Sigurd F. Olson

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Biographical Information

"Sigurd Ferdinand Olson (April 4, 1899-January 13, 1982), writer and conservationist, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Lawrence J. Olson, a Swedish Baptist minister, and Ida May Cederholm. He spent most of his childhood in northern Wisconsin, where he formed his life-long attachment to nature and outdoor recreation...

"Sigurd became an active conservationist in the 1920s, fighting to keep roads and then dams out of the Quetico-Superior. In the 1940s he spearheaded a precedent-setting fight to ban airplanes from flying into the area; the conflict propelled him to the front ranks of conservation. Sigurd served as wilderness ecologist for the Izaak Walton League of America from 1948 until his death, as vice-president and then president of the National Parks Association from 1951 to 1959, as vice-president and then president of the Wilderness Society from 1963 to 1971, and as an advisor to the National Park Service and to the secretary of the interior from 1959 to the early 1970s. He helped draft the Wilderness Act, which became law in 1964 and established the U.S. wilderness preservation system. He played a role in the establishment of Alaska's Arctic Wildlife Refuge, and helped to identify and recommend other Alaskan lands ultimately preserved in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. Among his many other activities, he played key roles in the establishment of Point Reyes National Seashore in California and Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota. In recognition, four of the five largest U.S. conservation organizations -- the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the National Wildlife Federation and the Izaak Walton League -- gave Sigurd their highest award.

"Sigurd's large and at times almost worshipful following derives in part from personal charisma, but especially from the humanistic philosophy that he professed in nine popular books, in magazine articles, and in myriad speeches and interviews...

"In 1974 Sigurd received the Burroughs Medal, the highest honor in nature writing. His other books include Listening Point (1958), The Lonely Land (1961), Runes of the North (1963), Open Horizons (1969), The Hidden Forest (1969), Wilderness Days (1972) Reflections From the North Country (1976), and Of Time and Place (1982).

"Sigurd Olson believed that the psychic, as well as physical, needs of humanity were rooted in the Pleistocene environment that dominated the evolutionary history of our species. This, combined with his single-minded focus on spiritual values, distinguished him from other leading philosophers of the wilderness preservation movement. Sigurd was influenced by the literary naturalists W.H. Hudson and John Burroughs, as well as many other thinkers and social critics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including Henry David Thoreau, Aldous and Julian Huxley, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Lewis Mumford, and C.G. Jung. Sigurd Olson argued that people could best come to know their true selves by returning to their biological roots. As he said at a Sierra Club conference in 1965, "I have discovered in a lifetime of traveling in primitive regions, a lifetime of seeing people living in the wilderness and using it, that there is a hard core of wilderness need in everyone, a core that makes its spiritual values a basic human necessity. There is no hiding it....Unless we can preserve places where the endless spiritual needs of man can be fulfilled and nourished, we will destroy our culture and ourselves." [1] The Listening Point Foundation was founded to commemorate his work.


  • David Backes, A Wilderness Within: The Life Of Sigurd F. Olson (University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

Resources and articles

Related Sourcewatch

  • Sigurd was a consultant to the Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall


  1. Profile, Sigurd F. Olson, accessed December 11, 2011.