Once in a generation, someone comes along and makes a mark so significant, it reverberates through many lifetimes. Some are calling conservationist Becky Rom “our generation’s Sigurd Olson,” which is high praise, especially for someone who grew up admiring Olson for his commitment to the environment.
“Sig was a family friend,” says Rom, “and I revered him. He mentored my dad as a young man.” At Ely’s junior college, her dad’s job (to assist with tuition) was to clean the office and lab of Dean Sig Olson. “Sig took my dad under his wing, helped him obtain summer jobs with the Forest Service, and encouraged him to obtain his degree in wildlife management at the University of Minnesota. While my dad was serving in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II, Sig wrote him letters.” She still has the letters, she says, which are full of Olson’s daily adventures in the wilderness of what was then called “canoe country.” “Basically, what Sig did in those letters is this: he described the place,” she says, “and then he’d say something like, ‘I need you to come back and dig into this conservation thing.’ So he was evoking memories of the canoe country and then inspiring him to come back and protect it.” Bill Rom came home from the service, started a canoe trip outfitter in Ely, and embarked on his own career in conservationism. “Sig started my dad on a path,” says Rom. “And my dad started me on mine.”
Rom, a self-described “self-taught” conservationist, is in the middle of her fourth national campaign to protect the Quetico-Superior ecosystem. “My first campaign was when I was in seventh grade. I advocated for the bill that became the Wilderness Act,” she says. “My teacher thought it would be a good idea to have a full debate before the 150-member seventh grade class in the school auditorium. I was on the pro side.” She didn’t manage to convince anyone—the only two “pro Wilderness Act” votes came from Rom and her boyfriend—but it was a watershed moment. “It was the first time I felt I could stand up for something I believed in,” she says, “which happened to be this ecosystem, the canoe country.”
She first started going to Washington, DC, and learning how to speak to members of Congress and their staff in the seventies. “By walking the halls of Congress with rolls of maps under my arm, and starting to describe the wonder of the place, why it was so important, why we needed to do certain things to protect it. That’s probably when it crystallized in me that there was a role that I could play.”
Throughout her work as a conservationist, Rom has played an enormous role in securing protections for the wilderness she loves. She leads the four-hundred-member coalition of businesses, conservation groups, and hunting and fishing groups united to protect Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from proposed sulfide-ore copper mining projects. Her vision and leadership recently resulted in a twenty-year ban on mining activities in the area.
In tandem with her advocacy efforts, Rom has worked tirelessly to keep Olson’s legacy alive. “I launched the Sigurd Olson Lecture Series in 1999. At the beginning of every lecture, I talk about Sig as a writer, a conservationist, and a teacher. Having a scholarship at Northland where Sig had such an influence and, and where he lives on… for me, it’s perfect.”
For more information about the Becky Rom Wilderness Advocacy Scholarship, visit northland.edu/ beckyrom.