Sigurd F. Olson and the National Parks by Kevin Proescholdt

By Kevin Proescholdt
This year, 2016, marks the centennial of the establishment of the National Park Service. Though national parks had existed since Yellowstone in 1872, it was not until 1916 that Congress passed the law creating the National Park Service. Sigurd Olson played important
roles both in the national parks and the agency created to care for and manage the parks.

At first glance, Sig’s involvement with the National Park Service might seem odd.  Throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, he had dealt much more with the U.S. Forest Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, since the Forest Service managed Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota that held the U.S. portions of the international Quetico-Superior region that he worked to protect.

But that began to change after Sig’s successful work in the late 1940s to convince Congress to pass the Thye-Blatnik Act in 1948 and President Truman to create an unprecedented airspace reservation over what would later be re-named as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Sig’s successes brought him to the attention of the national conservation community in Washington,
DC.

The National Parks Association quickly recruited Sig to join its board of directors, beginning in 1950. He became vice president the following year, and in 1953 Sig was elevated to the position as president of the National Parks Association. In these capacities Sig was exposed to many issues affecting the national parks and national monuments. He also worked personally with National Park Service staff, including Conrad “Connie” Wirth, who became Director of the National Park Service in December 1951.

His involvement with national park issues grew, including the famous 1954 hike along the C&O Canal to save it from reconstruction as a highway, the proposal to dam and flood Dinosaur National Monument along the border of Utah and Colorado in the mid-1950s, hiking
in Olympic National Park in Washington state with Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas in 1958, and many more.

In 1959, Sigurd resigned as president of the National Parks Association, but later that same year Interior Secretary Fred Seaton appointed him to the Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings and Monuments. Sig served on this influential board well into the1960s. During the Kennedy Administration, Interior Secretary Steward Udall also appointed Sig as Udall’s consultant on wilderness and national parks in addition to serving on the National Parks Advisory Board. (Udall also tried to recruit Sig to become the director of the National Park Service, but Sig demurred.)

From these posts, Sig played an enormously important role in identifying and visiting potential new national park sites, including field trips across the country and up to Alaska. This work came to fruition as new national parks like Canyonlands National Park were created in the 1960s, and years later in the monumental 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which protected many of the areas Sig and his colleagues had identified in the 1960s. Closer to home, Sig also played important roles in the creation of Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota, just west of the BWCAW. Sig, in fact, is even credited with proposing the name of this new park as Voyageurs. So Sig’s role with the national parks was quite extensive and critically important, and  something well to remember in this centennial year of the National Park Service.

—Kevin Proescholdt is the conservation director for Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization (www.wildernesswatch.org). His most recent book, Glimpses of Wilderness, is a collection of essays set in the BWCAW and Quetico that illuminates some of the values and aspects of the wilderness experience. The book is available at www.kevinproescholdt.com.

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