1929: The Superior National Forest Must Be Saved

Sigurd wrote the following sometime in 1929, during the debate over a bill that would forbid altering water levels and would ban shoreline logging on federal land in the canoe country of Superior National Forest. The Shipstead-Nolan Act was signed into law by President Herbert Hoover on July 10, 1930. It was the first time Congress had passed a law specifically to preserve wilderness.

Olson directed his statement to members of the Izaak Walton League of America, which at the time was very active in fighting for the canoe country wilderness. It is unclear, however, whether he wrote the following as notes for a speech, or as a draft of an editorial for the league’s magazine. I say “draft,” because it was not titled, was riddled with typos, and was written almost entirely in one paragraph. Yet it is an important document, because it is the earliest surviving record of Olson’s wilderness activism. The thirty-year-old teacher and canoe outfitter calls for Superior National Forest to be taken from the Forest Service and given to the National Park Service, which at the time was so touchy a subject that most conservationists did not broach the idea. And Olson’s gut sentiment against any kind of logging in the wilderness is obvious throughout his statement.

What follows, then, is the complete statement, altered only in my corrections of Sigurd’s spelling and punctuation.


The old battle has once more begun. Shall industry, or the wilderness, survive? Is the Superior National Forest of more importance as a timber-producing area than as one of recreation? Are the lakes and streams and the timbered shores of more value as camp sites than as spillways for logs? Is it right that a private concern, the North West lumber company of Cloquet, should have the privilege of robbing the American people of their heritage, the wilderness area of Superior National Forest?

Here as all know is the last great wilderness area of its kind on the continent. Nowhere else can such beautiful lakes be found. Nowhere else can you find them close together enough to make what is known as a canoe country, and nowhere else is there so much beauty concentrated in one spot as here. It is the last area of its kind in the country. Are we going to sacrifice it to the ogre of commercialism?

Already great inroads have been made. During the last three years two roads have been put into it, tapping some of the most attractive areas. Only through the ready intervention of the League was the road business stopped, but not before great damage had been done. During the past few years a power company has dammed up the Kawishiwi River basin and proposes to extend its interest. New resorts have gone in, and where a few years ago was a virgin wilderness the signs of civilization are creeping in.

The handwriting is on the wall. The Superior National Forest is doomed unless drastic measures are taken at once. Last session of Congress the Shipstead Newton bill was introduced, amended, and dropped until this session. Now, as the Shipstead Nolan Bill, it is again proposed to introduce it without the qualifying amendment, as it originally was. This bill in its original form is the bill the real lovers of the forest want. In this form it will limit all power development and contain the cutting of all trees along the waterways, leaving a 400-foot level.

All ardent Waltonians and those who want to see the Superior Forest kept in its natural condition should get behind it now. Local interests in this region think that the bill will stifle all industrial expansion and development. True, it will prevent wholesale slaughter of the timber of the area, and that is as it should be. What the lumber companies oppose is the idea that they cannot go ahead and make a wholesale slashing like they used to in the old days. Granted, the companies should have a right to keep going. There are a number of other areas out west, for instance, that can be secured, but only one lake region such as we have here.

It is the old battle once more. Shall the wilderness, the last of its kind on the continent, go the way of most of our other wild places? It will in twenty years look like any other logged-over area, [despite] promises of the Forest Service to observe cutting laws and shorelines. And where will be the charm of the country once the axe of the lumber jack has gone in there? The service claims that it can improve certain areas, that by cleaning up some places that the looks of the country will be improved. Whoever heard of improving on Nature? A dead stem in place is beautiful, so is a windfall-tangled shoreline. No one can improve on nature. The power companies claim the same thing, that by cleaning up the shorelines they will make a hitherto sterile area look like a park. Who wants the wilderness to look like a park? Its chief charm will be gone.

And now comes notice of the sale of 56,000 acres of the Superior National Forest known as the Kawishiwi working circle, the cut to last ten years, when another cut will be sold, and so on until the entire forest has been cut over. A pretty prospect for the Superior National. In fifty years nothing left of the beautiful stand. The forest should be considered as important to the Middle West as the Yellowstone is to the West, and time will prove the correctness of this prophecy. By that time a few fortunes will have been built up, and the American people will be the losers. It is time a halt was called and the last great wilderness that we have was at least seriously considered saving.

Every great area of its kind is waging the same battle. The Yellowstone is now having one of its greatest fights. The only force in the United States that can put the Superior National where it belongs as a national park and forever inviolate is the Izaak Walton League. Now is the time to declare ourselves and get the mass of public opinion behind us. The Superior National Forest must be saved.

1935: Enjoyment of the Outdoors

Sigurd gave this talk late in 1935 or early in 1936, shortly before he became dean of Ely Junior College, apparently to a male civic group audience in one of the towns of northeastern Minnesota’s iron range. It was the middle of the Depression, and he focused his talk on how spending time outdoors can help people keep psychologically healthy during times when they have little or no work to occupy their time.

This is one of Sigurd’s earliest preserved talks, and not surprisingly it is not as polished as his later book essays. But parts of it are quite good, particularly his section on “at-homeness.” That section and the final section of the talk examine what we would today call “a sense of place,” and Sigurd was able to give examples and insights that would have made sense to his audience, few of whom would have been college-educated.


In these days of coming enforced leisure, shorter working hours and spare time, we are faced with how best to employ the additional hours and days that will be ours, how best to escape the tragedy of boredom and live happily in spite of the fact that we will not be working. In the old days, one of the recipes for happiness was to keep constantly at work, and that recipe still holds, but there is one hitch and that is that there is not enough work for all anymore and if there was there would be no compensation for a great deal of it. It becomes therefore a problem: how to deal with the spare time that is hours to the best advantage, how best to forestall the deadliness of boredom.

Elmo Scott says that one cure for boredom is the development of a hobby. Someone else says that by the development of many facets to our natures we can keep happy. Others say that by the enjoyment of simple things we can be happy. [Still] others that [only] by the development and use of our own particular talents and genius can we ever hope for true contentment. All those things are true and there are as many different recipes for living happy and contented lives as there are individuals to live them. One thing is certain and that is that people are all different, that what would make for happiness in one individual would not make for happiness in another.

During the past ten years and more people have been turning to the out of doors for their use of their spare time, and this is as it should be, but, sad as it may seem, many fail to get the utmost of enjoyment out of their expeditions into the woods and lake regions. To some these expeditions are no more than attempts to get game or fish, to some nothing more than getting exercise or getting away from people. To some, on the other hand, they mean a great deal more than just that, a great deal more in a way that is perhaps more spiritual and of the mind than physical.

We are all familiar with such names as Thoreau, Emerson, Burroughs, Ruskin, Muir and others, men who seemed to get more out of their contacts with nature than others. It was not that they saw more than we see, but that they saw with the eyes of understanding and sympathy. They read between the lines as it were and saw the hidden meanings of things. To them there was more than just the surface, more than what just met the eye, and this is what they gave us, their vision of things as they are. Someone once asked Burroughs why it was that he saw so much more than they, and he answered that it was because he understood. Ruskin once said that the great accomplishment of man was to see, and what he meant was that the important thing was to see more than the surface, to see with the understanding heart.

These men gave formulae of happiness not directly but indirectly. As we study their works, we see that they could read into natural objects their own emotions; we see that things meant more to them than they did to others because they had a different attitude of mind.

One of the approaches to enjoyment in the out of doors is the development of the adventurous view point, and this is something that we all can do. Roy Chapman Andrews said recently that we do not have to travel thousands of miles into the wilds of Tibet, that if we only develop the right attitude of mind we can find adventure right close to home. It is within our own capacities to make adventure of our own in many diverse fields. An adventure is something unusual happening to us, something that perhaps we have looked forward to for a long time and longed for. They do not necessarily have to be physical adventures, they can be spiritual as well, or both. The stamp collector, when he is on the lookout for a new stamp, experiences adventure when he finds a rarity; the bird lover, when he has been on the lookout for a long time for some particular species and finally finds it in some unexpected place, has an adventure. When I saw a mocking bird in the town of Ely once Christmas Day a few years ago, that was an adventure for me. When as I did on the Christmas see for the first time the staghorn sumac on Lac Coudery, that was in the nature of an adventure also.

Some of you are hunters and some fishermen. If you are a trout fisherman you are constantly hoping to get a four-pound speckle on a fly in some quiet pool where everything is perfect, and when the moment comes, as it came to me this summer on the Yellowstone River, that is adventure. You duck hunters are always looking for the perfect setup. You will willingly endure cold and wind, freeze for days at a time and go home again and again empty-handed, if once in a great while you will get the perfect setup. That to you is an adventure.

Such an adventure was mine just three years ago. It was during the first month of the season, when the mallards were still in the country. I had pushed up the Stoney River to Sand Lake. On that day a gale was howling out of the west and the entire surface of Sand Lake was white with combers. We stopped first at the narrows and watched flock after flock of bluebills fly by high out of range. After wasting a couple of boxes of shells trying vainly to bring a few down out of the sky, we went back in the woods on the lee side of the point to cook lunch and it was there that I saw what for years I had been looking for: flock after flock of mallards butterflying down into a little pothole in the end of a bay a mile away. We pushed hurriedly over, threw out our decoys, and had barely gotten set before they started coming in. The pothole was perfectly sheltered and we basked in the warm sun while the gale howled by outside. Every fifteen minutes or so a pair or triple would come in, the most perfect shooting I have ever seen. That was the sort of thing I had been dreaming about, and if I live to be a hundred and hunt ducks every season, that is the sort of setup I will always be looking for. I was back there this fall and only got one poor little bluebill, but always in the back of my mind I am looking for another combination of circumstances that will give me the thrill that was mine that day. That was adventure for me.

You all have no doubt had similar adventures, but it is the realization of what constitutes an adventure that really counts, the awareness of it. You know the usual thing is that when adventures occur, a man does not realize it until it is all over. Most adventures are unpleasant things until they are through—automobile wrecks, fights and other things are not the pleasurable type until they are over. The type of adventure that I have been talking about is something different, something that a man can fall back upon to enrich his life wherever he is and no matter how long he lives. It is entirely in the attitude of mind and entirely up to us as to their importance.

Another key to enjoyment of the out of doors is the developing of the feeling of at-homeness or familiarity with one’s country. I once had a friend who, when asked where we would camp at the end of a day always replied, “Anywhere I hang my hat is home to me,” and he meant it, for no matter where he happened to be he was soon comfortable and contented. Feeling at home with a country is much like feeling at home in a house. Country, like houses, must be lived in, and living much in a country means that we are investing it with associations, with memories and experiences that make it mean more to us. For after all, it is the personal association that makes country mean something to you.

I couldn’t help but feel this summer, when I visited the Yellowstone and several other national parks, that the majority of people were merely in the role of curiosity seekers. I sat one day in the gorge of Yellowstone River right below the upper falls and watched the crowds climb down to the very brink of the falls. There they would hesitate for a moment, remark about the grandeur, shoot their cigarette butts into the white churning spray and run on hurriedly to see something else just as stupendous. I could see that they weren’t getting very much more than if they had bought a package of photographs of the park. They hadn’t lived long enough with these phenomena to really enjoy them to the full. They were transients, tourists, and could not possibly get as much out of the country as they could had they lived there long. There were no personal associations, no emotional connections, that bound these things to them.

To find the people who live much with a country we must find those who have learned to love the soil, the rocks and the trees, who have tied themselves up irretrievably with the country’s character. They are at home with the country. They know it and it has become a part of them. There is one stream in Wisconsin, the Namakagon River, where I have fished trout since I was a boy. Here I cast my first fly, here I landed my first trout, and, although I have fished many streams since then and have [caught] many more trout elsewhere, when I come back to the Namakagon, I feel at home. Here I know every rock and ripple, here I know the trees and the sky, here everything is part of me and I am at home. Although they don’t catch many trout there anymore, still once a year I like to go down there and feel the swift clear water press against my boots and try to recapture the lost youth that once waded down its course.

I know a certain duck blind where I have spent many a weekend during the past ten years. Here I have made some good kills and here I have been often disappointed. But somehow I have come to love the setup of this blind and the view that it commands. On the opposite shore there is not a single stub, not a tree or irregularity of the horizon that I do not know. I know where certain ducks will come in, where they will land when they do come in. I know how it looks in September when the rice is filling out its purple heads, how it looks in October when the aspen and maples begin to flame, and how, at the close of the season, the shoreline is lined with ice. I also know how it looks in the winter time, when it is completely covered with white and a lone snowshoe trail leads by on its way to the border. Here I once had a perfect setup and I hope someday to duplicate that also, but most of all here is the feeling of at-home-ness. Here I am not a stranger, here I belong. It explains perhaps why some do not like to change their hunting grounds, why they like to stay close to the country that they know rather than travel several hundred miles to where they might get excellent shooting. There is more to the hunting of ducks than getting a bag, and I think that perhaps familiarity and its joys is part of the answer.

One other key to the search of happiness in the out of doors is the matter of human history. Personal associations are important, that is true, but if we are to get the utmost in satisfaction out of a country, then we must know something about the life that has gone before. It is true that only when a countryside is invested with human associations does it assume a significance to us beyond pure scenery. We tire of scenery quickly unless there is a meaning to it, unless we know what it has meant in our own lives and in the lives of others. After all, human associations are all important, they make the difference between mediocrity and importance. Last summer, I visited for the first time Grand Portage on Lake Superior, and walked over the nine-mile-portage between the lake and the Pigeon River. Had I not known that 200 years ago this harbor was the center of the greatest fur trade this country had ever known, had I not known that over this nine-mile-trail the old voyageurs carried most of the fur that came from the Northwest, this spot would have merely been a deserted fishing village, a brushy trail; but, knowing what I did, the place was invested with the halo of romance.

The road about the St. Louis River in Duluth, with its bronze plaque describing the location of Fort Fond du Lac and the Indian portage, transform that valley from a smoking industrial site to a river of exploration, the highway to the north. I like to stop on the heights above that valley every chance I can, particularly at dusk. Then I can see the first stockaded settlement, see the arrival of the fur canoes and the toiling across that portage of the men who made history in our own range country. It was here the expeditions started in which the great ore bodies of the iron ranges were discovered, it was here that everything began. This was the beginning of development for our own country. To pass that point and to look down seeing [only] the smoking steel mills, the roiling river and the docks, is not the true picture. There is something beneath the surface.

One who learns the past human history of a country sees with different eyes. One who has developed the feeling of familiarity and at-home-ness with a country through the growth of memories filled with personal associations and experiences, and one who in addition to these two has also developed the adventurous attitude of mind, who has done with the prosaic, will enjoy the out of doors far more than the one who goes just to bring home game or [get] exercise. He has the secret of happiness, he has the key to the philosophy of the ancients. He can see eye to eye with the Ruskin who said that the greatest achievement of man is to see.

1950: Conservation Appeal

In this speech, given in 1950 at the dawn of the television age, Sigurd discusses the difficulty of getting adequate media coverage of environmental issues. Despite the immense changes in media technology over the decades since he made these remarks, many of the same problems exist today. The photo at right was taken in 1950.


A short time ago, I talked with the manager of a lecture bureau on the possibilities of conservation. After I had explained, the manager said, “Conservation is not sufficiently appealing to our audiences. People will not pay for something that sounds like a government bulletin.”

Later, I talked to the chairman of a program committee. Again the answer, “When we advertise a conservation program, no one comes.” I asked why. “Because,” the chairman answered, “it sounds uninteresting. People want to be entertained, not preached at.”

Anyone attending any major conservation conference has noted the appalling lack of news coverage. Reporters invariably admit the stories are not there, that there is nothing to make headlines. One of them told me, “You can’t make an exciting story out of game or fish propagation, or about the planting of trees, or the evils of erosion. While important, those things are prosaic, not the sort of thing we’re looking for.”

During the last Wildlife Conference at the Statler Hotel in Washington, a banquet was held for the purpose of making awards in a nation-wide essay contest. Time Magazine was there, so was Life, and most of the newspapers. Flash bulbs were popping, wires speeding the great news to all parts of the country. That banquet was front page news and Time devoted more space to it than to the entire proceedings of the Wildlife Conference.

Why this lethargy in reporting the conservation story, why the apathy and lack of interest by the public? In the same breath we might ask, and why such excitement over a boy and girl receiving a national award? How could such an event crowd from the pages of a great magazine information that was of vital importance to the welfare and happiness of millions?

From an editorial standpoint, the answer is simple. People make news. That boy and girl made news. The average reader is interested in what means something to him personally, in what he can understand and enjoy. He is stimulated by whatever stirs his emotions, shies from anything boring or impersonal.

People still do not feel the relationship of conservation to their lives and never will until writers bridge the gap. This cannot be done until the writers themselves feel deeply about it, have the knowledge necessary and emphasize the all important angle of human interest.

Americans are prone not to move until their very existence is threatened. We are a nation of procrastinators, always hoping for the best until faced with catastrophe. Then when forced, we plunge in with everything we’ve got and usually win out in the end. But it is a dangerous formula and some day it might fail.

We watch with vague misgivings the formation of a dust bowl, our wildlife, our forests vanishing before our eyes, see our rivers in silt-choked annual flood, know the water table everywhere is dropping so fast that important areas are facing disaster. Our experts warn and quote statistics, but no one gets excited, except perhaps those immediately affected, and even they have too much faith in our ingenuity to be overly worried.

