Sigurd Olson

Sigurd Olson, former president and governing council member of The Wilderness Society, was an American author, environmentalist and lifelong advocate for wilderness.

Olson served as a wilderness guide in northern Minnesota for over thirty years. He helped write The Wilderness Act of 1964 and his lifelong dedication to preserving wilderness resulted in permanent protection for the Boundary Waters of Minnesota.

Early Life

Sigurd Olson was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1899 and was raised in northern Wisconsin, where he first learned to love the outdoors. In 1921, he took his first canoe trip to northern Minnesota and got a taste of what would later become, with his help, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. He returned there on his honeymoon with his wife Elizabeth Dorothy Uhrenholdt.


Olson studied agriculture and science at Northland College, University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Illinois, and then began teaching biology at Ely Junior College. After becoming chair of the science department, he eventually became dean. He lived in the Ely, Minnesota area for most of his life, where he wrote and taught about the Boundary Waters and worked as a canoe guide during summers.

Olson was awarded the Johns Burroughs Medal – the highest honor in nature writing – in 1974.


Olson’s work was critical to gaining protection for the Boundary Waters, Voyageurs National Park, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Point Reyes National Seashore.

He helped draft the Wilderness Act of 1964 and was vice president of The Wilderness Society from 1963 to 1966 and president from 1967 to 1971.

Shortly after the first celebration of Earth Day in 1971, Sigurd Olson and Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson were invited to participate in Northland College’s first environmental conference. This was the start of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute.

After decades of dedication, Boundary Waters was designated as protected wilderness in 1964.