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The Boundary Waters celebrates 40-year milestone

Did you know that a UW grad helped establish the BWCA?

October 18, 2018

MADISON, Wisconsin (October 18, 2018) — An American treasure, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area is celebrating a 40-year milestone. On October 21, 1978, Congress passed the BWCA Wilderness Act eliminating logging and snowmobiling and restricting mining and motorboat use over nearly 1.1 million acres in northern Minnesota.

A University of Wisconsin–Madison alumnus, who spent much of his youth in Ashland and Bayfield Counties, was instrumental in turning the dream of the Boundary Waters into reality.

Born in Chicago, 1920 graduate Sigurd Olson developed an appreciation for wild places and waterways — and for living life connected to the woods, lakes, and streams that characterized the upper Midwest before modern development. He fished, hiked, boated, and relived in his imagination the lives of the French-Canadian voyageurs who explored the Great Lakes region before him. “The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness,” he wrote, “and of a freedom almost forgotten.”

Olson went to Madison to earn his bachelor of science degree before doing graduate study in geology and animal ecology. Initially, he considered a life in academia, teaching at a Minnesota high school and then at Ely Junior College.

But Olson’s love of streams pulled him away, and he became a voice for conservation. A lyrical writer, he authored nine books, including The Singing Wilderness and Listening Point.

Olson put his eloquence to work lobbying for the preservation of waterways in his adopted Minnesota and eventually helping to convince Congress to pass the Thye-Blatnik Act of 1948, which helped to create the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. In 1950, he joined the board of directors for the National Parks Association and served as the organization’s president from 1953 to 1959. From 1948 until 1982, he was the wilderness ecologist for the Izaak Walton League of America, an organization devoted to preserving fishing streams.

“The conservation of waters, forests, soils, and wildlife are all involved with the conservation of the human spirit,” Olson wrote.

Olson — and profiles of many other UW–Madison alumni who have changed the world — are featured on

Media Information

Contact: Tod Pritchard,, 608-609-5217, @WisAlumni

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