New York with its recent water shortage came close to making the public think, but when a temporary solution was proposed, people went back to their complacency. The real solutions, reforestation of the watershed, pollution abatement, and the initiation of a thousand schemes to conserve water and reduce consumption would have taken time. Like most resource failures, this, too, was beyond the realm of personal responsibility. Any immediate expedient was preferable.

Every year we watch Congress quibbling over the small appropriations to our conservation agencies, watch billions being allocated for every conceivable purpose but the all important one of keeping America’s natural resources in a healthy condition. We see these agencies fighting for their very existence, pleading for the niggardly amounts they need to carry on research and their programs of conservation. We watch them year after year trying to make ends meet, doing a magnificent job in the face of limited budgets and slashed personnel. If this is the will of the people, then we have work to do.

What will it take to make America conservation conscious? What will it take to make Congress stop its quibbling over conservation budgets? How can the message of our resources be told so that the people will recognize its importance and demand action? When will conservation make the headlines?

These questions may seem impossible of immediate solution, but there is a growing conviction that conservation will become important news only when human interest is recognized as the key, when the story of natural resources is linked with people’s inherent feelings toward the out-of-doors, when it is told so simply, forcibly, and dramatically, that it will appeal to everyone. This is not the first time such an idea has been broached, nor will it be the last. Others have emphasized it, but it is so vital, that only through constant repetition in which its many aspects are explored, will its real meaning ever become clear.

Any outdoor writer knows that a man will get excited if he is told he can’t go duck hunting in his favorite slough, or that fishing in his trout stream is through, or that a bottomland for pheasants is to be flooded. When he hears that sort of thing, it strikes home in a way that hurts. He wants to fight back and do something about it because it affects him personally. This type of threat is something he understands. It means more than talk of erosion, dropping water tables, annual increments, or sustained yield. This he can see and feel. That duck marsh means more than ducks, it means the whistle of wings at dawn, the sight of a flock heading into the sunset. That trout stream means the song of a whitethroat at dusk, a speckle taking a fly, the swish of water around his boots. What does that old bottomland mean? Not only a bag of pheasants, but the quivering of a dog at point, the nerve-tearing sound of a rooster taking to the air, the sound of guns in the morning. Such personal threats awaken a thousand memories woven together into a subconscious pattern that means happiness and fun and worthwhile living. When conservation stories tap such a base of feeling, not only in cases like this, but in all problems of resource management touching the lives of all, then they will have the appeal they need to put them across.

In the short space of this paper, it is impossible to more than hint at how such appeal can be achieved. Its solution is a challenge to every writer in American and will take the best thinking and correlation of the experience of many before it will be found. The ways of finding it will not doubt be as diverse as the individuals trying. Many are working on it now and some have shown the way, but not until thousands begin to concentrate their best efforts on every conceivable phase of public relations work will its effect be appreciable.

During the past two years, two conservation issues have received the kind of coverage that indicates emotional appeal—the Jackson Hole controversy and the matter of the Air Space Reservation over the Roadless Areas of the Superior National Forest. Why were these issues hot news stories? Because a great many people were interested in them personally. To many they were private and personal wars and the outcomes exciting. To the Jackson Hole group, it meant packhorses, mountain meadows and snowy peaks; to the people who knew the canoe country, vistas of wilderness lakes, ancient portages, and the haunting cry of the loons. These two problems, both terminated successfully during the past few months, point up the truth that such questions can be appealing if feelings are stirred sufficiently. They show what might happen in any major conservation issue if somehow it can be tied up with people’s personal experience.

The man who writes an outdoor column meets this challenge of human interest every day of his life. The easy way is to tell how Ed Smith caught a string of bass on Wampus Creek and forget the pollution that is destroying the fishing there. He knows such crepe hanging is never popular reading. If, however, during the years past, he could have told the real story of Wampus Creek, its history, its ecology, its effect upon the happiness of everyone in the community, cultivated by constant repetition an appreciation and understanding of it, then the growing pollution problem would have been news and his readers ready to do something about it. It doesn’t have to be a Jackson Hole, or a wilderness canoe country, or any other romantic or superlative region. It can be Wampus Creek or any close-to-home, commonplace little area, any one of the hundreds of thousands of intimate little corners or this continent where the average man has his fun.

Arthur Carhart stated recently, that there are between twenty and thirty million people interested in hunting and fishing and that the outdoorsman spends annually between six and eight times the amount of the gate receipts for all spectator sports combined. In view of this information, it is difficult to understand why the out-of-doors and conservation problems get little coverage while spectator sports always make the headlines. It points up a cold fact, however, that so far writers have failed to tap a real source of interest latent in a great segment of our population, have failed to put in the kind of appeal needed in writing about the out-of-doors to merit more space.

How can editors be blind in the face of such figures? How can writers fail to make the necessary shift in emphasis? One of the answers may be sheer inability to put the story across. While it is within the realm of possibility for any reporter who has a real feeling for the out-of-doors to do this sort of thing, it may also take actual study and a background in conservation knowledge.

In recognition of this need, Iowa State has made a move in the right direction by offering course work in conservation journalism. Minnesota has also begun tying in the study of journalism with a solid background of wildlife and resource management. Such writers may be able to do at a conference such as this what reporters have failed to do in the past, translate scientific research into stories that can be understood by the public. Other universities will no doubt follow suit and, eventually, a group of young writers will be ready who may know how to make conservation hit the headlines. The stories are there but it will take writers with the know-how and the understanding to breathe life into them and give them appeal.

It is encouraging that there seems to be a growing agreement as to what is needed. Those who are writing now must try to fill the gap immediately and some are doing an excellent job, but they are far too few in number.

Mike Hudoba, Washington correspondent for Sports Afield, pounded this truth home at Lake Success last August. “Conservation,” he said, “is one of the last untold stories of journalism, a challenge for the young writer, an opportunity for the established journalist. The training of conservation scientists must be down to earth, including public relations and practical journalism if the public is to become conservation minded.”

Magazines as a whole have done a better job than the newspapers. Witness the series on pollution in Sports Afield by Bill Wolff, the old game warden stories by Harold Titus in Field and Stream, Harold Martin in the Saturday Evening Post, Arthur Carhart in the Atlantic Monthly, Secretary of the Interior Oscar Chapman in the last American, the editorials in Collier’s and you see enlightened policy. Such magazines have shown what can be done, have demonstrated that conservation stories can be written with enough dramatic appeal so that people will read them. It takes skill to do this sort of thing. It takes imagination and knowledge of how the average reader feels about the out-of-doors, but it also takes an understanding of what conservation means and a background of factual information.

If it can be done in the magazines, then it can be done in the newspapers. The gap between the scientist and the public can be bridged. The ability to translate figures, statistics, and graphs into ordinary language and vitalizing the story with universal appeal can usher in a new era for conservation. It doesn’t take a genius to do this sort of thing, but it does take conscious effort. While it is important for scientists to write so that others in related fields can benefit by the results of their research, it is just as important that their findings eventually reach the public who in the last analysis controls the purse strings of government and who determines whether or not such information will be used.

Robert Beatty, conservation director of the Izaak Walton League, in speaking before a Midwest conference, said, “I am convinced that until the public is informed, the conservation movement will continue to be a voice crying in the wilderness; of immediate concern to a handful, but of almost no interest to the millions.”

One cannot speak of public relations today without considering the possibilities of moving pictures and television. These media are wide open, fields we have just begun to develop. Nothing tells a story as simply or as powerfully as a picture and the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is certainly true.

Last year, the Quetico-Superior Committee made the documentary film, “Wilderness Canoe Country,” to tell the story of the many battles to save this area from exploitation. To be successful, it had to be more than just another travelogue, had to have the right kind of appeal. The long conservation effort was woven therefore around the story of a canoe trip of a father and his son, the attempt of the father to show his boy the kind of wilderness he had once known. The thread of human interest carried the message, meant audience participation for every father and son who say that film.

The U.S. Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and other agencies have done valuable pioneering in the field of the documentary. Their films, the “Living Earth” series by the Conservation Foundation and the New York Zoological Society and others are indicative of what has been done. If short documentaries of not over ten to fifteen minutes in length could be produced for theater use, the possibilities would be infinite. Moving pictures and television are waiting for something new, something that will stir the hearts and imaginations of their ever hungry public. These media will reach into every community in America for people will look at screens who cannot be driven to read. The conservation story, properly handled could be the answer and it it were, nothing would so swiftly educate the public.

While conservation education in the schools may seem removed from other fields of public relations, the same identical concept of appeal must be adhered to if it is to become really effective. Without it understanding is impossible and conservation course work runs the risk of becoming just more subject matter to be endured.

Quoting Bertrand Russell, “Spontaneous delight is no longer felt as something which is important to enjoy. As man grows more industrialized and regimented, the kind of delight common in children becomes impossible to adults.”

In conservation education we can play on the development and retention of this inherent capacity of children to find delight and enjoyment in simple and natural things. With adults who have lost it, it means trying to recapture the old receptiveness, but with children it is merely a question of how to use it to best advantage.

In everyone there is a nostalgic remembrance of things past, but in children impressions are still alive and dominant. With them it is not nostalgia; it is the present vibrating and real. They still have their capacity for whole souled enjoyment, their original sense of awe and wonder. Natural phenomena live and pulsate before young eyes. No child need be told of the wonders of the out-of-doors. This sense of living awareness until killed by dry statistics and uninspired teaching may be the surest way of approach. Conservation must first be interpreted in the only way a child can really understand, not through facts, or logic, or reason but through the senses and emotions. Failure to recognize this premise and the opportunity of developing permanent enthusiasm may be lost.

There has been much done by the National Committee on Policies in Conservation Education, by such agencies as state planning boards, the 4-H Club Program and others. It is not the purpose of this paper to even begin to comment on the splendid progress they have made in many different fields. In surveying the growing literature of recommendations and studies, it is encouraging to note an increasing emphasis on the principle of physical participation in conservation projects and teaching out-of-doors. This indicates recognition of the basic premise of appeal through individual experience. Children remember field trips and practical projects and through them conservation is inevitably associated with woods and waters and open fields, memories that never fail to stir their emotions. The real success that has already been achieved proves that any program based on a child’s inherent love of nature and sense of spiritual oneness with the out-of-doors cannot help but be fruitful.

Here again is the identical challenge confronting speakers, writers, scientists, the entire public relations field. If conservation is ever to become part of everyone’s thinking, if in the words of Aldo Leopold, everyone is to develop an instinctive “ecological consciousness,” then the issue must be met. We can no longer evade it, but the solving will take vision, imagination, and hard work. The very fact that many recognize what is needed is encouraging, but still more important is the growing evidence of actual accomplishments in the many diverse fields attempting to popularize and interpret conservation.

In spite of the bridges to be crossed and a public still largely unaware that America’s leadership depends upon a healthy and sound base of natural resources, there seems to be a definite glow on the conservation horizon. This glow may be the dawn of a new era, one in which an aroused people will at least understand the conservation story. When that time comes, the public will make its wishes known. Congress will stop quibbling and the out-of-doors will get the coverage it deserves.

That can happen if we develop the ingenuity to tell our story, if we can weave into conservation an appeal based on inherent appreciation and love of the out-of-doors, if we can translate facts and figures into human interest, breathe life and warmth into the complex problems confronting us.

1954: Those Intangible Things

This talk, which Sigurd gave early in 1954 at the Izaak Walton League of America’s national convention in Chicago, was his first attempt to discuss in detail the concept of “intangible values.” It was a topic he came back to again and again, and in his later years he rewrote parts of this speech for his 1976 book, Reflections From the North Country.

At the time Sigurd gave this talk he was the Izaak Walton League’s wilderness ecologist, and he was completing his first year as president of the National Parks Association. He also was just about ready to search for an agent for the book manuscript that two years later would be published by Alfred Knopf as The Singing Wilderness. 


To talk about those intangible things is difficult because they are hard to define, explain, or measure. You can measure soil and you can measure water and trees, but it is very difficult to measure intangible values.

Before I begin to talk about intangible values, let us try to define, if we can, what they are. Intangible values are those which stir the emotions, that influence our happiness and contentment, values that make life worth living. They are all tied up with the idea of the good life. Sometimes I wonder if we actually know what the good life means. But this we know—that whatever it is, the intangible values are so important that without them life loses its meaning.

We talk about the practical considerations of conservation, and they are important, too. We know that we cannot embark on any conservation program entirely on theory. Back of all concrete considerations, however, are always other factors which we call the intangibles. They are what give substance to the practical; they provide the reasons for everything we do. Their values are so involved and integrated in all conservation work that it is impossible to separate them.

There is no question about the intangible values of works of art. We have always recognized them. I was over in the Art Institute yesterday morning and saw a woman standing engrossed before a great painting. She stood there in reverence, her head bowed. I looked at her closely and in her eyes was a strange, happy light.

What was she getting out of that picture? She was certainly not interpreting it in terms of the canvas that was there, the beautiful frame, or the amount of oil and pigment that artist had used. She was catching something which inspired her as it has inspired many others. She was enjoying the intangible values in that particular work of art. Ask her what it was she saw and she might not be able to tell you, but it did affect her deeply, and that was all that mattered.

Is it possible to explain the intangible values in a beautiful piece of music? As you listen perhaps to a Beethoven sonata, can you explain exactly what it does to you? There too are intangible values.

Do you know why you like a particular poem? What do William Cullen Bryant’s lines do to you:

Whither, ‘midst falling dew
While glow the heavens with the last steps of day….

What do those lines from “To a Waterfowl” do to you duck hunters? I know what they do to me. They are far more than just words printed on a piece of paper. They embody sunsets on the marshes, the whisper of wings, and many things that others do not know. Bryant caught something in those lines, something which you know and I know, the intangible values of ducks against the sky.

There is no question in our minds of those values inherent in works of art and I believe there is no question as to the intangibles involved in conservation.

There have been a great many definitions of conservation. Aldo Leopold, whom you all know and revere, said, “Conservation means the development of an ecological conscience.” I am not going to try and explain fully what is meant by an ecological conscience, for it would take a long time and there are men sitting on either side of me who are probably much better prepared to discuss that with you. But what I think he meant was that unless man develops a feeling for his environment and understands it; unless he becomes at one with it and realizes his stewardship; unless he appreciates all of the intangible values embraced in his environment, he does not and cannot understand the basic need for conservation.

I think of [Louis] Bromfield’s brief definition: “Conservation is living in harmony with the land.” More simply, he was saying what Leopold said. What is meant by “in harmony with the land”? Certainly not the creation of dust storms, or gullies, or mining the soil. In harmony with the land means living the good life on the land.

I ran across a definition not long ago which points up particularly what I am trying to say. I like and and I think you will too, and I want you to remember it because it ties together all the other definitions I know and gives substance to the idea of intangible values. It was Paul Sears of Yale who said, “Conservation is a point of view and involves the whole concept of freedom, dignity, and the American spirit.”

A beautiful thing to say, and something that will be repeated for generations to come. Conservation is a point of view. It is a philosophy and a way of life.

What do we mean by our way of life? How many of us know what the good life is? Generations of Americans have enjoyed this thing we call the good life. In fact we have taken it for granted as part of our due without ever trying to define it or wonder where it came from. This much we know—that the good life is one of plenty, of breathing space and freedom, and for Americans it means the out of doors. If the open country was taken away from us and the kind of outdoors we know, would we still be living the good life?

Is our country heading toward a state of mechanized civilization where the good life as we understand it is going to disappear? Are we going to mistreat our natural resources to the point where it is no longer possible to enjoy the kind of good life we have imagined was ours forever?

I flew over the city of New York the other day. For some reason the plane circled over the miles and miles of tenements and slums that is Brooklyn. As we circled I looked down and wondered about the good life, thought of the children down there who never saw grass or trees or clean running water. I wondered what they thought about the good life and if they knew what it was?

I also saw Central Park that day, a little green oasis far below, surrounded by the roaring, bustling city of New York. That little natural area was worth uncounted millions of dollars, but then I knew its intangible values to the people of the city were far more important than any others. Here was a sanctuary of the spirit in the midst of one of the greatest industrialized cities of the world.

How is all of this involved with the conservation of our natural resources? What does it actually have to do with the practical problems of soil and water and living things? You have heard much about soil at this convention, and I am not going to enlarge on the subject. I merely want to quote Sterling North, who said, “Every time you see a dust cloud or a muddy stream, a field scoured by erosion or a channel choked with silt, you are witnessing the passing of American democracy.” I would have added to that statement five words—”and our way of life.”

More and more we are talking about the relationship of natural resources and their conservation with our way of life. One of our great historians, in describing the migration of races from east to west, said, “In dust and rubble along those great migration lanes are the palaces, pyramids, and temples of the past.”

Old civilizations can be traced along those lanes where man was on the search for food. What happened to those ancient peoples? They mistreated the land, their forests, and their waters, and thereby lost their way of life. They failed to recognize the intangibles before it was too late.

