Sigurd Olson and the 1978 BWCAW Act

Thirty-five years ago this fall, on October 21, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act (Public Law 95-495). This new law ended a rancorous three-year fight in Congress over the future of the BWCAW, provided important new wilderness protections for the canoe country, and settled once and for all the decades-long question that the Boundary Waters was indeed a wilderness.

Sigurd Olson would later call it the most important achievement in his half-century of wilderness conservation on behalf of the Boundary Waters. And Sig played an incredibly important role in the struggle to pass this legislation. Not only did he play the role of leading elder statesman for the wilderness cause throughout those years, utilizing his myriad contacts to promote the BWCA Wilderness bill, but Sig personally testified at the
Congressional Field Hearing held in Ely in July of 1977.

At this point in the public debate, two competing bills had been introduced dealing with the BWCAW. Rep. Jim Oberstar’s bill would have removed about 400,000 acres from wilderness in the heart of the BWCA and turned it into a National Recreation Area where logging, motorboats and snowmobiles, resorts, and other developments would have been allowed. The competing bill introduced by Rep. Don Fraser would have made the BWCA a complete wilderness—no logging, no mining, no motorboats, no snowmobiles.

Three members of Congress came to Ely for the field hearing: Oberstar, Fraser, and Rep. Bruce Vento, a freshman member of Congress who chaired the hearing on behalf of the Subcommittee Chair, Rep. Phillip Burton of California. Though only in his first term in Congress, Bruce was the only Minnesotan to serve on the full House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee (which included Burton’s subcommittee), and Phil drafted Bruce to chair the two field hearings in Minnesota.

The Boundary Waters issue was very hot politically, of course, and the Ely field hearing reflected that stormy nature. Over 1,000 people jammed into the auditorium where the hearing was held. Parked logging trucks sat outside the building. A dummy dangled from the boom of one truck, with the names of Sigurd Olson, Bud Heinselman, and the Sierra Club pinned to its shirt.

Inside the hearing, when Bruce Vento called Sig’s name to testify, the auditorium erupted in yells, boos, and jeers. For long minute after minute the yelling continued, preventing Sig from speaking. Vento tried gaveling the crowd to order, but to no avail. The foot-stomping and yelling continued. Oberstar and Fraser also tried to bring the crowd to order, but with similar results. The yelling was so intense and continuous that Vento turned to an aide and asked if there was a way out the back of the auditorium in case violence erupted. Finally, however, Vento gained control of the crowd and it quieted. Sig then delivered this testimony in favor of the Fraser bill.

The testimony accompanying this article is from Sig’s presentation copy of his testimony, with his hand-written deletions and additions, so this version is the way Sig presented it. Most notable is the moving final paragraph of this testimony, which was hand-written onto his typed statement and which I remember Sig delivering, all the more remarkable and eloquent given the tense and angry atmosphere in which he gave it.

—Written by Kevin Proescholdt, national conservation director for Wilderness Watch, a national nonprofit wilderness conservation organization ( He wrote about Sig’s testimony in the book he co-authored with Rip Rapson and Bud Heinselman entitled Troubled Waters: The Fight for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Kevin also serves on the LPF’s National Advisory Board.

Sig Olson’s Testimony

July 8, 1977

My name is Sigurd F. Olson, my home Ely, Minnesota. I support the Fraser Bill (H.R. 2820) whose purpose is to eliminate all adverse uses from the BWCA and give it complete wilderness status.
I have worked for some 50 years toward building an appreciation and understanding of what wilderness really means. I have served as a consultant to the Department of Interior through several administrations, served on numerous commissions and advisory boards and in that capacity have become familiar with most of the wilderness regions of the United States, Canada, and Alaska.

I have crisscrossed the BWCA and its adjoining Quetico Provincial Park by canoe countless times since my early guiding days, but also the Northwest Territories of Canada, have worked closely with Canadians such as the Quetico Foundation of Toronto, having to do with the preservation of the BWCA and the Quetico as well as other lake and river areas as far north as the Arctic Tundra.

I have worked with citizen groups, such as the IWLA and Wilderness Society and others, and know how people feel, and have cooperated closely with all major conservation organizations across the country toward the goal of preserving wild and natural areas.

Many threats have plagued the area over the years, road programs, power dams, airplane and fly-in resort developments, the acquisition of private land, logging and mining, and I realize now that had any of these issues been lost there would be no wilderness in the BWCA today.

The BWCA and Quetico Provincial Park across the border comprise over two and a quarter million acres, the largest area of its kind in the world. People come from all over the U.S. and even foreign countries to enjoy the tranquility, beauty, and peace of this unique Lakeland wilderness.

Opponents of the Fraser Bill claim the economy of Northeastern Minnesota would be adversely affected. The mainstay of its economy is mining, an industry doing very well outside the BWCA. There are millions of acres for commercial logging outside the wilderness, a third of the Superior National Forest’s three million acres. In this lower two-thirds there is plenty of room for snowmobiles, motor boats, logging and mining. Studies show that resorts and canoe outfitting employ many people and bring in millions of dollars, all of them benefitting from their proximity to the BWCA and its wilderness lure. Once the wilderness is gone, the real meaning of the BWCA will be lost forever.

I am opposed to the Oberstar Bill cutting out some 400,000 acres of prime wilderness canoe country and converting them to recreational use, a permanent tragedy for this long fought-over region which belongs to all the people of America.

President Carter in his Environmental Message to Congress said, “The National Wilderness Preservation System must be expanded promptly before the most deserving areas of federal lands are opened up to other uses and lost as wilderness forever.”

I endorse this statement as do millions across the country. The Fraser Bill (HR 2820) supports President Carter’s view. The time for action and immediate passage is now. No further studies or surveys are necessary.

This is the most beautiful lake country on the continent. We can afford to cherish and protect it. Some places should be preserved from development or exploitation for they satisfy a human need for solace, belonging and perspective. In the end we turn to nature in a frenzied chaotic world, there to find silence—oneness—wholeness—spiritual release.

Please make this statement a part of the record.

Sincerely, Sigurd F. Olson

Comments are closed.