurd F. Olson - Compilation of essays about Sigurd Olson
Sigurd F. Olson Papers, 1920s-1989 - Minnesota Historical Society’s collection including maps, research notes, photographs, newspaper clippings, land use studies, and film scripts.
A Wilderness Within: The Life of Sigurd F. Olson by David Backes
Sound Politics by Mark Harvey

Web Links

Sigurd F. Olson Web Site - Olson web site
Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute - Northland College

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