It is easier for me to think of the intangibles with respect to water than most other resources, for I’ve always lived close to it. When I say “water” I instinctively thing of my own country, the Quetico-Superior and the wilderness canoe country of the international border. What is the importance of that country, its timber, its vast deposits of iron and other resources? There is no denying the part it plays in our economy, but when I think of it, I remember the vistas of wilderness waterways, the solitude and quiet, and the calling of the loons. They are the intangible values which someday in the future with our zooming population may far outshadow all others in importance.

Water. I think of Izaak Walton and the verse in the stained glass window of the cathedral at Winchester, England, where he is buried. There are only four words—”Study to be quiet”—but they embody his whole philosophy and way of life. Here was his search for tranquility and peace, here the whole reason for his communion with the out of doors. He did not mention the number of fish he caught. He remembered the quiet and the intangible values of the things he wrote about.

I visited Crater Lake, Oregon, this past summer and remember its startlingly blue water, its high peaks and snowfields. I remember especially how it looked in the early morning when it was half covered with mist. It is one of the most dramatic vistas on the continent and possibly in the world. Intangible values? Capture them? You bring them away with you but you cannot explain them.

I remember a little trout stream of a long time ago. I had followed it to the headwaters on the advice of an Indian who had told me I would find a pool that no one had ever fished. I found that pool after looking for it for two whole days. I have never gone back there, and I do not want to go back, because I’ve heard that the pool has changed.

That pool was about the size of this room. There were great trees around it, primeval yellow birch, huge white pines and hemlocks. It was a rock pool, and I climbed out on a ledge and looked down into water that was clear and deep. Down on the bottom were schools of speckled trout, just laying there fanning their fins. I remember tossing a pine cone onto the surface and how the water exploded with rising trout. I sat on that ledge for a long time and watched those trout and all the great trees around the pool, and I thought to myself, “This is something very special; this is a part of America as it used to be.”

Some years later, I described that pool in an article I wrote. “This,” I said, “must be what we all think about when we sing, ‘Thy rocks and rills, thy woods and templed hills.'” Here was something perfect. There were no dollar values around that pool, only intangibles.

Whenever I think of little rivers, I think of the 23rd Psalm, “He leadeth me beside still waters; He restoreth my soul.” Again, the intangibles and spiritual values.

And what about wildlife and the intangibles there? Do you duck hunters remember how many ducks you shot last year or the year before? No, but you remember the sound of wings in the dawn or at dusk. You remember as though it was yesterday that mallard hen quacking far out in the rice and how the rushes looked when they were gold against the blue water.

One day just about eight years ago, I was walking along a river in Germany. It was quiet and dusk and there was a dull glow in the west. On both sides of the river were the silhouettes of bombed buildings, and a bridge lay broken in two in the current. I wasn’t thinking of duck hunting, for it was spring and I was far from home, but then I heard a familiar sound, a whistle of wings overhead. I looked up and there was a flight of mallards heading down the river. For a moment I forgot everything and was back in the rice beds of the Minnesota lakes. The whistle of those wings were intangible values to me.

Last summer on a pack trip in the Sun River country of Montana we were riding through a dense stand of spruce in the bottom of a canyon. I got off my horse to lead it around a windfall and there in the center of the trail I saw the track of a grizzly. We never did see the bear, though we found where he had scratched great marks in the bark of a spruce as high as he could reach. From that moment on the country changed. It was the land of the mountain men of another century, the country of Lewis and Clark, part of the Old West. Those grizzly signs belonged to the intangibles.

It is hard to place a price tag on these things, on the sounds and smells and memories of the out of doors, on the countless things we have seen and loved. They are the dividends of the good life.

Have you ever stood in a stand of virgin timber where it is very quiet and the only sounds the twittering of the nuthatches and the kinglets way up in the tops? John Muir once said, “The sequoias belong to the solitudes and the millenniums.” I was in the sequoias not long ago and it was a spiritual experience. To realize that those great trees were mature long before the continent was discovered, that their lives reached back to the beginnings of western civilization, was sobering to short-lived man and his ambitions.

We need trees. We need them for our mills, for industry, for paper. We must have them for our particular kind of civilization. They are an important factor in our economy. But let us not forget that there are other values in trees besides the practical, values that may be more important in the long run.

You heard today that by 1970 there will be a fifth mouth to feed at every table of four. What is that going to do to our way of life? What is it going to do to the places where a man can still find silence and peace?

I read an editorial in the New York Times last year when the Supreme Court of the United States gave its favorable decision on the validity of the air space reservation over the Roadless Areas of the Superior National Forest in northern Minnesota. The heading of the editorial was “Tranquility is Beyond Price.” Tranquility is one of the intangibles. Solitude is also one of them. Those things are truly beyond price.

Much of my time is spent in the effort to preserve wilderness regions of the United States. They are the wild areas set aside by the states and the federal government as forests and parks. A constant effort is necessary to save them from exploitation. What we are fighting for is to preserve this less than one percent of our total land area. we are thinking of those places not only in terms of the physical resources within them but of their spiritual resources and intangible values.

The fact that last year forty-six million people visited our national parks and over thirty million our national forests, indicates that there is a hunger, a need in the American people to renew their associations with unspoiled nature.

We are trying—and when I say “we” I mean the Izaak Walton League together with all other conservation groups, the National park Service and the U.S. Forest Service—to hold the line and pass these areas on unimpaired to future generations, so that there will always be someplace where men can find peace and quiet.

And so when we talk about intangible values remember that they cannot be separated from the others. The conservation of waters, forests, soils, and wildlife are all involved with the conservation of the human spirit. The goal we all strive toward is happiness, contentment, the dignity of the individual, and the good life. This goal will elude us forever if we forget the importance of the intangibles.

1955: Fisherman's Sunday

Sigurd, shown at right in 1952, gave this talk at the First Presbyterian Church in his hometown of Ely, Minn., on May 1, 1955.


Fisherman’s Sunday is dedicated to the out of doors and to the good things of this earth, to those who feel deeply about lakes and rivers and forests and to the happiness found there. It is dedicated to all who love our north country in the hope that what they have found may be perpetuated and that future generations may share the joys that are theirs.

Conservation means stewardship and responsibility toward the land and as such has to do with our way of life and conservation of the American spirit. It is far more than catching fish, or picnics, or excursions. It is involved with the entire concept of freedom, dignity of the individual, and what we choose to call the good life. A healthy nation is a happy nation and that happiness is dependent on abundant natural resources, on healthy soil and growing forests, on rivers that are clean and full. Fish and wildlife, berries and fruit, timber and watersheds, recreational opportunities are all dividends of wise use and conservation of the resources entrusted to us.

Let us this day dedicate ourselves to the premise that this land on which we live is a gift of God, and as such should be cherished and loved. In our attitudes, in our point of view, in our philosophy of life, let us live in harmony with this concept, exercise our great privilege of enjoying this land and caring for it in such a way that we may pass on to future generations an unravished, undesecrated heritage.

The moss-covered log on the altar, the fresh green sprays of spring on either side are symbolic of the great forest in which we live. That log was once a tall tree and when it died, mosses covered it and its once firm wood changed slowly to humus and earth. Seeds fell upon it and young flowers and trees took root there and drew their nourishment from its substance. This new growth typifies the living, growing forest, and phenomena of life eternal in a land that belongs to us.

America the Beautiful

America was a beautiful land when the white man came. Its rivers were clean and sparkling, its air was pure, its forests and meadows and mountains uncluttered and clean. How fitting the lines of our national song—”thy rocks and rills, thy woods and templed hills”—and what a vision they give of purity, of cleanliness, and order. But how swiftly the illusion disappears when we see the result of thoughtlessness and charming natural places are defiled with rubbish and debris.

It is no idle statement that “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” Clean homes and streets and roadsides, clean campsites and picnic places are as indicative of character as clean minds and hearts. When we go into the out of doors, let us remember that we are trustees, that ours is a definite responsibility to leave our part of America as beautiful as when we found it.

We sing “God Bless America.” Let us all be reverent and humble when we say those words. Let us dedicate our lives to preserving its beauty so that all may know the real meaning of the words of the Psalmist when he said, “He leadeth me beside still waters. He restoreth my soul.”

Wilderness

“Woe unto them that join house to house,
That lay field to field,
Till there be no place
That may be placed alone
In the midst of the earth.”

So spoke the prophet Isaiah long ago but he voiced the need of all people for places where they might be alone with themselves and with their God.

Wilderness to the people of America is a spiritual and cultural necessity, an antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium. We go there for perspective and the good of our souls and to recapture our lost sense of oneness with the earth and to know the presence of God.

To place monetary value on wilderness is impossible for within it are things beyond price: tranquility, solitude and quiet. Its real function is as a spiritual resource and to experience it is a rare privilege in an age torn by strife, uncertainty, and confusion.

Harvey Broome [note: a founder of The Wilderness Society] said, “Wilderness regions are islands in time with nothing to date them in the calendar of mankind. In such places one looks backward into the ages and forward untold years. They are bits of eternity.”

We live close to the last wilderness lake country in the middle west, a country of lakes and rivers and forests that for beauty and charm have no counterpart. Here is an island of solitude, a bit of eternity, where men may always come to refresh their souls and to know peace.

1957: The Meaning of the Wilderness Bill

The bill to create a national wilderness preservation system was introduced in the Congress in the summer of 1956. It wasn’t until the summer of 1957, however, that the average person living in Ely, Minnesota, at the edge of the canoe country, heard of it. Many people were upset that their own Sen. Hubert Humphrey would sponsor such a bill without first consulting or even informing them. It was a particularly bad time for such a surprise; the Chandler South Mine had announced that it was closing, leaving this mining city with two working mines where once half a dozen had thrived. Residents were worried that the wilderness bill would weaken their economy even more, by striking at their healthiest industry, tourism. But no community leaders had seen the bill or knew its details.

The undercurrent of worry exploded into anger and wild charges at a banquet in Ely on July 10, 1957. A local lawyer told the group that he had written to Humphrey asking for information about the bill but had received no response. A banker then stood to say he had written to Rep. John Blatnik and to the state’s other senator, Edward Thye, but had received only evasive replies. Soon the banquet hall was buzzing with rumors that the bill would condemn local resorts, ban outboard motors, and even expand the current wilderness—known then as the “Roadless Areas” and now as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness—to include lakes and woods and homes right on the edge of town. The rumors spread quickly, and the weekly Ely Miner voiced outrage in its next issue. Publisher Fred Childers called Humphrey a “Brutus or Judas,” and asked residents to write the senator in protest. “Again we wonder if the senator will listen to the voice of his constituents,” Childers wrote, “or is he subject to pressure groups operating under the cloak of conservation.” Childers charged that the bill would turn Ely into a ghost town and said, “The curtailment of our three basic industries—mining, lumbering and tourist business—without hope of replacement leaves no other alternative….Who wants to take the risk of investment with the hard work it entails in a town that offers NO POTENTIAL for a reasonable return?”

On August 8, 1957, the Miner reported that the U.S. Department of the Interior refused to approve a hundred-year mining lease requested by International Nickel Company on eight thousand acres of land at the edge of the wilderness. Test drilling had shown a potentially large deposit of low-grade copper and nickel sulfides, and for several years residents had been excited about the possible development of a new mine. The Miner blamed the negative decision on the wilderness bill and on conservationist pressure to stall development until passage of the wilderness bill outlawed it.

In reality, the decision was unrelated to the wilderness bill, but the timing made things much harder for Sen. Humphrey, and, of course, for Sigurd and Elizabeth Olson (shown at left in February 1957). People stopped talking and turned away whenever Sigurd or Elizabeth entered a gathering. Ely Chamber of Commerce secretary Stan Pechaver expressed the breach in a letter to Humphrey: “Sig Olson (of Ely, we’re sorry to say), is not a member of any organization active in local affairs….He does not speak for any of our organizations.” Even the Olsons’ First Presbyterian Church turned a cold shoulder. The minister supported Sigurd and asked Elizabeth if he could post a quote from Olson’s writings, but he said the congregation’s governing board would not let Olson’s name be attached to the quote. Elizabeth refused to accept the restriction. “Anything that happens up here I get blamed for,” Sigurd wrote to a friend.

Sigurd had a brief reprieve in late July and early August, when he and the Voyageurs paddled for 400 miles along northern Saskatchewan, but when he arrived back in Ely the story about the copper-nickel permit denial had just been published and a new round of acrimony had begun. “Welcome back from the wilds of Canada, my friend,” Humphrey wrote. “I am sure that the temperature around Ely has been somewhat warmer than you found in the Canadian wilds!” The senator added a handwritten postscript: “I need your help!”

Sigurd told Humphrey on August 14 that fighting “the hysterical outcries” would not be easy. “The statement that people could lose their homes in Ely should the bill go through is actually believed by many people,” he wrote. “It will take time to repair the damage that has been done. Eventually the truth will prevail.”

To that end, Sigurd arranged to speak on “The Meaning of the Wilderness Bill” before the Lutheran Men’s Club of Ely, on August 20, 1957. Below is the text of his speech. He told Humphrey the next day, “I believe as a result of this talk and the attendant publicity that we have won some friends and that more people understand what it is all about.” But he didn’t convince the Ely Miiner. On September 5 the paper published an article about the wilderness bill that accused Sigurd of “openly and vigorously advocating the prohibition of the use of outboard motors” and claimed that he had “made the boast and prediction that he will effectuate such a ban to follow the airplane ban effectuated by Presidential Order.” As the text of the speech below shows, this clearly distorted the truth, and Olson responded on September 10, calling the accusation that he was working to eliminate outboard motors “an absolute falsehood.” “The bill states specifically,” he continued, “that present regulations and established uses will not be changed in this area. In its application to this region the Superior National Forest is specifically exempted. Canoeists and resort people may use outboards as they always have.”

Sigurd’s comments clearly were intended to apply to the wilderness bill before Congress, not as a promise that Congress would never in the future consider different legislation that might curtail outboard motors in the canoe country. It is a measure of the hostility Olson’s name generated in Ely that this letter would still be cited nearly forty years later (and more than a decade after his death) as evidence that he had lied. By the 1990s, much of the outboard motor use had been prohibited, but the changes were the result of an act of Congress passed in 1978, twenty-one years after Sigurd wrote his letter to the Miner. By that time widespread public opinion had demanded the change.

Here, then, is Sigurd’s attempt to explain the wilderness bill to a hostile audience in his hometown.


The Wilderness Preservation Bill sponsored by Senator Hubert Humphrey and many other congressmen from across the nation is a bi-partisan measure that has come in for a great deal of attention during the past month. It is my purpose to attempt to clear up some of the misunderstandings that have arisen in the hope that fears will be allayed and public support for this sound concept of land use be fostered.

This bill has been the concern of conservationists from all over the nation for a number of years. Written and sponsored by The Wilderness Society of Washington, D.C. with the help and advice of other conservation organizations, it represents the thinking and conviction of thousands of people. Senator Humphrey is to be commended for his vision and his sponsorship of a measure all proponents believe will mean much to the present and future happiness of our people.

Introduced for the first time in Congress two years ago, it has been widely circulated and discussed and many articles and editorials have appeared in newspapers and magazines from coast to coast. It is true no public field hearings have been held as yet, only committee hearings in Washington for the bureaus concerned as well as for both opponents and proponents. Before the next Congress convenes a new bill will be drafted incorporating the criticisms and suggestions that have been made to date and I know expressions from this region will receive serious consideration. No doubt next year field hearings will be held in all areas affected and I am confident that as a result Ely will see in this measure a guarantee to its future welfare and prosperity.

The reason for this bill is to give the wilderness regions of this country congressional sanction and approval, a status they have never enjoyed. Until now they have existed solely through bureau sufferance, established by departmental regulations and policy. To date the Departments of Interior and Agriculture have done a splendid job in preserving them, but it is possible that a change of administration could eliminate them by a stroke of the pen. If the bill is passed, Congress would say in effect: “We believe in the wilderness reservations that our departments have created. We feel they are important to the welfare and happiness of our people, so important that before any changes are made, full opportunity must be given to weigh the values concerned so that no hasty and irrevocable decisions destroy them.”

The natural resources within such areas will not be wasted or frozen. they will be a reserve for the future and like a saving’s account will be withdrawn or used with extreme care and only when such withdrawals are proven more important than the wilderness values involved. It will be no interference with the concept of multiple use in 90 percent of the national forests, and in the wilderness and roadless areas—which are a small percentage of the gross acreage—through congressional sanction they will fulfill their highest public use as the wilderness they were created to preserve.

The preservation of wilderness areas is a spiritual and cultural necessity and the gravest scrutiny should be given to any program of development which might destroy them. With our expanding population, growing at the rate of three million people annually, a predicted total by 1975 of 200 million, with the concurrent expansion of our vast industrial complex, the pressures on these last reserves of primitive America will become so great that additional safeguards must be set up to save them. Without congressional approval and support they may be lost within the next few decades.

All of the wilderness reservations in the United States total only 55 million acres out of the 2 billion gross acreage of the continent, less than 3 percent of the total. As far as the national forests are concerned, only 14 million acres have been set aside, less than 1 percent of the total. The claim therefore that the entire country is being reverted to wilderness status is therefore without foundation.

