Sigurd Olson was born on April 4, 1899. One hundred years later, in 1999, the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute celebrated the anniversary of Olson’s birth with two initiatives that recognized his lifelong devotion to wilderness.
The first initiative was the preparation and publication of a fifteen-page pamphlet titled A Voice for Wilderness: Northland College Salutes Sigurd F. Olson. The pamphlet includes essays written by Olson’s two sons, Robert and Sigurd T. Olson; his biographer, David Backes; and Becky Rom, a family friend who shares Olson’s commitment to wilderness.
The editors of the pamphlet explain that Sigurd Olson was a scientist, educator, writer, and activist who used all four of these avenues to bring “a new idea of ‘wilderness’ into 20th-century consciousness.” His son Sigurd T. described the “look of wonder and enjoyment” on his Dad’s face as he watched dall sheep resting and feeding in the sunshine on a high mountain ridge, and expressed the belief that the appreciation and awe his father had for the treasures of the natural world would “continue to influence how wilderness is managed and treasured. . . .” David Backes wrote that Olson was “the most beloved wilderness advocate of his generation.” And, Becky Rom concludes that Olson’s “greatest gift to the world was to recognize that he had to protect wild lands. He succeeded magnificently,” Rom continues. “But where he ended, we must begin.”
Heeding Rom’s call to action, the Institute’s second, celebratory initiative in 1999 was an interdisciplinary conference titled “Wilderness Horizons.” As Clayton Russell, the conference organizer, explained in a pre-conference article published in the Institute’s newsletter Horizons, the goal of the conference was to facilitate discussions about the question, “What is wilderness?” “These sorts of discussions and the actions they may engender are increasingly critical,” Russell asserted, “as the world’s population continues to expand and wild places continue to disappear.”
Held on the Northland College campus September 23–26, 1999, the Wilderness Horizons conference featured welcoming remarks by Gaylord Nelson, keynote addresses by Gary Snyder, David Backes, and Vance Martin, and plenary sessions focused on “Wilderness Management: The Dilemma,” “Wilderness and the Native American World View,” the “Great New Wilderness Debate,” and “Values and Ethics in Wilderness Education.” Other highlights of the conference included a “Born to be Wild” art exhibit that featured original art produced by northern Minnesota and Wisconsin artists; a reading by the 1999 winner of the Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award, Michael Van Stappen; musical performances in the Acoustic Moose Coffehaus; and post-conference field trips to Wisconsin’s Stockton Island, Copper Falls State Park, Big Bay State Park, and Porcupine Lake Wilderness Area.
Notably, in the conference’s closing address, Vance Martin warned that the American wilderness movement was not paying attention to demographics. “By the year 2010,” he said, “the majority of people under 25 in America will be non-white.” Martin went on to describe this as a “profound issue” because he recognized that a relatively narrow demographic was enjoying wilderness areas at the time and that the wilderness movement had not been as inclusive as it needed to be.
Sigurd Olson believed that wilderness was a “spiritual necessity” for all people and that it provided “a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium” in our modern world. Sharing Olson’s belief and committed to his legacy, the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute continues to promote experiences of wildness and wonder in northern woods and waters and to work toward the protection of wildlands for current and future generations.