BWCA | Conservation, Mining, and Sigurd Olson


— Sig Olson...We Need Wilderness," National Parks Magazine, January–March 1946

It would appear a storm is forming in the great north woods of Minnesota, along the north-eastern Quetico-Superior chain of lakes which equate to the one million acre stretch of preserved land known as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.  This storm is much different however, from the winds and rain which seasonally visit the vast unspoiled wilderness; instead one with far more damaging and lasting consequences.  

Forming with the retreat of the Laurentide Ice Sheet at the end of the last glacial period some 17,000 years ago, the resulting landscape formed over 1,100 lakes, along with countless miles of streams and rivers.  The land itself was chiseled down through the centuries exposing the volcanic and sedimentary rock formations such as Basalt, Granite, and Greenstone...some which dates 2.7 billion years. 

The vast ecosystem is refuge to the largest concentration of wolves in the contiguous United States, Minnesota's state bird, the loon, and that majestic symbol of America...the Bald Eagle. Its not uncommon to see deer, black bear, moose, and if lucky, the elusive Canadian Lynx foraging the spruce, pine, cedar and birch forests for wild blueberries with various songbirds fluttering about. 

Floating along the tranquil waters provides visitors with an experience seldom found in the ever-burgeoning digital environment.  The lapping of canoe paddles and the haunting song of the loon transport those who seek it, to a time and place virtually unchanged for thousands of years.  Raw, untainted wilderness is a rare commodity, ones which often sparks personal transformation and a greater appreciation for all life.  

Indigenous tribes canoed, fished, portaged and called this land home for generations; leaving pictographs etched into the landscape, still visible to this day.  French Europeans first voyaged the land in the 1700s and thus, the fur trade began.  It wouldn't be much longer until the miners and loggers arrived, ready to capitalize off the virgin landscape.  The first talks of conservation began in 1902, with the first 500,00 acres of land being spared the loggers' blade when then Forest Commissioner, Christopher C Andrews convinced the state to preserve the land. Again in 1905 adding an additional 141,000 acres; along with persuading the Canadian province of Ontario in doing the same, resulting in Quetico Provincial Park.  In short, the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness and Quetico-Superior legacy started with him. It would be another man however, who would pick up the torch and carry it forward into the last half of the twentieth century. 

Listening Point

Listening Point

Conservationists of note tend to only blow through once in a great while; when the winds of industry encroach too far, they are the ones who step forth to do not what is easy, or even preferable, but rather what they know to be right.  Their aim; to keep the balances in check. 

As John Muir proudly served his role among the coastal redwoods of the West, soon after, Sigurd F. Olson would champion a similar message to the floors of congress and establish the BWCAW Act of 1978.  Only five years before his death, an accomplishment he credits as "the most important achievement in his half-century of wilderness conservation."

Born in Chicago, IL; the son of a Swedish Baptist Minister, a young Sigurd F. Olson would spend his formative years amongst the northern Wisconsin landscape. First, graduating with a bachelor of Science degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1920, and continuing onward to a master's in animal ecology from the University of IL. 

He would come to marry, have two sons, and find employment as a professor of biology, and eventual Dean of what is now, the Vermillion Community College in Ely, Minnesota.  All the while living on the outskirts of the then Quetico-Superior watershed.  A lifelong conservationist and nature-enthusiast, most of his 1920s and 1930's were spent raising a family, and teaching future generations the importance of nature in shaping modern civilization.

After having neglected his creative outlet of writing for far too long, Sig retired in 1947 to pursue a full-time career as a writer and conservationist.  It was during this time Sig founded Listening 1956, as a private retreat from the daily frustrations of writing, and political maneuvering.  A place where he could fill his inspirational cup, before spilling it onto the pages of his life's work.