We are concerned only with this very small percentage of our lands, an acreage which in the light of the growing recreational needs of our people is highly important. In the case of the Superior National Forest, this bill is concerned with the Roadless Area of 1,038,000 acres out of a total for the forest of almost 4 million. This quarter of the forest has been designated as a Roadless Area because of its uniqueness and high recreational value. First set aside as a primitive area in 1926, it has been the concern of the Forest Service and conservation groups ever since. Keep clearly in mind that three quarters of the Superior National Forest does not come under the intent or the provisions of this bill, merely the now famous wilderness canoe country south of the border.

Under this legislation additions or deletions of this area would come under the survey of Congress and of the departments involved. Adequate opportunity for hearings would be given all concerned. The statement that under this measure the government could acquire homes in the city of Ely or resorts outside the Roadless Areas has no validity. The bill is concerned with the wilderness as established and the government is not interested in the slightest in developed areas of towns or adjacently improved regions. Judging by the difficulty and enormous governmental expense in purchasing the private properties within the boundaries of the Roadless Areas, the endless negotiations with owners, the fact that during the past thirty years the private lands within them have been reduced from approximately 120,000 acres to 30,000, with completion still far in the future, there is nothing to worry about. The Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife…[note: there is a line of missing text here, where Sigurd apparently typed beyond the end of the page]…problem to acquire inholdings without thinking about enlargement. Furthermore congressional appropriation committees would never sanction such additions. The fact that there have been no substantial additions or deletions since 1939 should be a source of reassurance.

One issue which has been given a great deal of attention is the clause referring to motor boats and mechanical transport. This language was inserted to combat uses in other areas where private concessions are held for operations in national parks. Because the wilderness character of the areas concerned was threatened by such use, it was deemed wise to eliminate such practices. The language reads as follows:

“Such practices should be recognized as non-conforming uses of the areas of wilderness involved and shall be terminated when ever this can be effected with equity to or in agreement with those making such use.”

There are no motor boat concessions in the Superior Roadless Areas and the bill states specifically that such uses may be continued where established under the regulations of the U.S. Forest Service as they are now. There is nothing in the bill which bars motor boats or the use of outboards on boats or canoes. I feel personally that it would not be too much to consider setting aside some of the interior lakes for canoe use, allowing the use as now of motors on the larger waters adjacent to the resort areas. I am confident that such an arrangement would meet with the approval of the many thousands who come here to enjoy the solitude and quiet of canoe travel.

I am cognizant and respectful of the concern for the economic welfare of Ely and feel that when the intent of the Wilderness Bill is fully understood this concern will be met satisfactorily. If the famous wilderness canoe country of this area—which is possibly better known because of its uniqueness and beauty than any other in the United States—is preserved, Ely is bound to benefit, its economy remain stabilized and prosperous not only now but in the future.

As I understand it, granting of a lease to International Nickel involves many complex factors on both sides of the border, among them recent rich finds of ore in Canada, the relatively low grade of the Kawishiwi deposit, present and future supplies as well as the need of a government subsidy should the development go in. While the bill does prohibit mining within the wilderness regions of the system, it has no effect on over 90 percent of all national forest lands. The new mining law of 1956, welcomed by the U.S. Forest Service and supported by all major conservation groups, gave some degree of protection to national forests inasmuch as prospectors no longer have exclusive timber and surface rights.

As to the Roadless Areas of the Superior National Forest, the conservation groups of the nation want to be assured that after 35 years of trying to save the wilderness canoe country, it will not become another Sudbury, Ontario where for many miles around all life and vegetation has been destroyed through a similar [copper-nickel] development. They want to be sure that the waters of the Kawishiwi, Fall Lake, Basswood, Crooked and Lac la Croix will not become polluted by the poisonous discharges from copper-nickel refineries and that the forests and the many resorts between that development and the border will still be serving the recreational needs of the middle west for a long time to come.

Perhaps studies have now been made of which we are not aware. Perhaps International Nickel can now guarantee that no catastrophe of this nature will happen to the Ely area. Before any such development is undertaken we must all be sure that the great social values of this region will not be sacrificed for a temporary mining operation. I am confident that every citizen of the area, whether for or against the present bill, will feel the same.

It is true that the present prospecting has been confined largely to lands just outside the borders of the Roadless Areas, but it must also be remembered that this area, while outside the borders, is within the borders of the Shipstead-Nolan Act of 1931, which protected the shorelines and where for the first time Congress recognized the high recreational values of the entire area, also that should any development occur it may affect the Roadless Areas themselves.

In short, let us weigh carefully the conflicting values involved that could destroy this heritage that belongs not only to us, but to the people of the United States. Let us ponder the wise action of Canada in withdrawing from prospecting or mining not only the Quetico, but all of the Provincial Parks in Ontario in the belief that the social values of such lands are more important than the economic. Let us consider thoughtfully the effect on our homes and on the countryside all of us cherish and love.

In conclusion, I merely want to say that the purpose of the Wilderness Preservation Bill is to make sure that future generations may enjoy what has been given to us in trust. Natural areas in the days to come will contribute immeasurably to the mental health and spiritual well-being of all the people for all time. Dr. William Menninger, one of the world’s greatest psychiatrists, said recently: “The greatest threat to America’s future is mental ill health. In view of that I am deeply interested and concerned about the preservation of our wilderness system and all that it implies.”

Let us hold to the slogan that Ely has made famous—”Where the Wilderness Begins”—and in the years to come be a haven for all those who seek beauty and tranquility. Along that road lies Ely’s best hope for happiness and prosperity.”

1958: The Meaning of Wilderness

Sigurd Olson presented this talk before the Utah Academy of Sciences at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, in May 1958.


I want to speak today about the preservation of wilderness, about certain aspects of the preservation of wild, natural areas that are beyond economics, intangible things that are not to be measured in the ordinary scales on which things of value are weighed. Also, I want to express my feelings about the importance of wilderness regions.

I’ve spent most of my life in wilderness country all over this continent, and early in life was a guide to expeditions of various types, most of which were in the Canadian North. I have traveled many thousands of miles and am still traveling thousands of miles. Within a year I hope to explore the Copper Mine River to the Arctic Coast ending at Coronation Gulf, Northwest Territories.

My interest in wilderness has stayed with me. Early in life I became impressed by what wilderness does to man. I was too young then to realize what was behind the deep feeling of people for natural areas and wilderness experience. But as the years passed, I began to probe my own mind and the minds of others. I began to try to crystallize early ideas and develop some sort of basic philosophy. I have decided finally that the preservation of natural areas is more than rocks and trees and lakes and wildlife. It has a far more fundamental significance than any physical attribute any area might have. It is concerned with broad social values that have to do with human happiness, deep human needs, nostalgias, values that may be a counter-action to the type of world in which we live.

If it was only a matter of saving representative areas, I would have given up my interest long ago and a lot of other people would surely have given up theirs. Without the recognition that there is something deeper behind all of this, there would have been no sustained efforts to preserve natural areas anywhere.

Natural area preservation is only one facet of the broad conservation picture, a facet which is very important. As we think of the definitions of conservation, we can see, however, how closely it ties in to the field of humanitarian values. Aldo Leopold’s famous dictum that “conservation is the development of an ecological conscience” is of this pattern. What did he mean by an “ecological conscience”—the development of a land ethic, a feeling of morality towards the earth, reverence, and love, a feeling deep within us that we are responsible for whatever we do to the earth. Leopold was right when he said, “Conservation is the development of an ecological conscience.”

I like Sterling North’s definition, too, and how it ties into the general premise of broad social values. He said, “Whenever I see a muddy stream, a dust bowl, or an eroded gully, I see the passing of American democracy.” He saw much more than the passing of so many tons of soil, the loss of humus, and of life-giving qualities of the earth, nothing said about destroyed watersheds. In this vein, Henry Clay once said, “The greatest patriot is the man who stops the most gullies.” Analyze that statement in the light of patriotism. It’s all involved with the feeling of people for the country they love.

This is the fiftieth anniversary of the functioning of this Academy. It’s also the fiftieth anniversary of conservation. At the Governor’s Conference called by President Roosevelt in Washington, D.C., just fifty years ago, a man made a speech worth remembering. After long discussions about conservation and the need of establishing a Forest Service and a National Park Service, J. Horace McFarland said one of the most telling things that came out of the conference: “The true glory of America rests,” he said, “not on its material resources, but on the love of country, a love excited by the beauty of the country. For a hundred years, we have done our best to make America ugly. Let us resolve now and for the future to make it a beautiful country because our economy and our future prosperity depend on the love and feeling our citizens have for that country.”

It is clear, then, how the great thinkers of conservation tie their thoughts and efforts into the matter of broad social values. Some of you may have been in the Near East, through the Mesopotamian Valleys, where all has been lost because of poor conservation, but what is lost is more than water and fertility. What those people lost is dignity—a way of life and opportunity—things we take for granted here.

Paul Sears, head of the Conservation Department of Yale, gave a definition of conservation which belongs to this concept. “Conservation”, he said, “is a point of view—a point of view involved with the entire concept of freedom, human dignity, and a good way of life.” When they think about conservation of natural resources, all speak of dignity, freedom and broad social values.

One of the reasons I feel we must preserve natural areas is because as a people and a race we have not yet gone far enough in our development to ignore our primitive past. We are still, as the historian Trevelyan says, children of the earth,” still very close to primeval beginnings. In Harrison Brown’s book, Man and His Future, there is the interesting thought that man is so close to the earth he cannot forget physiologically or psychologically his long inheritance. Brown says the earth may possibly be three billion years or more of age. Reducing this time span to 365 days, man with his million years of existence has been on the earth only three hours. But a million years, Brown says, is not the kind of man we are talking about; possibly only a hundred thousand years have passed since Homo-sapiens arrived—only twenty minutes out of this time clock, and it’s been only twenty thousand years since man evolved from Paleolithic cultures—a mere two minutes of the time span. And it’s been only one second out of this clock since he changed from a purely hunting, fishing, and agrarian sort of life about a hundred years ago—only one second from a life regulated by the seasons, by primitive conditions, adjusting himself to the vagaries of climate and challenge that life then involved, a second out of man’s long history.

What does this mean? Simply that man does not evolve or change swiftly, any more than any other animal evolves or changes. I am a biologist, and know that animal adaptations take a long time—eons of time—thousands and thousands of years—perhaps fifty, a hundred thousand, or several hundred thousand. Man, looked at from a purely ecological standpoint, is close to his past—so close he cannot and has not made the adjustment, in spite of the fact we are probably the most adaptable creatures on earth. We shall make the adjustment, but in the process of making it strange things go on within us, frustrations, nostalgias, trying to live according to the pace we have set, and finding it difficult.

The great psychiatrist Karl Menninger said, “In spite of the fact we are supposedly the happiest people on earth, in spite of the fact we have the greatest comforts, the greatest security, the most delightful living conditions, the most freedoms, the most of everything in this world of ours, we still consume forty million tranquilizers a day,” which indicates to a man like Menninger that something is radically wrong if we have to take sedatives in order to keep our balance. We have to do all sorts of things to forget the supposedly happy life we are thrown and acquire the calm and serenity our forefathers used to know. Where does this tie in to the preservation of natural areas? Simply in this way: we need to preserve a few places, a few samples of primeval country so that when the pace gets too fast we can took at it, think about it, contemplate it, and somehow restore equanimity to our souls.

Last year, 1957, fifty-five million people visited the National Parks and forty million visited the National Forests. Those are elastic figures, you can argue about them, but the fact remains that a lot of people went to these areas. Some went to get stickers on their windshields, or so they thought, or bring home a collection of good kodachromes, or to pick up one of those velvet pillows you can buy in Yellowstone with the adage on it, “I’ve been in Yellowstone.” But as I watch these people, I know they are getting far more than kodachromes and velvet pillows or stickers on their windshields. They stop at the lookouts and gaze over the mountain peaks and canyons. They stand on the porticos of their chalets or motels or leave their cars, may even hike the enormous distance of nearly one hundred feet to get a view. They stand there, take a swift look as one man did last spring when I was at Grand Canyon and, after glimpsing the South Rim and its changing shadows and colors, after five minutes said, “Well, Mom, this is it. Let’s get out of here.”

Don’t make fun of those people. They’re in a hurry—we’re all in a hurry. That man was probably driving from Grand Canyon to Salt Lake that day and wanted to get there, wanted to go through the Mormon Temple grounds before knocking off. Nevertheless, something happened to that man when he took that swift look at the Grand Canyon, something he would remember as long as he lived.

One of the criticisms of the National Park Service program is that most of the National Parks arc preserved as wilderness, 90 percent of thembeing in this category, 10 percent sacrificial areas where all the hotels are located as well as all facilities. Some people say, “Why save that back country? Why not open it all up?” The point is that the 90 percent of the parts that are in wilderness gives significance to the small developmental areas and of the people who come there (and most go nowhere else) very few go on pack trips, or hiking trips, where they must exert themselves in any way. These people as a whole get their sense of the primeval by an occasional look or a glimpse. But in such glimpses they capture something satisfying that stays with them a long, long time, something that brings them back to the National Parks time and time again. They may think they go for the stickers and the kodachromes, but they go to satisfy something deep within them.

A duck hunter when asked how many ducks he killed last year couldn’t remember. Then he told me how he felt one morning out in the marsh as the sun was coming up and how the sound of the wings was in the early morning. Put a price tag on his duck hunting and he would have to evaluate those intangible values. The actual kill and the hunting were immaterial for he had caught something beyond price.

There was an editorial in the New York Times not long ago regarding the preservation of a wild area. The editor who wrote it must have known the wilderness because his title was “Tranquillity is Beyond Price.” He said something important there, for many things are beyond price—most of the ones that make life worthwhile. These natural areas are beyond price because they do things to you which you cannot explain, that you cannot weigh, that you cannot put a price tag on.

Galsworthy in one of his novels said, “It is the contemplation of beautiful visions which has generation after generation lifted man from the primeval.” In an article in the Saturday Evening Post last week, “An Evolutionist Looks at Modern Man,” Loren Eiseley said, “The greatest explosion was not the first atomic bomb, the first fission, but a silent explosion in the brain of primitive man in which brain cells began proliferating that made man the first equating animal—a creature who could weigh things, evaluate, who could begin to look forward and backward.” All of man’s history has been an attempt to develop that potential in weighing of values, weighing the material against the intangibles.

What makes man a different animal than most is the very fact that he has this ability to look at his earth with new eyes, with appreciation and understanding, with love and reverence. In Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the old monk expressing his philosophy of life said, “Love all the earth, love the whole of it, every grain of sand in it, every leaf, every ray of God’s light. If you love the earth enough, you will become aware of the divine mystery and if you become aware of the divine mystery you will develop a love for all mankind and all the earth.”

Joseph Wood Krutch of Arizona said that conservation is not enough—that we can conserve rocks and trees and soil and water and all of the natural resources we have, but without love, without a deep feeling for the earth, without an ecological conscience all of this actually means little.

Albert Schweitzer embraces all of these things in his philosophy of reverence for life: love for all things; understanding of the earth; a deep failing within people of the intangible values encompassed by the broad term “conservation.” Those are what really count.

There are many other reasons for the preservation of natural areas. One of these reasons is scientific. Scientific reasons are coordinated with broad social values because they too have to do with social welfare—the preservation of natural areas as norms is vital to modern scientific research. It’s as important to have natural unchanged areas for comparisons and checks in the study of range ecology, in the study of behaviorism of animals, in the studies of all things that have to do with living and growing as it is for a doctor (in the strictly medical sense) having only sick people to work with and not knowing how normal people react. This is a great subject and worthy of lengthy discussion, but I simply want to say that the preservation of natural bits of terrain is very important to our welfare and economy, so important that without them we cannot arrive at correct answers when confronted with situations where man has caused change.

Another reason for the preservation of natural areas is to give people a sense of history. This morning in Salt Lake City, I saw a picture of the Hotel Utah in 1890—an old wooden frame building with lots of gingerbread around. Young people don’t know what gingerbread is, but the oldsters do. In its time it was thought attractive, but they don’t make it anymore. The thing that impressed me was that here on that site was Hotel Utah, a modern building where just seventy years ago was a little frontier town with very few facilities. In less than three quarters of a century, Salt Lake City has grown up into a modern community. Utah is really very, very young.

I live in a wilderness country, too, much like this. The town I live in was started in 1884. It’s hard to realize what has happened in less than seventy years. And I feel that the preservation of natural areas is worthwhile for that reason alone—to give young people today a chance to see the road over which we have come. There is no substitute for such experience. You take a pack trip back in one of these canyons or do the unheard of thing in Utah—go in on foot and you will learn something you did not know before, the feeling of what the wagon trains ran into when they came through the passes, what the mountain men saw and the Indians, and you’ll have more respect and understanding of Utah as a state and of the whole West than if you just read about all of this in history books. I know because I have done that sort of thing many times myself, and I recommend it to all of you.

I think that we in this generation have no right to deprive the young people of the future of the opportunity of primitive experience: getting the companionship, the sense of history, the feeling of the country, something you can only get by living in it and traveling through it, by primitive means.

We have a responsibility and I doubt very much whether we have the right to say to generations still unborn, “You are not going to be able to do the things that we did. You must get your sense of the primitive through history books. You are not going to have a chance to live that sort of life, or even to get a hint of what your forebears knew.”

