A Certain Richness

by Ken Olson

Dean of Libraries Daisy Singh asked me to write about my decision to donate my professional and personal papers to Fogler and endow their curation.

For twenty years of my three-decade conservation career, I was privileged to head three nonprofits—The Nature Conservancy of Connecticut, American Rivers, and Friends of Acadia. I served in other executive capacities at the Appalachian Mountain Club and The Conservation Fund and volunteered on charitable boards. After retiring in 2006, I began assessing whether my accumulated materials might be useful to others.

In researching archives a couple of years ago, I was fortunate to talk with Paige Holmes, a University of Maine Foundation philanthropy officer who, with enthusiasm, connected me with then-Dean of Libraries Joyce Rumery, who liked the description of my collection and that I wanted to fund its stewardship with an estate gift. Fogler’s Special Collections later accepted The W. Kent Olson Conservation Papers.

Foundation General Counsel Sarah McPartland- Good handled transactional matters. These included my deeding the documents to the university. (Foundation and Fogler staff had earlier picked up the first tranche, thirty-four file boxes, and loaded them into a moving van. Fifteen more boxes destined for Orono remain with me until I can organize them better.)

During COVID, Joyce and Paige gave me a video tour of Special Collections at Fogler and at its Annex, where users can access entire collections. The building looked as cavernous as the massive warehouse in the closing scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, with an infinitely long central aisle offset by rank upon rank of towering storage shelves.

My papers are not the Kissinger or Obama or George Mitchell or Olympia Snowe collection, not in volume, nor completeness, nor worldly significance.

So, why think to make one’s niche oeuvre public?

Answer: The conservation ideal itself motivated me.

Conservationists try to think hundreds if not thousands of years ahead. The Utilitarian philosophers (1700s-1800s roughly) spoke of achieving “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” To which, in the early 1900s, Theodore Roosevelt’s U.S. Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot added the phrase “for the longest period of time” and applied the utilitarian formulation to public lands. Today we have national forests and other multipurpose domains on which Pinchot’s “wise use of natural resources” prevails (timber harvesting, power production, mineral development, grazing, etc.). But we also have preservation areas such as national parks and monuments, local land trust properties, etc., that emphasize ecological protection, wildlands experiences, scenic values, cultural richness, general ambling, and so on.

Of such mountains, rivers, forests, swamps, seas and skies, Thoreau said (in the male slant of the day): “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”

Conservation and preservation are compatible, and when paired they comprise sensible land policy. As did my paid job, my documents embody that objective. I wondered if they might have utility post-career, including after I shuffle the mortal coil. Could my life work continue beyond my work life? Maybe someone would want to see how a conservationist, alongside inspiring staff and volunteers—nonprofit endeavor is a we proposition—tried fair to execute his responsibilities. There were sizeable successes and ample failures, but I was mindful always of unborn generations. Humanity will be richer for what we, the current pilots of Spaceship Earth, either let alone or treat with managerial kindness: harvest and succor the fruit, but leave the resource verdant and sustained.

The second reason for offering my collection relates to the nature of philanthropy, literally “love of humankind generally.” Charity is not about money only, it’s more about intent to serve. Although I am not wealthy in the conventional sense, I felt that donating the scriven symbols of my land-grounded vocation aligned with the objectives of a land grant college, especially one operating in a place where utilitarian and preservation philosophies co-exist, where a grand, useful, diverse, and ecologically vital landscape is unparalleled in both natural beauty and economic function.

Indeed, as Daisy Singh wrote, my collection complements Special Collections assets such as the Great Northern Paper Company Records, the Dickey-Lincoln Hydro Project Collection, and the Sewall Aerial Photographic Collection. Perhaps that utilitarian trove combined with my docs can constitute the foundation for a Maine Conservation Archive and encourage conservationists, nonprofits and resource industries to build on it? With additional space and adequate staffing, could Fogler become a nationally important repository of American environmental enterprise?

Meanwhile, I hope my papers will serve anyone interested in conservation history. They contain materials on classic battles in the making and long-term management of Acadia National Park, Allagash Wilderness Waterway, and Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.Other documents deal with nonprofit engagement in natural resource politics and policy; developing, governing, and managing environmental organizations, especially land trusts and national park friends groups; and working relations between government and philanthropic partners. My papers on conservation and non-conservation topics include published books plus published and unpublished essays, reviews, op-eds, fiction, honest poems, and frivolous ditties.

The intended audience is the scholarly research community, of course, but also students, writers, policy specialists, agency employees, nonprofit executives, and the interested lay public.

As a nonprofit CEO I understood keenly the imperative to manage daily business well, which requires fluid operating funds, the hardest kind to raise. So I cobbled a modest trust naming Fogler Special Collections and Friends of Acadia equal beneficiaries. At my death they will divide the net principal. Fogler will use its portion’s annual interest to curate my collection in perpetuity—i.e., to conserve and preserve.

I remain grateful for my Maine undergraduate education and hope others will also choose to return value in whatever ways, and at whatever levels, fit their philanthropic bent.

They will be enriched.

Ken Olson, UM 1968, was a Senior Skull and captained the varsity soccer team. He holds a master’s from Yale and was a faculty lecturer there and at Wesleyan University. In 1995, College of the Atlantic awarded him an honorary degree for “outstanding contributions to Human Ecology.” A guide to his Fogler papers is available in the Digital Commons (search “Olson (W. Kent) Conservation Papers, 1931-2011 ” by Special Collections, Raymond H. Fogler Library, University of Maine ).

See UMaine News article “Fogler receives the W. Kent Olson Conservation Papers.”