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Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir on Glacier Point...

[Detail] Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir on Glacier Point...

Lesson Procedure

Lesson One: What is "Conservation" and Why Does it Matter?

Americans have a long history of advocating for the preservation of natural resources. Between 1850 and 1920 naturalists, politicians, authors and artists identified numerous features of the natural and human landscape of America which they believed worthy of preservation. They explained and justified their positions in lectures, articles, essays, books, and at congressional hearings. Out of this process, they formulated views on the nature of conservation itself and why governmental agencies and private individuals should conserve. Their ideas are as varied as the resources which they believe should be conserved.

This lesson introduces students to some historically significant leaders, thinkers, and artists of the early conservation movement through selections from their writings and art. By exploring these selections students can formulate their own summaries of what each leader believed conservation was, why they thought it important, and what resources they thought were worthy of preservation. Interestingly, the range of resources and the arguments used have not changed a great deal over time and are commonly found in today's news.

Yet a shift in argumentation may be detected as one works from mid-nineteenth-century naturalists such as Henry David Thoreau to turn-of-the-century conservationists such as Gifford Pinchot and John Muir. By 1900, the federal government had begun setting land aside for national parks and forests, and it became necessary for the federal government to formulate and defend policies governing its use as ranchers, miners, and foresters sought clarification and permission to access these lands and resources.

Federal grants of private access to such lands soon sparked opposition from men like John Muir and newly formed organizations such as the Sierra Club. In the debates which ensued, we find evolving positions which more clearly articulate both the similarities and differences between environmental advocates' views. We also begin to see the "Conservation Movement," which had seemed to be unified in its goals, divide into conflicting factions. The core arguments and environmental philosophies formulated then have remained and are evident in present day debates over issues such as logging and mining on federal property.

  1. Identify which readings to duplicate and share with students.
  2. Before distributing readings, have students identify the types of natural resources people currently are trying to preserve and why these people feel as they do. (What is a "natural resource? What arguments do they use to support their positions? Can people want to preserve the same things but for different reasons? Are some arguments "better" than others?)
  3. Have students read selections, identifying both the resources and reasons given. (Which are the most compelling? Which do they personally agree with? What problems might the government have if it enacted laws supporting these positions? Who might oppose these positions / individuals and why?)
  4. Compare the current with the historical. (What has changed or stayed the same? Do Americans value the same things today for the same reasons?)


These readings (and the viewpoints they illustrate) mirror closely literary movements of the time periods during which they were written. By reading the works of Romantic writers (Cooper, Bryant, Emerson) or studying nature-based art (Hudson River School) and photography, students can gain an understanding of how thoughts about nature affected those who visually captured it.

Lesson Two: Case Study - Should the Hetch Hetchy be Dammed?

In this lesson students will examine the controversy surrounding the city of San Francisco's request to turn the Hetch Hetchy Valley into a water reservoir to meet its increasing needs. (The Hetch Hetchy was a part of Yosemite National Park.) Students will explore the divisions this controversy exposed within the conservation movement by using teacher selected documents and text representative of both sides of the debate along with actual records of the congressional hearings held to decide the valley's fate.


  1. Review what students know concerning the various reasons people supported conservation efforts.
  2. Introduce this lesson by informing students that they will be re-creating a Congressional debate over the Hetch Hetchy Valley in California's Yosemite National Park, which served to clarify the issues and divide the conservation movement clearly into "preservationist" and "conservationist" camps.
  3. In full class discussion or interactive lecture, review the reasons for setting aside Yosemite as a national park. Students should notice during this review the mixture of reasons, some "preservationist" and some "conservationist", adduced by various advocates. Use selections from works and public acts concerning Yosemite from list of sources below.
  4. Form groups focused on the major interests of various parties involved in the Hetch Hetchy controversy: the city of San Francisco, the Sierra Club, Progressive conservationists such as Pinchot, Congressional representatives from other states, and business interests. Each group should choose at least one spokesperson to play the role of a leading figure (e.g. John Muir for the Sierra Club or the chair of the House Committee on Public Lands). Others in the group may adopt roles as appropriate as witnesses, research assistants, publicists, lobbyists, or members of Congress. Each group will develop a strategy for researching the resources listed below to gain an understanding of the arguments advanced by their particular interest group and to glean what they consider to be the best arguments for their position in the public hearing.
  5. In the 3-4 day interval between the initial lesson and the mock hearing, students will research their positions using online and print resources. The teacher will provide assistance as needed. Advocates for the various positions may also engage in various forms of public advocacy for their point of view, such as radio spots, print advertising, posters, flyers, and short speeches.
  6. On the day of the mock hearing, all members of the class except those in roles as spokespersons or witnesses will become members of the House Committee on Public Lands, the committee which began holding hearings on the damming of the Hetch Hetchy in 1908. Each spokesperson will be given an allotted time to make a statement, and then will stand for a minimum number of questions from the committee. The time limit and number of questions will depend on the number of persons testifying. At the close of the hearing, the committee will vote on whether to send the Raker Bill to the full House.
  7. The teacher will follow up the vote with a review of the principal arguments advanced by each side, exploring the main differences that emerged between preservationists and conservationists through the controversy over Hetch Hetchy.


This lesson will involve students in extensive research in collections specifically focusing on Yosemite and the Hetch Hetchy Valley. Student extension activities include:

  • developing research further into a formal essay on some aspect of the controversy;
  • developing a comparison between the establishment of Yosemite and another national park such as Yellowstone;
  • exploring period photographs and paintings for insights on the role of visual imagination in the controversy;
  • identifying and developing a comparison with a more contemporary controversy such as the Michigan debate during the summer of 1997 over whether to permit angle drilling for oil along the shores of Lake Michigan;