There are a great many problems in the preservation of natural areas—serious problems. One of the great problems is the pioneer concept which most of us still have. In spite of your beautiful campus and remarkable facilities, your comforts, and the progress you have made, you still have a certain heritage, the pioneer feeling. I speak with knowledge because I, too, live in a frontier community with the feeling of a world apart that national parks and forests belong to us, that outsiders have no right to tell us what to do. My country is a couple of thousand miles from here to the Northeast, but it is still close to the past.

I was very pleased yesterday to see a chapter of The Nature Conservancy formed here with its affiliations in Washington which will give the people here the chance to compare notes with what is going on in the rest of the United States and get the benefit of their experience. I think this chapter can do a great deal of good.

The preservation of wilderness is jeopardized by something over which we have no control at all—and that’s the population explosion. I don’t have to give you figures. You know them as well as I. Anyone who has traveled and seen the urban sprawl as we call it—the spreading out of the cities into the countryside, has no doubt. We know that the population which is now 172,000,000 will reach, according to past predictions, 227,000,000 by 1975, 250 million or even 300 million by the year 2000.

There is nothing we can do about it, for the explosion is the result of good living conditions and security, an aftermath of two wars. But it’s going to affect our lives. It’s going to affect Utah in a way you people cannot see or comprehend. Where are these millions going? They’re not going to stay in the East because the East is crowded now. They’re going to head for the West, will fill up these valleys, probe the back canyons, and get into places that until now have been sanctuaries ever since discovery.

We accept these figures, they are coming, and with them is coming an industrial expansion to keep pace with the rising population. The city planners in the country are worried. They’ve been behind the eight-ball now for ten years. They realize that they have not done the job they should be doing. They say, “If we had only known what was going to happen to our cities, we would have set aside breathing spaces for those developmental projects before they began. We should have set aside parks, natural areas within reach because we realize now that human happiness in cities is more than being crowded between walls of brick and steel, that people must have places where they can get their feet on the ground and get a whiff of fresh air once in a while, see natural growing things and scenes that have not changed.” They recognize the broad social implications involved and the need of providing such spaces and are trying desperately now, to undo what has happened, and finding it very, very difficult.

I have been engaged in several surveys in the East in the last six weeks, one off the southeast coast of Georgia and the other off the coast of Massachusetts. There people know that the opportunity o acquiring natural areas for the benefit and pleasure of the people is disappearing so rapidly that possibly within a decade the opportunity will be gone. On Cape Cod, one of the areas I surveyed, real estate prices are going up at an average, on that particular stretch of-beach, of half a million dollars annually and soon will be beyond reach. In Utah you still have lots of open country, federal land most of it. in that ownership lies a great opportunity. Knowing that the federal holdings are large you should invoke all of the influence that you have on the federal agencies to set aside and protect these breathing places as we call them—these natural wilderness regions wherever they may be before the population invasion makes it impossible. You have an opportunity now.

You may think that I am a visionary looking into a nebulous future, but I believe sincerely that if you neglect your opportunities now, within a couple of decades they will be gone. And when those opportunities are gone there will be little space, little chance for solitude, or the kind of inspiration that comes from open vistas. Human beings need that kind of inspiration.

Surely we can live without it—we can live under almost any conditions for we are very inventive and ingenious. We can produce food to feed a billion people on this continent. We can produce building materials, fuels, in order to keep a much larger population going, but the question is always there, “Is that enough?” Is it enough to live just on an existence level? Does not man require more than food and fuel and housing? Does not life, if it is to be a happy one, necessitate space, living room, human dignity, the intangible values that give people happiness? Isn’t this after all what really counts? The prophet Isaiah said a long time ago, “Woe unto them who build house to house and lay field to field lest there be no place where a man may be placed alone in the midst of all the earth.”

1963: The Conservation Ethic and the National Park Service

Sigurd gave this talk in October 1963 at the National Park Service’s annual conference for park superintendents, held that year in Yosemite National Park. Early in the conference, assistant interior secretary John Carver gave a speech that deeply angered nearly everyone there. His main point—that the Park Service had become too rigid and unresponsive to changing times—was something that many outside the agency agreed with. But Carver seemed to attack the very heart of the service itself. “When all else fails,” he said, “the Park Service seems always able to fall back upon mysticism, its own private mystique.” Carver criticized a recent Park Service memorandum, saying it had “the mystic, quasi-religious sound of a manual for the Hitler Youth Movement.” He called this “simply intolerable” and added, “The National Park Service is a bureau of the Department of the Interior, which is a Department of the United States government’s executive branch. It isn’t a religion, and it should not be thought of as such.”

To make matters worse, the superintendents soon learned that National Park Service Director Connie Wirth had given a letter of resignation to Interior Secretary Stewart Udall. Wirth wasn’t fired, but it was clear to him that Udall wanted to replace him with a young director who had strong political skills and interests. Udall tried to smooth things over with the superintendents, praising the Park Service for its “dedication and esprit,” but his sincerity at that moment was questionable to Wirth supporters. According to Ted Swem, who at the time was in charge of planning new national parks (and who eventually would become president of The Wilderness Society), it was Sigurd Olson who saved the conference.

Sigurd, who at the age of 64 was at the height of his influence as a conservationist, was a scheduled speaker for the conference, assigned to talk about “the conservation ethic.” Unlike his usual practice, he did not prepare his speech before arriving at Yosemite; he intended to base his comments on topics that came up earlier in the conference. There was no topic, of course, that resonated more than Carver’s talk. It was clear that morale had suffered, and Sigurd intended to change that. In his talk, which is reproduced below, he never mentioned Carver by name, but he spoke right to the heart of Carver’s message. He began by talking about Olaus Murie, a wilderness leader beloved by many in the Park Service, who was dying. He used Murie as a positive example of “mystique,” the term Carver had used in his attack on the Park Service. Sigurd did spend some time defining and discussing conservation ethics, but his real goal was to boost morale and to champion the spiritual and intangible aspects of the Park Service’s mandate, which Carver had compared to Nazism. Sigurd’s off-the-cuff talk was perhaps the most important one of his life, and when he stepped down from the podium, many in the audience had tears in their eyes. At Christmas time, A. Clark Stratton, Park Service acting director, sent a transcript of Sigurd’s talk to all of the agency’s field offices, tweaking Carver once again and adding to Sigurd’s glowing reputation among Park Service employees.


I want to say a few words about Olaus Murie. As Connie Wirth no doubt told you, Olaus is passing out of the picture, as far as active participation is concerned in conferences such as this, and in the realm of preservation of natural areas and wilderness. Olaus, to all of us I think, epitomizes the wilderness, the feeling of men and women for beauty, for wild country, the feelings of awareness and the dedication to the preservation of these things.

We’ve heard a lot and thought a lot during the conference of this strange something called “mystique.” I think Olaus epitomizes mystique. And by mystique, I mean devotion, dedication and faith. I don’t think there’s a single man here—I haven’t met a single man in the Service—who hasn’t the guiding depth of devotion to this cause. I was very interested to hear that the concessioners, in spite of their financial difficulties and complication, are in the parks because of their love of the parks. Their love of the parks is a way of life, their feeling of serving the public. That is good, it’s something one doesn’t normally expect to hear from people in the business of trying to make a profit with the public.

From the very beginning of this conference I have been impressed with this mystique. I know, as one man said to me, if I was told that there would be no paycheck for the next six months, it wouldn’t bother me, I’d still consider it a privilege to work in the National Parks. That is, in a sense, what you call mystique. It’s the thing that binds us together, it’s the thing that makes us conquer all the difficulties, the ramifications of our jobs. It’s the thing that keeps us going when the chips are down and we’re surrounded by difficulties.

I was up in Alaska a month ago with Olaus Murie. It’s always a privilege to be with Olaus and I’ve made many trips with him. I just want to recite one instance: We were looking at Mt. McKinley on a gorgeous morning such as this when the mountain was just as clear as could be. All of a sudden an eagle flew over, and I said to Olaus, “Watch that eagle.” He turned and looked up at it, the sunlight was glinting on the eagle’s head, and in Olaus’ eyes was a pure and almost holy light. He’d seen many eagles, but to have seen that eagle again meant something to him. In his eyes were almost childlike wonder and awareness, the feeling that he was privileged to see one of God’s creature’s. After Olaus is gone I’m going to remember that and the look in his eyes.

Some day soon, he’ll probably be packing up and making ready to take the last long trail; I think it will probably be in the north somewhere, which he loved. He’ll be heading to the mountains and the tundras of the Far North, into an unknown land that he knows nothing about, but somewhere back there he’ll be happy. But even though he leaves us—leaves us physically—he will still be with us, and as long as we live we will know that the spirit of Olaus Murie—his love of the wilds, his love of all beauty, his dedication to the cause of preservation—will be with us. So, though we may say good-by soon we will never say good-by to his spirit, to the mystique he epitomizes, to the love of the wilderness.

I came here without a prepared speech because I knew during the proceedings of this conference better thoughts would come to me and they have. I do not intend to summarize the conference, Connie [Wirth] will do that much better than I. I do not intend to elaborate on any of you proceedings, but I must say I’ve been impressed with the thoroughness and the depth with which you’ve gone into all of the problems and, as you know, they are many.

The name of this conference—”The Conference of Challenges”—was an excellent one, because this is a conference of challenges and the challenges that are going to meet you today and in the future are greater perhaps than they have ever been. As I said the other day they will take all of the imagination, all of the courage, all the mystique, all of the basis of belief and dedication to this cause that we possess.

When you talk of a conservation ethic—the topic given to me to discuss—you are dealing with a matter of right and wrong. Ethics has to do with morals, morals has to do with what is right and what is wrong. We cannot consider conservation ethics without considering what is right and wrong, and that is what you’ve been laboring over the last few days: What is the right thing to do?

Let’s survey a number of definitions of conservation, just to clear the air and see what I’m supposed to talk about. Conservation has many definitions. I like the oft-quoted one of Aldo Leopold in which he said a conservation ethic has to do with morals and esthetics, which what is right for the people, rather than what is politically expedient. And what is right for the people preserves the integrity of the land—not only the animals, the birds, trees, mountains, glaciers, lakes and deserts, but the people themselves.

I think of another definition by Sterling North, a much simpler one in which he said, “Every time I see a muddy stream I see the passing of American democracy.”

I think of Paul Sears of Yale, who said, “Conservation is a point of view, a point of view involved with the whole concept of dignity, freedom and a good life.”

All of those things have to do with the human spirit. All of those things have to do with human dignity, with happiness and our culture. You come away pondering those definitions and typing them up with a conservation ethic and you realize that what the Park Service is engaged in is humanitarian in nature, philosophical in purpose, and you might say cultural in impact.

In short, we’re not dealing with purely practical considerations. Important though practice may be and inevitable as problems may be, in the back of all this is a feeling of humanitarianism—a philosophy. We’re dealing with people and with people’s happiness, we’re dealing with people’s needs.

Speaking of people’s needs, and I think it’s well to survey some of the broad basic objectives of all people, I want to just mention very briefly what human needs are with respect to our parks, out beauty spots, our wild areas, our recreational regions, our historical regions wherever they may be.

I do not have to enumerate for you what’s happened in the past decade. There’s been a world revolution, we’re in the midst of it now; we’re riding its crest. The world will never be the same again. The world has changed from the early world we knew even 20 years ago, 10 years ago, and is changing very rapidly. Scientific advance has almost been beyond our comprehension. We are doing things today and contemplating things which would have seemed merest fiction a generation or two ago. Sociologically, the same thing: new nations emerging, the end of colonialism, the beginning of new beliefs, the changing ways of living, the growth of urbanization, the moving of people from the soil—from little towns and farms and villages—into the big cities, the increase of communication, transportation, leisure. A whole complex of changes which man has never, never run into before.

What does this mean to man? What is it doing? Many is confronted with a complex of situations, a complex of physical conditions which has has never known before. Our forefathers knew nothing of the Jet Age. As children most of us knew nothing about it. As a result man is a little confused, he’s a little uncertain, he doesn’t know quite where to go. He has an inner hunger which means he must get out of doors and escape the complex that he has built for himself—and so he comes looking for the out of doors, for the beauty places. Ninety-one million this year, two hundred million, probably three hundred million by the turn of the century. He must somehow recover some of the past. He must experience the thing which is deep in his consciousness, the thing that a million years’ slow evolution from the past has made it what it is.

He must somehow touch home base again. He must somehow rejuvenate himself and recapture some of the old beauty, some of the naturalness, some of the quiet, some of the serenity and the chance for contemplation which our busy, tumultuous world seems to deny us.

And I think in the National Parks, in all its various kinds of areas, we are going to be able—if we’re successful, and I think we’re going to be—to provide this sort of thing for this generation and generations to come. I think that man divorced from the earth, man confronted with a new set of conditions, man coming from a stable ecological community to a shifting, unstable, uncertain ecological community, must have some places where he can bridge the gap—some places of retreat where he can capture, if even for a moment, some of the things which have gone from his life.

In all of your deliberations this week, in the back of your minds was the feeling that this is a humanitarian effort, this is for people, this is to maintain sanity in the years to come, this is to enrich our culture, this is to make us a happier, more contented people.

A Greek philosopher once said, “Life is a gift of nature, but a beautiful life is a gift of wisdom.” And wisdom is what we are trying to achieve.

I sat in on one of the first major conferences of the Long Ranger planners [a National Park Service planning group] in Williamsburg when the major drafts of this wonderful condensation were just being discussed. I remember the first evening when we sat down, when Howard Stricklin, chairman of the group, led us in a word of prayer. I thought to myself, “What a beautiful way to enter this thing.” These young men are dedicated, but calling upon Divine guidance to help them in their deliberation was fitting and good. There was no levity, there was a sense of seriousness, responsibility.

Those men knew that out of their deliberations, and the refinements of those deliberations in the months to come, would be serious decisions that had to do with millions of people. I think that same spirit of dedication, that faith and understanding has stayed with that group up and through this conference. I don’t think a single man or woman will leave this conference without that sense of deep, spiritual understanding and commitment.

Bertrand Russell said not long ago, “More than cleverness, we need wisdom.” he went on to say we are clever people, in our inventions, in our manipulation of the earth—in all the things we do we have shown our cleverness—in fact it has gotten so that we worship our cleverness as though cleverness was the end of life.

But Russell said we need wisdom more than cleverness. Why wisdom? Because in order to enjoy the fruits of cleverness you must have wisdom, in order to develop an idea of where we are going.

I think this work of the LRR group on these deliberations this week was a serious attempt to use wisdom and to find wisdom. Wisdom can be defined as the proper way of doing things. Wisdom can be defined as perspective and judgment. I believe this group has done its best to develop wisdom, to acquire wisdom, to meet the challenges of the future.

Wisdom to live a beautiful life! What is a beautiful life? Each of us has a different idea, but to me I cannot consider a beautiful life without the out-of-doors, without space, without room to breathe, without vistas—as we saw on the top of Glacier Point yesterday—without vistas of trees and the countless looks to the top of the mountains as we see them here. Those things are important to me and I think they are important to all of you and are important to all Americans.

The great historian Trevelyan said we are children of the earth, and removed from her our spirits wither. He was very right, we are children of the earth, and I never see an enormous industrial complex like Gary, Indiana—or any of the countless others scattered across our lands—without wondering if this is the end of all mankind. The only hope is for Americans to escape those complexes and to find out what America really means.

Thoreau said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” He said it a hundred years ago when all of this country was largely wilderness. What did he mean? He meant simply that wilderness—beautiful country, natural country—has qualities, inherent qualities which mankind needs, and when those qualities are lost, people are spiritually poor.

Julian Huxley said another thing at the centennial conference at Dartmouth. He said, “True, we have done remarkable scientific things”—and he proceeded to enumerate them. But at the end he said, “But you know you still need to see wild birds flying, we still need to see animals moving in freedom, we need to see wildflowers blooming, for these things give us happiness, for these things give us stability and contentment.”

So often times we are tempted to be ashamed of sentiment; at my age I’m no longer ashamed. I think we do not wear our sentiments on our sleeves as often as we should. We seldom pay tribute when it should be paid. We are afraid to admit that love is an important part of our being.

Joseph Whitcrooch down in Arizona said not long ago, “Conservation is a dead thing without love.” I think he is right. We must love the earth, we must have deep feelings inside for the earth. The earth must be able to stir us and we should not be ashamed of our feeling because all people have the same feeling. Conservation of natural areas, conservation of parks, beauty spots, is an empty thing unless it is motivated by this thing we call love.

I want to end with another old quote from a Greek philosopher: “Let us preserve our silent sanctuaries, for in them we perpetuate the eternal perspectives.” What are eternal perspectives? Eternal perspectives are those perspectives that have to deal with the past and the future. The eternal perspectives give us a sense of stability, they give us a sense of belonging, they give us an understanding of why we are here on this earth and where we are going.

In places such as this you preserve eternal perspectives, and I can think of no higher occupation, no higher goal, no higher aspiration that that to which this group here is dedicated—preserving the silent sanctuaries and the eternal perspectives which can be found there.