Documented in his celebrated second book, Listening Point is a collection of stories retelling his insights, experiences, and philosophies while founding and exploring his personal plot of unspoiled lakeshore.  The Cabin itself is made from an abandoned chicken coop which he purchased, dismantled, numbered board-by-board, and transported across a frozen Burntside Lake; where it now sits reassembled atop his 36 acre private retreat.  Over the years, woodsheds and gathering benches would be constructed, along with a traditional Finnish sauna.  It was in this refugee he would find inspiration for his ensuing literary career and political strength. 

Sigurd Olson Cabin | Listening Point | Interior

Sigurd Olson Cabin | Listening Point | Interior

Sigurd Olson Cabin | Listening Point | Exterior

Sigurd Olson Cabin | Listening Point | Exterior

Sigurd Olson Writing Shed | Ely, MN

Sigurd Olson Writing Shed | Ely, MN

During his time as a political activist he helped draft the Wilderness Act of 1964, played his part in identifying large swaths of the Alaskan wilderness to later be preserved in the Alaska National Lands Conservation Act of 1980, and worked to establish Point Reyes Seashore in California, along with founding and naming Voyageurs National Park in his home state of Minnesota. Few today remain, who remember the impact he had during his time.

"In recognition, four of the five largest U.S. conservation organizations — the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the National Wildlife Federation and the Izaak Walton League — gave Sigurd their highest award."  

The Listening Point Foundation has since enthusiastically inherited the responsibility of preserving and promoting Sig Olson's legacy, including: Listening Point, his Ely home, and writing shack. Dedicated to furthering Sig’s message of wilderness education they currently lead private tours for the interested public, publish educational resources, and sponsor environmental programs.

Listening Point Loon

Listening Point Loon

Thats were Sig's story ended...or so many believed. Recent actions have been taken to reverse Sig's efforts, and with it the iconic Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act of 1978, which currently limits access to airspace, mining, forestation, and motorized recreation -and although logging and mining isn't new to the area, the proposed sulfide mining is...a process, without exception, that knowingly results in environmental contamination.  Such mining rights are being renewed by a Chilean mining outfit Twin Metals, along with a second proposal from PolyMet to operate copper-nickel, and ore mines in the Superior National Forest, upstream of the BWCA.  

With the proposal comes the promise of new jobs, and in turn more money for the local community. The same tactics used by industry leaders and politicians for decades; for the last 40 years however, the existing mines, resorts, and outdoor-adventure markets have been responsible in sustaining the economy.  When the rivers, lakes, and wildlife inevitably become unsustainable due to residual acid mine drainage, many Minnesotans are left to wonder what will become of the current economy.  Will the new mines ensure the remaining residents and employees of the then disheveled tourism and hospitality markets be rewarded for the land's ultimate sacrifice? 

While recent polls show a generous amount of support opposing the mines, the real fight comes in the fall.  Yes, as with all impactful matters politics comes into play, whether we wish it or not. The area's elected congressional district appointee is retiring, leaving his seat vacant...the fate of this protected wilderness will soon be in the hands of the President's chosen Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and the citizens of Minnesota.  

It’s important to note that the renewal of such land leases doesn't necessarily guarantee more mines; leases were twice renewed in recent history, once in 1989 and again in 2004, before the Obama Administration declined such efforts in 2016.  With a long line of red tape to maneuver, including a lengthy environmental review process, it could be years before any permits are granted. Even at the time of this writing, backdoor measures are being attempted to bypass such examination. One truth remains, it's far easier to prevent actions from moving forward, than it is in reversing them once the full force of industry has taken hold.

The Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness has endured many attacks over the centuries, and which way this particular storm will blow, only time will tell.  It's ultimately the responsibility of each citizen to educate themselves on the importance of conservation, as only through understanding can the message be shared and opinions shaped....take pride in knowing the largest remaining area of uncut forest in the eastern half of the United States resides in the country we all call home.  In the meantime, reflect on the words of Sig Olson and remember...



— Sig Olson..(2012). “Reflections from the North Country”, p.153, Knopf

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