This lesson introduces students to the concept of wilderness and the role that wilderness preservation has played throughout American history.  Students will conduct research on different historical wilderness issues or events, and analyze those events in the context of the political and cultural climate of that particular time. 


Connections to the Curriculum:


Geography, Environmental Studies, American history


Connections to National Geography Standards

Standard 6:  How Culture and Experience Influence People’s Perceptions of Places and Regions

Standard 13:  How the Forces of Cooperation and Conflict Among People Influence the Division and Control of Earth’s Surface

Standard 14:  How Human Actions Modify the Physical Environment




Three to four hours




Internet access

Wilderness fact sheet: www.wilderness.net/nwps_agencies.cfm

Wilderness timeline www.wilderness.net/nwps/learn.cfm




Students will be able to:

·          Define wilderness;

·          Describe key players and events in the history of wilderness preservation;

·          Research and analyze one historical wilderness issue or event;

·          Design a newspaper from the day of their assigned wilderness event; link the wilderness event to politics, culture, and other historical events.




  1. What is wilderness?  Ask the students to list words or phrases that come to their mind when they hear the word wilderness.  Divide the students into small groups and give each group a different quotation about wilderness.  Ask each group to take a few minutes to discuss their quotation, and to try to determine the author’s perspective on wilderness.  How might the author define wilderness?  What do you think the author thinks is the purpose or role of wilderness? 


Possible quotations to use:


We simply need wilderness available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.   —Wallace Stegner, 1960


(Wilderness preservationists) worship trees and sacrifice human beings to those trees.  They want to save things they like, all for themselves. — Charles Fraser, paraphrased in Encounters with Archdruid, by John McPhee 1971


Wildlife once fed us and shaped our culture.  It still yields us pleasure for leisure hours, but we try to reap that pleasure by modern machinery and thus destroy part of its value.— Aldo Leopold 1948


Without enough wilderness America will change.  Democracy, with its myriad personalities and increasing sophistication, must be fibred and vitalized by regular contact with outdoor growths—animals, trees, sun warmth and free skies—or it will dwindle and pale.  Walt Whitman


In wilderness is the miracle of life, and behind it our scientific accomplishments fade to trivia. — Charles Lindbergh, 1967


We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and winding streams with tangled growth, as “wild.”  Only to the white man was nature a “wilderness” and only to him was the land “infested” with “wild animals” and “savage” people.  To us it was tame.  Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery.  Chief Luther Standing Bear, of the Oglala band of Sioux.

Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. —Oscar Wilde


Wilderness lovers like to speak of the equal rights of all species to exist. This ethical cloaking cannot hide the truth that green missionaries are possibly more dangerous, and certainly more hypocritical, than their economic or religious counterparts. — Ramachandra Guha

  1. After each group has discussed their own quotation, conduct a “human likert-scale” activity with the whole class:  Place a sign that says AGREE on one side of the room and DISAGREE on the other side of the room.  Have the groups read their statements or quotations about wilderness and have the rest of the students move to the place in the room that best represents their own opinion on the statement.   A student who strongly agrees with a statement should walk all the way to the AGREE side, a more neutral student should stay in the middle of the room, etc.  Allow a few minutes of discussion on some of the quotations; as students’ opinions change throughout the discussion, they should move towards the appropriate spot in the room.


  1. Discuss the different ways that wilderness was represented in these quotations.  What are reasons for such different perspectives on wilderness?   (the time period, the different values of the author, the context in which it was said)  Explain that throughout American history, wilderness has meant different things to different people; there have been debates about what it is and what, if anything should be “done” with it.  Explain that they will each research a particular moment in the history of wilderness preservation, and analyze the different perspectives of wilderness represented in the debate.




  1. Before giving the assignment, go over some background information on wilderness.  Hand out, or use an overhead to display the Definition of Wilderness section of the 1964 Wilderness Act.. http://www.wilderness.net/nwps/legis/nwps_act.cfm.  Explain that the legal definition of wilderness is based on this law, which sets aside portions of public lands to be preserved and protected from development.  Hand out the one-page wilderness fact sheet,. (www.wilderness.net/nwps_agencies.cfm) and the wilderness timeline http://www.wilderness.net/nwps/learn.cfm.  BRIEFLY, discuss the basics of wilderness designation.


  1. Divide the students into small groups; give each group one of the following newspaper headlines and corresponding year:


New York voters’ approval of new constitution preserves Adirondack Park as “Forever Wild,” 1894


Despite protests from wilderness supporters, President Wilson signs law allowing a dam to flood Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley, 1913


Conservation leaders establish new organization called The Wilderness Society; Forester Bob Marshall takes command, 1935.


Sierra Club director, David Brower, leads successful opposition to development at Dinosaur National Monument, 1955


President Lyndon Johnson signs landmark wilderness legislation, 1964


President Carter signs Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), adding 56 million acres to the National Wilderness Preservation System, 1980


California Desert Protection Act brings the National Wilderness Preservation System up to 104.7 million acres, 1994


Have each group of students create a newspaper or front page of a newspaper that includes their assigned headline.  They should research other events that took place during that year and can include in their paper other news stories, editorials, advertisements, cartoons, etc.— as long as they are all historically accurate in both content and style.  The article corresponding to their assigned headline should be an analysis of that wilderness event that:

·          Provides basic factual information about the event or issue;

·          describes any debate that led to this event, describing the main arguments of those supporting this action and those opposing it;

·          links the event to other events occurring in the United States at the time; explains what, if any, influence the current political climate had on their wilderness event.




Have each group give an oral presentation of their newspaper to the rest of the class.  One option is to present a skit in which a group of people or a family reads their newspaper and discusses the day’s news with each other.  They could also present a news “broadcast” that highlights the day’s events. 




Give the students copies of all of the groups’ newspapers.   Using the newspapers as the main resource, have each student write an essay on trends in wilderness preservation history, and on how wilderness preservation has been linked to other events and political issues throughout American history.


Extending the Lesson


Have the students role-play a debate on one of these historical wilderness issues, or have them research a current wilderness issue and analyze it within the context of politics and culture.  One issue the students could research is the current debate about drilling for oil in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge.  Have the students design a current newspaper front-page, summarizing the ANWR debate and the most relevant related issues and news stories.  OR, ask the students to predict how this issue will be resolved in the future and have the students design a newspaper front page in the year 2007.


Have the students pretend that Congress has proposed a new holiday to honor or commemorate American wilderness.  Have the students submit a “design proposal” for that new holiday to Congress that includes a description of what this commemoration should be like.  Should it be a happy celebration?  A somber memorial?  How should the history of American wilderness be represented?  Their design can include sketches, maps, or whatever they need to make their proposal compelling. 


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