1964: The St. Croix-Namekagon Rivers

As consultant to Stewart Udall in the 1960s, Sigurd Olson was active in identifying and promoting the preservation of a number of wild rivers, including the Allagash in Maine, the Suwannee in Georgia and Florida, the Missouri River in Montana and the Current and Eleven Point rivers in Missouri. Closer to home, he worked to protect the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers. On May 2, 1964, Sigurd traveled to Marathon County Center in Wausau, Wisconsin, and gave the following talk to the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters. The proposed national wild rivers system that he describes in this speech became reality in 1968, when Congress passed the Wild Rivers Act.

One thing in this speech makes no sense. Sigurd says, “In July, I followed the Gods River and the Hays down the fur trade route from the north end of Lake Winnipeg to Old York Factory on Hudson Bay.” But he took the trip in July 1964, two months after he gave this speech. What could explain this? One possibility is that I’m wrong about dating this speech in May. The transcript I used does not give a specific date, just the year. However, I found other documentation saying that he spoke to the Academy on May 2 in Wausau, as explained above. Furthermore, in the speech, describing his experience on the Namekagon River just the day before, he says, “The white throats weren’t back yet but the chickadees were giving their mating calls and a flock of red winged blackbirds were in a tall tree. ” This clearly indicates he is speaking in the spring, not some time after his Hudson Bay trip.

There are two other possibilities. Since I copied the text from a transcript of his speech rather from his own speech notes, it is possible that Sigurd actually said something like “In July I’ll follow the Gods River…etc.,” and the person transcribing the talk misunderstood. The other possibility is that Sigurd accidentally used the past tense instead of the future tense, following along with the tense he had used in the five previous sentences. I think this is most likely the explanation, but we may never know for sure. If any more evidence turns up I’ll post it here.


I want to thank you, Dr. Ihde, and all those who during the past months have sent me material on the St. Croix-Namekagon complex, which I read with great interest and profit. It would be presumptuous to add to it, so I will merely speak from my own personal experience and draw a few general conclusions. I have been intrigued by the papers which preceded mine—a wonderful background for the river proposals this panel is considering. I feel happy to be asked to be a member of this panel because I’ve had a love affair with wild rivers most of my life.

I tried to fly in yesterday but the weather didn’t permit my landing, so I came down on a bus from Ashland coming through country which at one time I knew very well. I thought of my early Wisconsin experience and how it would apply to what I’m going to say this morning.

I thought of a little creek which so far as I know has no name even today, where I caught my first brook trout, somewhere out of the Phillips-Prentice area which I came through last night. I wasn’t more than seven or eight when I caught that little trout, a tender age, but catching that trout and seeing a wild little creek affected my life. That’s where my love affair started.

The last few days I’ve been in Hayward, which is close to the headwaters of the Namekagon. Living at Ashland for a while and Hayward, I became familiar with the country Ernest Swift described so vividly. In my memory are strange names such as the Chippanazee Creek, Big Brook, Branch Brook, the Mosquito, the Ounce, the Tobitik, not Totogatik as it is on the map, but Tobitik, countless little streams and tributaries of the upper Namekagon. Those streams are woven into my life and they have colored my whole attitude toward wild rivers. I fished the Namekagon fifty years ago when it was full of brook trout before the browns came in and when it was unusual to catch a Northern or a bass.

I made a sixteen-day canoe trip once from the Kettle River at Sandstone, Minnesota, down to the St. Croix and down the St. Croix to Stillwater and beyond. I’ll never forget that trip. There were no portages on the rivers in those days, and I ran the famous Kettle Rapids—six miles of white water—with no chance of getting out, and I broke quite a few ribs in my old canoe in the process.

While at the University of Wisconsin, I spent a summer [note: 1919] on the Wisconsin Geological Survey under Mr. Bean, who was state geologist at that time. Our headquarters were Stanley and Danbury. I surveyed the Yellow River at that time, waded all the way from its beginning to where it joins the St. Croix, got to know it and its tributaries well. Since then my love of rivers has carried me into many strange places. I have followed the great Canadian rivers from the International Border up to the Arctic Coast, rivers with such names as the Churchill, the Athabasca, the Great Bear, the Slave, wild and inaccessible even today. In July, I followed the Gods River and the Hays down the fur trade route from the north end of Lake Winnipeg to Old York Factory on Hudson Bay. My involvement with rivers has been a lifetime affair. Wherever there’s water, I have a penchant for getting into a canoe to explore them. Just a year ago I made a canoe trip down the Suwanee River from the Bib Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia down to the sea. The year before that I made a trip down the Lewis and Clark section of the Missouri, [and I have] known the Allagash in Maine. Last year, I followed the Namekagon from the headwaters to Hayward, a sentimental journey for me.

These trips have given me a feeling for wild rivers, a sense of their importance. Rivers were the first highways of America—first the Indians, then the French and American fur traders, finally the loggers and the settlers. Rivers are woven into our lives. Many here today can trace river travel in the history of their families

The first highways of America—paths of exploration, trade and development; now we’re looking at rivers to see if they have other values. The very fact that the first morning of this important meeting of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters is devoted to the preservation of wild rivers is significant.

Yesterday morning I walked down to the banks of the Namekagon. Mrs. Olson’s old home is on its banks between Hayward and Cable. I had brushed out a trail down to the river some years ago, a lovely trail, paralleling a little creek rising in a swamp and following the river for probably half a mile. It was a misty morning. I stood down there by the river and listened and looked. It hadn’t changed much in fifty years. The water was fast and high and flecked with foam from rapids above. There was constant movement. The birds were singing. The white throats weren’t back yet but the chickadees were giving their mating calls and a flock of red winged blackbirds were in a tall tree. Then I heard a mallard coming down the river, a greenhead. It lit in the river in front of me; I was hidden behind a big cedar root. Soon it was joined by two others and then there were three greenheads there. They paddled around in the river and watched the foam, picked up an occasional bit of food (I couldn’t tell what), dove, swam upstream and down for about an hour. Standing by the river, watching these mallards, listening to the flow of the water, I thought: the old Namekagon epitomizes the interest and the love of people for all wild rivers. Here was the same silence I had known as a boy. Across from where I stood were two old cedars. I used to catch a trout there once in awhile, a real brook trout. There was movement and aliveness and silence. I could hear cars occasionally on Highway 63 but the sound ebbed and flowed. Most of the time was the feeling of wilderness that the Namekagon used to have. I thought to myself as I stood there, and this part of the Namekagon is not included in the study, how wonderful it would be if others could come back as I had done fifty years or so to hear and see what I saw.

Walking back to the house I took a different trail, wound up on a road, and there was a sign: River Front Properties for Sale. The Namekagon, the Wolf, the Chippewa, the Flambeau, and the St. Croix are disappearing before our eyes. The rivers are not disappearing, but their wild quality is changing fast.

I am glad that the St. Croix-Namekagon complex has been given me to talk about this morning. The St. Croix boundary line between Wisconsin and Minnesota was a suitable subject because I’ve lived part of my life in northern Wisconsin and part in Minnesota, so I am qualified, I think, to speak for the project. The river has the same kind of history that other rivers have. It’s a large river, larger than most being considered, about sixty-five hundred square miles, roughly five million acres for the watershed. It too was once a famous highway for the Indians. It had Indian villages, battle grounds between the Sioux and the Chippewa, and early fur trading posts. During the logging era, when five and one half billion feet of logs were sorted in the Stillwater area, it was a great highway. From the standpoint of size and significance this complex is worth considering.

Just how the Interior Department study teams arrived at their conclusions I do not know, but I know they started out with six hundred and fifty potential streams. After a great deal of research, many meetings and parings, they cut this vast number down to sixty-four, and this sixty-four eventually to twelve. The St. Croix is a large river, has important history, and is still untamed enough to qualify as a wild river.

I have a great deal of respect for the study teams and the work they are carrying on. The more I study the material that has already come out, tentative ideas, surveys, and suggestions, the more I am impressed with the tremendous amount of research going into these projects. Here is a challenge never faced before in the preservation of wild country. Trying to figure out the ownership pattern of a national park, a national recreation area, or an historic area is simple compared to what these teams face in their study of rivers. Here are no solid blocks of land, but long ribbons along the rivers which may be from one hundred to two hundred miles in length. Here they face different kinds of cooperation—federal, state, county, with a complex of private ownership that’s sometimes baffling, legal complexities which will take all the ingenuity, brains and analytical ability the study teams possess.

The twelve national rivers were chosen because of their proximity to great populations and their recreational potential, as well as beauty and charm. There are many other factors going into their choices for the kinds of rivers picked for this first study. I merely want to say to these teams: do not underestimate the importance of your studies. Those of us who know, recognize the tremendous difficulties you’re faced with. If you come up with fairly firm conclusions by the end of the year, which is your hope, remember that you are laying the groundwork for a new system to be called “The Wild Rivers of America,” something different than has ever been done before.

“The Wild Rivers of America” is a challenging concept. I’ll never forget when Secretary Udall came into office. He had a big map of America laid out before him, had marked in red dozens of rivers, most of them the headwaters of huge drainage systems. He said, “I hope the day will come when we can save a few of these rivers in a wild or wilderness condition, when the American people will realize that some rivers are more important from the standpoint of aesthetics and recreational use than as sources for power and water storage. We’ll have to move fast because these opportunities are disappearing.”

In the Department of the Interior, with its various agencies—the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, Reclamation, and others, and with the cooperation of the Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service, there has finally come into being a definite determined program to save some of these rivers while there is still time. I hope that the twelve which are now being studied in depth will be increased shortly to maybe twenty or thirty. I hope those that the federal government is not studying will be studied by the states, the counties, and local governments.

I hope the day will come when such beautiful rivers as the Wolf, if it does not fill the criteria for national designation, will somehow have woven around it a protective design. Back in the thirties [note: summer of 1936] I made a survey for the Bureau of Indian Affairs of all the Lake States’ reservations, spent considerable time on the Wolf and had a delightful assignment to also fish the Evergreen which up to that time was denied to white people. You can imagine how difficult it was for me, being an old trout fisherman, to go into the Evergreen with an Indian friend with the express purpose of seeing what was there.

It’s hard to make comparisons, difficult to compare one river with another. They’re all different and worthwhile. An encouraging thing about this wild rivers movement is that studies are being made by men as conscientious as any I’ve ever known—men who have an emotional involvement in rivers as I have. If these men didn’t have a deep feeling for rivers, if they didn’t wear their hearts on their sleeves so to speak in the work they’re doing, their work would not be significant. Joseph Wood Krutch of Arizona said once, “Conservation without love is a meaningless activity.” I am sure all of you embrace that philosophy whether it’s the wild rivers program or any of the many facets which may be discussed here today. All conservation is the same, and all conservation work done by people such as you and the organization you represent, is done for love and the deep feeling you have for the land, and your environment—not only rivers, but forests and swamps and fields, the total human environment we’re trying to save. Wild river studies are part of this pattern.

An old Greek philosopher said, “Life is a gift of Nature, but a beautiful life is a gift of wisdom.” How right he was. A beautiful life is a gift of wisdom. What we’re trying to do in this wild river study is to gain wisdom, wisdom on how to cope with all the technical problems confronting such preservation. In order to have wisdom we must have knowledge, studies in depth that have to do with the physical terrain through which a river flows, the kind of stream it is, the kind of water, ownership patterns, legal complications, federal, state and county divisions, the complexities of zoning, purchase of easements, and other facets that are part of the overall effort.

I want to sound a few precautions regarding rivers. let’s never try to balance the economic potential of wild rivers against the dollars and cents of economic statistics so easily available. I’ve always felt in any of these struggles that to talk of aesthetics, intangible values and the spiritual, the emotional impact on people, with the complex of the dollar sign, is a losing battle. We cannot ignore the dollar sign, but let’s not try to make any wilderness reservations justify themselves from the standpoint of economy alone.

Secondly, I would say the important thing in protecting rivers is to save the streamsides by the creation of inviolate strips along them. How wide they should be depends on the terrain itself. A river shorn of its trees is a changed river, a river logged to its banks, a different ecology from what it was before.

Thirdly, let us not overdevelop these priceless rivers. As I stood by the Namekagon yesterday, alone in the mist watching those mallards and listening to the birds, I thought of what maximum recreation use could do to a river like that. I thought of thousands of canoeists coming down the Namekagon, not only canoeists but boats with uptilted motors, and I thought, “Why stress this matter of maximum use? Why not face up to the real issue, the preserving of something wild for its own sake, for the days when our population will be three hundred million instead of one hundred and ninety?” We must look to the future—not the next decade, but a future of fifty, one hundred years, or a thousand.

I was delighted to see you at this meeting, Senator Nelson. I thought I’d said good-bye this morning but evidently the planes are not flying. I want to compliment you for your vision, for the leadership Wisconsin took in its fifty million dollar natural resource fund. I must also tell you that due to our jealousy regarding the lead Wisconsin took, we did the same thing in Minnesota. You set an example which is being followed all over the United States.

I couldn’t be here last night to see the Brandywine film which I viewed some time back, but I did want to hear the speaker again; nor did I make it to see the Apostle Island films because my planes weren’t flying either. I saw the film in Washington and was impressed. Living at Ashland I knew the Apostle Islands, once was storm bound there on a little sand spit of Long island for several days with nothing to eat. I know the Kakagon sloughs and the Chequamegon sloughs at the end of the bay. It would be a wonderful thing if the dream of providing protection for this unusually historic complex of islands, rivers, and sloughs would come into being.

I don’t think any of us still face up to the fact that time is running out, that we’re faced with a population and industrial expansion which will destroy many of these things we’re talking about unless we move now. That’s why this meeting is important. There is an urgency that cannot be avoided. The day is going to come when any place of wilderness will be so precious to our people that even to go there and look is enough without having to paddle down it, swim or water ski, or catch fish. The important thing is to save places with wilderness quality to which the people of the future can repair for their spiritual well being.

I remember Justice Douglas on our C & O Canal hike of ten years ago when we walked one hundred eighty miles from Cumberland to Washington. He and I were on a radio program one night when he said, “We establish sanctuaries for deer and ducks and fish and all sorts of creatures, but what we really need to do is establish sanctuaries for men.”

1965: The Spiritual Need

This is one of Sigurd’s best speeches about the spiritual values of wilderness; he gave it at the ninth Wilderness Conference, held in San Francisco in April 1965. This particular speech shows the influence on Sigurd of one of the most important and widely read Thomistic philosophers of the twentieth century, Josef Pieper. Sigurd had just bought and read Pieper’s book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, and the book clearly impressed him. Not only is Sigurd’s paperback copy full of underlined passages, but Pieper’s words and ideas creep into this speech and, later, into Open Horizons and Reflections From the North Country. Sigurd’s strong ending to the speech below is in fact a partially reworded version of Leisure’s opening epigraph, in which Pieper wrote, “Unless we regain the art of silence and insight, the ability for nonactivity, unless we substitute true leisure for our hectic amusements, we will destroy our culture and ourselves.” (The photo at left was taken in August 1965 during a National Park Service advisory board trip to Alaska.


I am happy to talk about the spiritual values of wilderness because I feel they are all important—the real reason for all the practical things we must do to save wilderness. In the last analysis it is the spiritual values we are really fighting to preserve.

Not all look to the wilderness for spiritual sustenance. Some seem to get along very well without it, finding their values in different ways. Others must know wilderness at first hand, must experience it physically, as well as spiritually. There is a great diversity in wilderness appreciation and wilderness need, but 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. The core is there, no matter how sophisticated, blasé, and urban one might be. Deep down inside all of us is a need of wilderness.

I shall not attempt to enter the vast realm of religious belief or the concept of a Deity, though there is a close correlation between them and the spiritual values of wilderness which in themselves are only one facet of the entire complex, a facet which cannot be disregarded in probing the problem of man’s relationship to God and the universe.

In order to speak intelligently about such intangibles as the spiritual, we must attempt to define them, for they are often misunderstood and impossible to measure by ordinary standards. We are accustomed to associate the spiritual with such immortal lines as, “He leadeth me beside still waters; He annointeth my soul;” or “I lift up mine eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help.” No one needs to explain or define the meaning of such expressions, for we sense intuitively and from long association and personal experience the joy and lift of spirit they epitomize. Even those who thing wilderness means nothing share in this reaction to visions that actually had their origin in the ancient concept of far horizons, beauty, and silence.

There is far more, however, to the spiritual values of wilderness than the beautiful music of the Psalms and the emotional release they bring, Webster, in defining the spiritual, speaks of the soul, the essence, eternal values as opposed to the worldly or carnal—the imponderables as against the tangibles. A philosophy is involved, a way of looking at life, and a perspective that goes deeply into value judgments that affect our happiness.

We might argue any of these points and try to explain or analyze, as many have done before us. Volumes have been written by theologians and philosophers on their meaning, but the more exhaustively we delve into the discussions, the more we are convinced that argument is futile in view of the differences in individual understanding and belief stemming from reactions that range from the faintest glimmerings in comprehension to the ultimate beatific vision of the saints and prophets.

On one point all agree: that spiritual values contribute to joy and richness of living; that without them existence lacks colore and warmth, and the soul itself is drab and impoverished. We accept the broad premise that such values, inspired by the contemplation of wilderness beauty and mystery, were the well springs of our dawning culture and the first significant expressions of the human mind. True in the nebulous past, it is as true today no matter how life has changed or what has happened to our environment.

I am confident that Stone Age man, who some forty thousand years ago painted his symbols on the caves of France and Spain, was powerfully stirred by the mystery of the unknown and the spirit world that dwelt there. Such surviving examples of prehistoric art tell of the millennia when man pondered his environment as an awareness finally dawned that the dreams, longings, fears, and hopes that haunted him could be translated into forms of meaning and permanence. Symbols from which spells and magic went forth to influence hunting, fertility, and success in his various ventures—they represented the growing world of the spirit, the first indications of the mighty concept of immortality, and the realization that after death men would dwell forever in the vast vault of the heavens. It was then he emerged from the dark abyss of his past into a world of mind and soul and began to give form to his deepest and most profound emotions.

But why, we ask, does modern man, now almost completely removed from his wilderness background, still look to the hills for his spiritual help in meeting the tensions and pressures of this age? Why does he yearn for open space and naturalness, for the sea with its immensities, for vistas across valleys and mountain ranges? Why on weekends and holidays does he stream from his crowded and clamorous cities into the open countryside?

Anthropologically, the answer is simple. One hundred thousand years have elapsed since man’s emergence from the primitive, perhaps a million or more if we go back to the very beginnings of the race to which he belongs. During all this time he lived close to the earth, regulating his life by the seasons, hunting his food, knowing the fears, challenges, and satisfactions of a life entirely dependent upon nature. Only during the last forty thousand years did he develop any sort of culture and not until ten thousand years ago leave any evidence of historical record. Until the last century the broad pattern of his life had actually varied little. To be sure, there were cities long before that, but the vast majority of people lived on the land or in small rural communities still close to the influences of the past. Then in the space of a few decades, he was literally hurled into a machine age of whirring speed and complexity where the ancient ecological and emotional balances were upset and his way of life utterly changed.

In the light of his primitive conditioning, man is still part of the past, responsive to and dependent upon the type of environment from which he came. Adaptations come slowly in all creatures and man is no exception. When weary and confused by the life he is now leading, it is no wonder he longs to escape from the barriers he has built around himself. It is natural for him to dream of freedom and to look backward to a time when life was simpler, to old familiar trails where the terrain is known. There seems to be an almost universal urge, no matter what the stage of man’s sophistication or removal from the natural, to align himself somehow with those forces and influences that were dominant for ages.

Stanley Diamond said: “The longing for a primitive mode of existence is no mere fantasy or sentiment whim; it is consonant with fundamental human needs….The search for the primitive is as old as civilization. it is the search for the utopia of the past projected into the future; it is paradise lost and paradise regained…inseparable from the vision of civilization.”

A man may not really know why he climbs a mountain, crosses a desert, travels by canoe down some strange waterway, or sees the national parks or the wilderness areas of the national forests from the comfort of an automobile. Somehow in spite of himself, the spiritual penetrates his consciousness, and he absorbs a sense of vastness, far horizons, and silence plus other intangibles always found away from cities and towns. it may not be realized until afterward, but in some moment of quiet remembering, the essence of wildness comes to him like an almost forgotten dream—the inevitable aftermath, the spiritual values responsible for the glow and the inner satisfactions such experiences leave.

Man’s great problem today is to make the transition, to bridge the gap between the old world and the new, to understand the reason for his discontent with things as they are, and to recognize the solution. His old world of superstition, evil spirits, and fear is gone. Gone too his dependence on the wilderness and his sense of close relationship, belonging, and animal oneness with the earth and the life around him. He must recognize now that while some of his spiritual roots have been severed, he still has his gods, and that his attitude toward wilderness has entered a new phase in which for the first time in his evolution as a thinking, perceptive creature, he can look at it with understanding and appreciation of its deeper meanings, knowing that within its borders may be the answer to his longing for naturalness. He needs to know that the spiritual values that once sustained him are still there in the timelessness and majestic rhythms of those parts of the world he has not ravished.

With this realization, wilderness assumes new and great significance. It concerns all of humanity and has philosophical implications that give breadth to the mind and nourish the spirit. Because man’s subconscious is steeped in the primitive, looking to the wilderness actually means a coming home to him, a moving into ancient grooves of human and prehuman experience. So powerful is the impact of returning that whether a man realizes it or not, reactions are automatically set in motion that bring in their train an uplift of the spirit. It is as though, tormented by some inner and seemingly unsolvable problem, he is suddenly released from frustration and perplexity and sees his way.

One of the great challenges confronting those who believe in the preservation of wilderness is to build a broader base of values than physical recreation, a base of sufficient depth and solidity to counter the charge that it exists for only a privileged and hardy few. Should this be possible, and I believe it it through stressing its all-encompassing humanitarian values, then there will no longer be any question of its importance to mankind. Only when the true significance of wilderness is fully understood will it be safe from those who would despoil it.

Josef Pieper, a German philosopher, in speaking of the meaning of leisure, said it is a form of silence, a receptive and contemplative attitude of mind and soul, and a capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation. He might just as well have been explaining man’s attitude in approaching the wilderness.

He quotes Plato, who said: “But the gods, taking pity on mankind born to work, laid down a succession of recurring feasts to restore them from their fatigue so that nourishing themselves in festive companionship with the gods, they should again stand upright and erect.”

Companionship with the gods and true leisure—this is perhaps what modern man seeks when he goes to the wilderness. This much we know is true: that while a man is with his gods, no matter who they may be, he can forget the problems and petty distractions of the workaday world and reach out to spiritual realizations that renew him. Only through receptiveness, contemplation, and awareness does anyone open himself to the great intuitions and consciousness of what life and the universe really mean.

Thomas Aquinas once said: “To know the universal essence of things is to reach a point of view from which the whole of being and all existing things become visible; and at the same time the spiritual outpost so reached enables man to look at the landscape of the universe.” [Editorial note: These words actually belong to Josef Pieper, from a discussion of Thomas Aquinas in Pieper’s book Leisure: The Basis of Culture.]

I like the idea of looking at the landscape of the universe, for it condenses into one shining vision the whole concept of spiritual experience. By “essence” Aquinas means the reality of man’s relationship to the universe of which he is a part. If a man can sense this, if he can even glimpse the infinity Aquinas talks about, he might see the landscape of the universe.

Some years ago, I accompanied the famous geologist and geographer Wallace Atwood on a glaciological survey of the Quetico-Superior country. We wanted to see what had happened to the old pre-glacial stream patterns of the rivers which ages ago carried the wreckage of the awesome Laurentian Mountains toward the seas of the south.

We sat before our fire one night and talked about what we had seen, but mostly we admired the beautiful specimens of porphyry we had found on Lake Saganaga. Dr. Atwood had a prize specimen in his hand, and as he turned it over and over, allowing the firelight to strike its crystals, his eyes shone.

“Tell me,” I said finally, “how is it that near the age of eighty you still get as much pleasure and excitement out of finding a new specimen as though you were a geology student on his first field trip?”

He gazed in the fire awhile before answering. “The secret,” he said, “is never to lose the power of wonder. If you keep that alive, you stay young forever. If you lose it, you die.”

I have never forgotten what he said, and I know now that the power of wonder is back of all creative thought and effort, and without it scientists, artists, and thinkers in all disciplines would lose the spur and challenge to learn and explore the mysteries about them. Wonder becomes then a spiritual value, the basic source of energy and inspiration in the evolution of the mind of man. Though we may produce life and eventually know the answers to all the secrets, we must never forget that wonder was responsible.

Albert Einstein reaffirmed this truth when he said: “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and of being able, through awareness of glimpsing the marvelous structure of the existing world together with the devoted striving, to comprehend a portion of it, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.”

Over the centuries a host of other great minds have also believed that if through awareness and wonder man might recognize even faintly his personal relationship to the universe, he would then partake and become part of the order and reason that governs his existence, the movement of galaxies, as well as the minutest divisions of matter. From the early scriptures and through all cultures, this profound concept has echoed and re-echoed as man realized its immensity and spiritual connotations. A grand concept, it has increased the stature of man and stood the test of time.

Prerequisite to understanding the lofty ideas of Plato and Aquinas is developing the capacity of awareness and wonder. If this ability is one of the important potentials of man, and the quality of inciting it one of the spiritual values of wilderness, here is an opportunity—for only by encouraging wonder in others and explaining to millions of people its true meaning, can we ever be sure of preserving any wilderness on our planet.

When Aquinas, in speaking of wonder, said, “Man’s first experience with it sets his feet on the ladder that may lead to beatific vision,” he meant what to him and other seers was the supreme climax of spiritual revelation.

The late Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, one of the loftiest minds of this age, in speaking of such moments said: “But now the atmosphere around him becomes sustaining, consistent and warm. As he awakens to a sense of universal unification, a wave of new life penetrates to the fiber and marrow of the least of his undertakings and the least of his desires. Everything glows as if impregnated with the essential flavor of the absolute, showing our accession beyond all ideologies and systems to a different and higher sphere, a new spiritual dimension.”

While it is good to know how great minds feel and to bask in the aura of their perception, we realize we are ordinary men who must, in order to understand, translate such experiences into concepts that can be applied to the problems of living in an age seemingly dedicated to the destruction of ancient values and our environment. What can we deduce from their expressions that bear on the kind of wilderness experience we are concerned with? Is there anything tangible we can apply to life as we know it? What broad conclusions from their flights into mystery and revelation can we use? They speak of oneness and unity with life and the universe, of the eternal essence, and the perception of reality. What exactly does this mean to us?

Lewis Mumford gave us a clue when he said, “Man’s biological survival is actually involved in cosmic processes, and he prospers best when some sense of cosmic purpose attends his daily activities.”

Wilderness offers this sense of cosmic purpose if we can open our hearts and minds to its possibilities. It may come in such moments of revelation as Aquinas, Chardin, and others speak about, burning instants of truth when everything stands clear. It may come as a slow realization after long periods of waiting. Whenever it comes, life is suddenly illumined, beautiful, and transcendent, and we are filled with awe and deep happiness. All of us have known such moments but seldom recognized them at the time or comprehended their meaning. At least so it is with me and possibly with most of us whose experiences have come to us in the wilds.

I remember several such moments—an evening when I had climbed to the summit of Robinson Peak in the Quetico to watch the sunset: the flaming ball trembling on the very edge of a far ridge—fluid, alive, pulsating. As I watched it sink slowly into the dusk, it seemed to me I could actually feel the earth turning away from it, and sense its rotation.

Once many years ago, I stood gazing down a wilderness waterway with a fleet of rocky islands floating in the distance. The loons were calling, echoes rolling back from the shores and from unknown lakes across the ridges until the dusk seemed alive with their music. I was aware then of a fusion with the country, an overwhelming sense of completion in which all my hopes and experiences seemed concentrated in the moment before me.

I shall not attempt to analyze my reactions nor correlate them with order or reason, and I believe to try would be a mistake. I was not particularly aware of destiny or my role in the great plan. What I did carry away with me was a sense of wonder and deep contentment, a certain feeling of wholeness and fulfillment as though I needed nothing more. It would take a greater and more perceptive mind than mine to explain their full significance, and were they to do so, they might discover our moments of revelation were the same.

Life as it is lived for most people today is a fragmentary sort of thing, and man often feels as impermanent and transitory as the things he has built. If through such experiences as these he can somehow catch a feeling of wholeness or a hint of cosmic consciousness, he will know what the sages have been trying to tell us. No two people have the same type of experience, nor to they ever come in identical ways or similar situations. When I think of man’s spiritual need of wilderness, I believe that the opportunity of being aware of and knowing such moments is an important part of it.

If, as Harrison Brown said, “The spiritual resources of man are the critical resources,” then wilderness, which fosters such values, must be preserved. If we can believe what the wise have said for thousands of years, then there is hope for wildness and beauty in our environment. If spirit is a power and a force that spells the difference between richness of living and sterility, then we know what we must do. It may well be that with our swiftly expanding population, the movement away from nature into vast city complexes and the decimation facing much of the land, that the wilderness we can hold now will become the final bastions of the spirit of man. Unless we can preserve places where the endless spiritual needs of man can be fulfilled and nourished, we will destroy our culture and ourselves.

1966, ca: Remarks to National Park Service Master Plan Team Members

Sigurd Olson developed a close relationship with National Park Service leaders after World War II, first as director of the National Parks Association, and later as a member of the Park Service’s advisory board and as a paid consultant to two different Park Service directors. He served on several teams that prepared master plans for managing national parks, and traveled the United States scouting out potential additions to the national park system. He played a role in the establishment of a number of national parks, monuments, and other protected areas, from Cape Cod in the East, to Voyageurs National Park in the Midwest, to Padre Island in the South, to Point Reyes in the West. Over the years he traveled to Alaska many times and was a member of the Park Service’s Alaska Task Force, which in 1965 recommended withdrawing roughly seventy-six million acres of outstanding wildlands in thirty-nine locations spread across the state. Fifteen years later, these recommendations formed the core of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which was signed by President Jimmy Carter and protected 104 million acres, more than a quarter of the state.

Sigurd became a beloved figure among rank-and-file Park Service employees, too, in part because of his tremendous effectiveness as a conservation leader, but most of all because of their exposure to him at Park Service conferences. He frequently spoke at these events, and, while his messages often challenged Park Service employees to rise to meet some threat or opportunity, he also inspired them and gave them a sense of hope that they could meet his challenge.

The talk below, given to National Park Master Plan team members sometime in the mid-1960s, shows not only his belief in the importance of wilderness to the national parks, but his talent for encouraging people to hold fast to their ideals in the face of sometimes strong opposition. The four-page transcript from which this comes appears to have been taken from a conference proceedings document put out by the Park Service, but only the portion containing Olson’s comments is in his collected papers, so the original source is unknown.


CHAIRMAN DAN BEARD: Our next speaker, who really needs no introduction, is a writer, an educator, philosopher, explorer, outdoorsman, canoeist, voyager, conservationist, and special consultant to the Secretary of the Interior—our dear friend, Sig Olson.

SIGURD OLSON: Thank you, Dan, for that rapid-fire resume of impossible accomplishments. I won’t even try to live up to them.

Sometime after the new Director [George Hartzog] came in, he and I had an early morning talk. We talked about the wilderness. I must have been rather inspired, because George said, “Can you put this into a caption, a brief statement that I can use, possibly with some of the Master Plans?”

I said, “I will try, George.” But I never did. It is still on my desk marked “Urgent.” Someday I am going to try to put down some of the ideas I discussed with George that morning. A couple of the ideas stand out and those I will try to give you now.

We have heard a great deal about wilderness. The previous speakers on this program talked about it, and other program people have talked about it. The last few years, there has been so much talk about wilderness that we have become sort of drifting or swimming in a flow of words, and I wonder sometimes if we aren’t forgetting the real essence of what we are talking about. We become so engrossed in our language, our definitions, and our objectives that it is hard to say what you really want to do or what you really want to understand in the application of management plans or their development.

When a speaker gets up, he must have a few convictions, otherwise pronouncements are not particularly valuable. I have convictions; one is that the preservation of wilderness in the National Park System is probably the most important management activity of the men in whose care these values are entrusted. I know you have all been concerned with the preservation of wilderness. In the Master Plans that are coming up, you know what you have got to do. In every individual plan, the same, broad regional considerations Ted and Howard were talking about yesterday give it even more impact. The preservation of wilderness is vital and important because without wilderness, park areas, historic areas, recreational areas, any type of area you happen to think about or will be entrusted with, will lose its essence, its atmosphere, its feeling. Without the preservation of wilderness, particularly in our National Parks, beautiful scenes, beautiful areas lose their significance.

I sometimes think that if the wilderness atmosphere were wiped out, any scene, though still beautiful, would be merely a façade of what it could be—sort of a window dressing. But with wilderness, all scenes, no matter what their categories, assume much deeper and far-reaching spiritual significance.

The National Parks, I feel, have an overriding purpose, and that can be encompassed in one word—spiritual. Spiritual values are values that affect your emotions, that affect your happiness, that affect your culture. They are hard to define, hard to pinpoint, but they are there. The National Parks may look like pleasuring grounds, places for picnics, overnight camps, places for taking pictures, entertainments of various kinds, but no matter how you look at it, it is the spiritual value of the National Park that the visitor carries with him. Atmosphere and feeling apply to areas of prime importance.

One of the reasons that they are of such prime importance is that man of today needs escape. He lives in the jet age, the industrial age, the space age, an age of automation, growing technology, urbanization. The time is coming when the bulk of us will be living in cities, not little towns and farms, but cities. All these factors set up a hunger in people to escape for a little while and return to the natural, the primitive scene. They can do this in National Park areas. They can do this wherever they go to feast their souls on scenery and to catch this elusive something called “primitive.”

This morning at breakfast, we were talking about wilderness and someone mentioned that it is difficult, or will be increasingly difficult to hold wilderness, in view of the fact that only a small percentage of the people actually go into it and use it. Two percent, three percent, or five percent will probably cover them all. That the vast majority of the people coming in don’t pack, don’t hike, don’t sleep on the ground, but get their enjoyment or feeling of wilderness from the seat of an automobile or from an overlook looking across a primitive valley.

I think one of the most important things we can remember regarding wilderness is that everybody comes to a National Park to sense this wilderness we are trying to preserve, and the man looking at it from the seat of his automobile or from an overlook is getting, in a sense, the same kind of experience that he would get if he hiked in with a pack on his back. I belong to the packers. I like to do things that way, but we are in a minority group, and we have got to admit that we probably always will be. The automobile is wedded to the American way of life, and Americans are not going to walk, if they can ride. So, when we talk about wilderness preservation, just remember that we are not talking about a minority; we are talking about a hundred percent of the American people who come into these areas. It is for the vast majority, as well as the minority, that we are preserving wilderness. It is to keep the essence of the wild so that others can enjoy it.

One of the problems of the National Park Service is to preserve the integrity of these areas. We are all familiar with the old mandate. We are also familiar with the anachronism of trying to preserve wilderness in the face of increasing use, increasing population. It is a difficult situation. The National Park Service can be proud of what it has done, because it has had a conviction, too, running back a long, long time. How otherwise could the National Parks still claim that from 90 to 95 percent of their areas are still wild, still unchanged, unless there had been a definite depth of feeling guiding all of the pioneers? Of course, mistakes have been made, and attempts have been made to right them. Mistakes will always be made; sometimes they can’t be righted. Sometimes they become irrevocable, and that is why management problems must be so carefully thought out with respect to wilderness.

Oftentimes there is no turning back. Oftentimes there is no second chance. But the Park Service has a sacred trust. In a sense, the Service is the guardian of part of the American culture—a culture deep in our frontiers, a culture of freedom, conquering the wilderness—which has become part of our minds and spirit.

Any attempt to preserve the primitive, to give people a chance to get their feet on the ground again and understand what reality really means, as opposed to the artificial and the changeable, is a good mission. Giving people the chance to get the feeling that they have taken hold of ancient verities is what we are trying to do.

What this Service is faced with now, more than any other time in its history, is a sense of urgency. Population is pyramiding to the point of saturation. Industry is speeding over the land. Super highways, power lines, oil lines enmesh the whole continent. And we hear the voice of change so loud and so clear that we cannot ignore it. Ribbon cities spreading out from the metropolitan centers connect with the other metropolitan centers. Never before has the Service faced such a challenge. It makes it all the more paramount that we entrench and try out best to hold the line and protect these areas that we have set aside.

America needs wisdom more than cleverness. We are clever people. Our inventive genius knows no bounds. We are changing the face of the earth, changing it entirely. Two great threats today are population and what we can do and are doing to cure it. There is one hazard that park people must be aware of and that is the danger of “tolerance.” You can look at your area and say to yourself, “Something has got to give.” So you give with a new road or a new facility or a new development. Something has got to give, and you follow through. You develop a dangerous tolerance.

I would like to leave this final thought with you. No matter what you are called, no matter what political pressures are brought to bear on you every time a new development is proposed, look at it carefully and don’t be too tolerant. Give in, if you have to, but only as a last resort. What you have is a sacred trust, a trust that future generations will hold you accountable for. Let’s not look ahead just the next ten years with a definite use graph. Let’s give it the broad long vision. Let’s think of a hundred years, five hundred years, a thousand years, and with all of the planning that you do, do not be shortsighted. Do not lean toward immediacy. Look ahead and plan for the future. Look ahead to a time when our people will be clamoring for these areas as they have never clamored before. Look ahead to the time when, due to the Service itself and its ideals, these places will remain intact.

I am going to close with a brief quote. A Greek philosopher once said, and you have read it before perhaps but it is worth repeating: “Life is a gift of nature, but a beautiful life is a gift of wisdom.” Thank you.

1972: The Challenge of the New Frontier

Sigurd Olson attended Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, from 1916-1918, and always had warm feelings toward the college. When Northland created an environmental institute 1971 and sought to name it after Sigurd, he tried to say no, but eventually he relented. In the remaining years of his life, Sigurd grew proud of the Institute and its efforts to promote environmental stewardship in the Lake Superior region. In the years after his death the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute’s work became widely recognized, and in 1994 it received the nation’s highest award in environmental education.

The institute was formally dedicated in the fall of 1972, and Sigurd asked to give the keynote talk. On October 20, as Sigurd stepped to the stage of the Alvord Theatre on the Northland College campus, he received a standing ovation. He received another one after he finished speaking. What follows below is a transcript of his talk, parts of which he later incorporated into his book Reflections From the North Country.


It is always exciting to think about frontiers and the challenges they evoke. A nation without a frontier is stagnant, without life or spirit. Now that our old frontier is gone, we treasure memories of the days when we surged away from our beach-head on the Atlantic Coast heading for El Dorado and the unknown. So close are we to that old frontier, we can almost hear the rumble and screech of wagon trains and the cries of “Westward Ho!” The ruts of the trails are still plain, the Oregon and the Santa Fe, plus many more, and we follow them thinking of a past when there was unlimited space and opportunity and the land new and unexplored. We sing the songs of those days, recreate in movies and television what seems now as a Golden Age, dream of times when we were closer to mountains, plains and waterways than today, when there was room to breathe and a chance for a man to carve out his destiny, and work to challenge his strength and courage.

Now with that in the past, something seems lost, and we are like a people who have no sense of direction or purpose. We flounder and wonder where to turn. Our population has multiplied, enormous cities have grown and we are plagued with great problems of social and environmental significance. Instead of the new and verdant land, in our headlong rush to conquer it and use its resources, we find we have polluted air, soil, and water to the point where scientists warn there can be no return if we continue, with the land of our beloved America becoming unfit for all life, including that of mankind.

For a generation we have pondered the growing crisis, sought answers to the enormous problems confronting us. Countless panaceas have been proposed, endless philosophies expounded, billions spent on possible solutions, most without avail and none being the real answers to our dilemma. Degradation of the environment continued apace, cities spawned crime and violence and we lived as we always had.

During the past decade, however, a pattern of action has emerged which might hold within itself the key to our predicament. No longer a pattern for a physical frontier, this is one of thought and basic philosophy, a complete reversal of old attitudes toward the earth and its resources that might, if we have wisdom and conviction, open the door to a truly golden era, not only for the people of this continent, but for the entire world. Never before has such a revolution in ideas confronted us in our relationship to the environment.

Man, during his long history, has made a number of great decisions, each one of which has changed his life and the lives of all creatures as well. During the past 50,000 years he has made three dramatic choices, but none as vitally important as the one which is shaping now. The first was when he abandoned his nomadic hunting and gathering existence and began to plant seeds and domesticate animals. When he discovered the security of growing his own food and taming creatures he used to hunt, life changed drastically. For thousands of years after that he continued his hunting and gathering to supplement his new activities, but eventually he came to depend almost entirely on his herds and growing food.

The second great decision was inevitably an outgrowth of the first, a gathering together in family groups, hamlets, villages, and finally cities with the actual abandonment of the land by countless millions. The resultant impact on human culture, development and outlook that came with divorcement from close involvement with the earth, the new security and leisure, the beginnings of education and class consciousness were a far cry from anything man had ever known. In such forgotten cities flourishing from six to seven thousand years ago, as Ur and Babylon in the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates of Mesopotamia, as Thebes and Memphis in the valley of the Nile, men forgot their old ways behind the protection of city walls and armies to build a society of specialization and surplus, a society which produced mathematics, sculpture, art and writing with the luxury of time to plan and philosophize.

Most of man’s known history is involved with this era, but not until two hundred years ago did he embark on a third major decision after the discovery of the steam engine by James Watt. This relatively simple event fired the Industrial Revolution, bringing in its train all the developments our inventive genius could contrive. Having once chosen such a course, the entire civilized world was changed along with man’s old way of life in a relatively stable environment. In the short space of two centuries to feed the insatiable maw of industry, the earth was raped of its resources and ancient ecological balances upset. In the process, man cut his spiritual roots and the interdependencies which over the centuries had preserved the ecosystem of which he once was an integral part.

Now we are on the verge of making the greatest decision of all, a change in the goals and philosophies that brought about the present ecological crisis, a complete realignment of our relationship to the earth, a man-land ethic that hopefully will recognize our responsibilities and stewardship. Until now progress has been measured by things, by better organization, by new inventions and gadgets which increased our affluence, but now we are beginning to think of quality and richness of life rather than quantity. We are asking great questions about our system of values, wondering if greater affluence is the end of all striving, if the good life can be measured by our Gross National Product, if there might be a limit to growth, if more and more is always better, if there can be contentment and fullness with what we have.

Such searching questions have no easy answers, for the old ideals and objectives have dominated us for many centuries. Radical changes never take place swiftly; they go through endless years of trial and error, slow abandonment of once cherished ideas. While it is far too early to tell, there are signs which indicate what is in the public’s mind. A survey of literature of recent years is indicative, especially that embraced by youth: “The Greening of America,” “Future Shock,” “The Population Bomb,” “The Closing Circle,” to mention but a few. Magazines for the first time have environmental sections and newspapers constantly run articles on pollution and other environmental problems. International conferences such as the recent one in Stockholm, the findings of the group of scientists known as the “Club of Rome;” the development of U.S.-Russian cooperation on pollution problems; the creation of such governmental organizations as the Environmental Protection Agency; the Water Pollution Control Act with a recent federal commitment of 24.6 billion dollars over a four-year period; federal, state, and municipal air pollution actions are typical of what is being done and indicative of changing attitudes.

Things have been happening in other spheres as well which indicate how people are beginning to feel, with actions and ideas unheard of a few years ago: South Carolina refusing to allow the construction of a German Petrochemical plant at Hilton Head on its coast; the setting aside by the State of Delaware of 100 miles of its coastline against developments that might destroy its beauty; the abandonment of the Trans-Florida Barge Canal; stopping construction of the Everglades Jet Airport and the Super Sonic Transport; the furor over the Alaskan Pipeline with the ultimate destruction of the Alaskan wilderness; the apprehension of British Columbia over future oil spills along its coast should the pipeline be built; the pronouncements by the Governor of Oregon that his state would not welcome more people; the spanning of countless environmental groups across the nation; the discovery by citizens that they can seek protection and redress from environmental threats through legal action.

Affluence and industrial expansion are being weighed against further degradation of living conditions, beauty against ugliness, silence against noise and clamor, open space against crowding, natural rhythms against speed and tension, boosterism against the status quo, fullness and richness of living against boredom and synthetic enjoyments. Remembering the old frontiers and its freedoms, challenges, and rewards, we are starting to hope we might recapture some part of the old American dream.

I have just returned from a wilderness conference in the Adirondacks and can still see those beautiful mountains in full color, the distance and the sweep of them. The last day there I climbed one of the highest peaks. “Thunder’s Nest” the Indians called it, for above its high granite ridges lightning flared and thunder crashed whenever storms moved in. I came out on an open slope in the full blaze of sunset and watched the last magic rays of light touch ranges thirty miles away, listened to my companion tell the story of the decision made almost a century ago to keep those hills “Forever Wild” and what they mean today to the people of the northeast.

He spoke, too, of the poet of the Adirondacks, Jeanne Foster, who spent her girlhood on Thunder’s Nest and how she would return once a year to lay her hands on the living granite on which we stood. “After feeling the mountain once more,” she told him, “its strength and calm, I can go back to the city for another year.” And with those simple words she spoke for millions.

We are at last beginning to understand what is at stake. It is more than wilderness, more than beauty or peace of mind, it is the survival of the civilization we have built and perhaps the survival of man. Other civilizations have died and passed into oblivion. One has only to look at what happened to the fertile lands of Mesopotamia and think of the hundred dead cities built one on top of the other, of the eleven civilizations that have died leaving only rubble heaps for the archeologists to search in barren lands which once were verdant and green.

We read the warnings of the Prophets of Doom in our Scriptures and know what they were trying to say:

“I brought you into a plentiful country to eat the fruit thereof and the goodness thereof, but when ye entered, ye defiled my land and made mine heritage an abomination, a desolation,, a dry land and a wilderness where no man dwelleth. Wolves shall cry in your castles and jackals in your pleasant palaces.”

The present prophets of doom speak in scientific language, but their meaning is the same. Barry Commoner says, “The new technological man carries strontium 90 in his bones, iodide 131 in his thyroid, DDT in his fat, and asbestos in his lungs. There is simply not enough air, water and soil on earth to absorb man-made poisons without effect. If we continue our reckless way, this planet before long will become an unsuitable place for human habitation.”

Such statements are being repeated again and again by great scientists the world over. They know if the level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere gets higher we may have a situation where the sun’s rays will be trapped, raising temperatures high enough to melt Arctic ice caps, bringing the height of oceans to the point where shorelines may be inundated all over the world. Many fear the steady accumulation of dust could have the reverse effect of lowering temperatures and speeding the return of a new ice age.

People laugh at our prophets of doom as they laughed at those of old, but we have only to study the land where past civilizations have died to realize it was not war or pestilence that brought about their end, but the unwise use of the land, the destruction of forests, the grazing of sheep and goats with the resulting erosion, silting in of elaborate irrigation systems, the salinization of water and soil. It was then the barbarians moved down from the Zagros Mountains to lay cities waste, for the people were weakened and had no strength or will to repel them. It was then those civilizations died.

The story is the same not only in the near east, but over northern Africa and much of the Mediterranean, in China with its enormous erosion and floods, and in the valleys of the Indus. We gaze in wonder at the opulence of those dead cities, marble pillars standing in desert sands, great temples, coliseums, evidence of a fertile land and millions of people. We know the foundations of our own civilization were built on what they did, but just as important is the knowledge of what happened to them and why, with the growing realization it could happen again. We see the same pattern emerging, compounded because of our burgeoning technology and the fact that man has become a geological force in his impact on the land, in the belief that resources are inexhaustible with no end to the possibilities of our genius.

Dr. W. C. Loudermilk, former Assistant Chief of the Soil Conservation Service, after an exhaustive study of the world’s early rape of the land, proposed an Eleventh Commandment:

“Thou shalt inherit the holy earth as a faithful steward, conserving its resources from generation to generation. Thou shalt safeguard thy fields from erosion, thy living waters, thy hills from overgrazing by thy herds, that thy descendants may have abundance forever. If any shall fail, thy fields shall become sterile stony ground and thy descendants shall decrease and live in poverty or perish from the face of the earth.”

We look about us and see what is happening to America, eroded fields and deserts on the march, poisoned soil, water and air. We watch the Amazon, Europe and Russia and Africa, the mad rush toward industrialization of undeveloped countries who envy our progress and affluence, and who are determined to follow the path we have blazed so well in the misuse and subjugation of our land.

Where does this leave us, this knowledge of the past and the present? We know our basic human needs, that man is part of nature and cannot survive unless he becomes once more an integral part of it, that his hunger and discontent is a longing for the old simplicities and satisfactions, that we are in truth children of the earth. We understand what Henry Beston means when he says that man is whole when in tune with wind, stars, hills, and the universe itself, and that wholeness is being one with the rhythms of the earth. It is wholeness we are seeking, the feel of the earth and natural rhythms forgotten in our busy lives. Are not the intangible values of a life closer to nature and its rewards what we are actually searching for and missing? Are they not in the last analysis the substance of that lost American Dream?

With these thoughts in mind, it is fitting and timely that this Institute of Environmental Studies has come into being at Northland College and now in addition to the school’s cultural and social programs, it is dedicated toward training students for ecological work, not only through courses and field trips, but through involvement with the communities in this beautiful northern section of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and southern Ontario to which we are so devoted.

Is not its premise true: “That the interdependence and interaction of all living forms including man is the guiding principle underlying human destiny and the Institute designed toward a goal in which man and nature are in harmony rather than constantly at war, a land ethic in which we are members of a total and balanced community of life, not as conquerors of nature, but as vital and valued participants.”

With the growing need of ecologists and field workers during the next decade, this is a step in the right direction. The Ecological Society of America three years ago had 3,200 members. Today it has 4,800, and it is estimated by 1980 the number will triple to 14,400 with a demand for many field workers as state and national programs get fully under way with adequate financing by state and federal governments. A recent survey by Odum Fanning estimates that by 1980 environmental jobs may well total close to 150,000 in all fields of endeavor—government, industry and municipalities. He admits there are few opportunities now, but urges using the coming years for preparation and training to be ready for the time when environmental work will come into its own. Here is the greatest challenge of the future for the youth of America, an open door to careers that will mean fulfillment.

A student manifesto says it well: “We don’t want merely to survive, we want to live, therefore we dedicate ourselves to the goal of a quality environment and a stable ecology for this planet.”

This answers the question of many young people today as to opportunity. It also means their study and evaluation of our society and its impact on the earth is necessary and sound, being based on our deepest spiritual needs and at one with the change taking place in the minds of our people.

We know we cannot abandon our technology, but we can and must seek a balance between it and ecology.

If we can accept the premise that there is a limit to growth, that population must be controlled, that our global ecology can be one of harmony, then we can look with confidence to our future. Never before have we been faced with such a challenge to our culture and our way of life.

If we can use our enormous knowledge with the technology it has produced to work toward the preservation of the earth instead of its destruction, if we can change our priorities, achieve balance and understanding in our roles as human beings in a complex world, the coming era can well be that of a richer civilization, not its end. This is the challenge of our new frontier, a challenge in which the Institute of Environmental Studies will play its part in the years to come.