Teaching the Article

Debates over public lands have figured prominently in American history. Thomas Jefferson’s vision for a democratic polity rooted in the land helped lay the groundwork for nineteenth-century efforts to distribute western lands to citizens and helped precipitate the Civil War. Debates between John Muir, the first president of the Sierra Club, and Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the U.S. Forest Service, over preservation and conservation in the early twentieth century marked the rise of the administrative state, a permanent role for the federal government in the American West, and revealed the strengths and shortcomings of the nascent environmental movement. My article in the Journal of American History considers the importance of debates over public lands to post–World War II American history. I argue that the politics of public lands protection played a supporting role in several important shifts in recent American history: the rise and fall of the Great Society and postwar liberalism in the 1960s, the consolidation of conservative political power in the West and then nationwide after the 1970s, and the divergence of Democrats and Republicans over the role of the federal government in protecting the public interest in the 1980s and 1990s.

The five exercises in this installment explore these issues through primary documents and raise several questions: Why does the federal government still oversee so much of America’s public lands? What is wilderness and why does it matter? How is the modern environmental movement a product of the 1960s? How has the American West changed in the post–World War II era? And how and why have some conservatives organized in opposition to environmental protection? What follows are brief explanations of the intent of each exercise.

The late nineteenth century marked a key turning point in the history of America’s western lands: instead of giving land away to homesteaders and railroads, the federal government took new responsibility for managing western lands. Exercise 1 engages students in the debates over the conservation, preservation, and management of the nation’s public lands. Because often it is the differences between conservation and preservation that capture students’ attention, it is worth helping them understand the shared assumptions underlying these two approaches to environmentalism. Both assumed nature is something discrete and distinct from people, that nature can be managed or protected by the federal government in the public interest, and that the social costs of such policies—for Native Americans and rural westerners—were inconsequential.

Throughout American history, the concept of wilderness has changed—evolving from being seen as a mortal threat in colonial America to a romantic ideal in the twentieth century. In 1964, however, Congress established a legal definition for wilderness when it passed the Wilderness Act. Exercise 2 asks students to compare their concept of wilderness with the definition set forth in the Wilderness Act. What are the similarities in their definitions of wilderness? In what ways is the 1964 definition a product of its era? In making this comparison, two aspects of wilderness often stand out: the emphasis on protecting wild lands and the requirement that people be visitors. But in other ways the definition is surprising. First, the law emphasizes that the purpose of wilderness is for the “use and enjoyment” of the American people. That phrase is repeated three times. Second, the law is permissive in its definition of what qualifies as wilderness; nowhere does the law limit wilderness to absolutely pristine or untouched lands. (Note particularly the meaning of the word “untrammeled” in section 2(c).) Third, the law makes no explicit reference to scientific concepts, such as ecosystems, endangered species, or biodiversity. Instead, it is more specific in describing wilderness as a recreational resource. Fourth, the law places great faith in the federal government’s ability to protect wilderness. These key assumptions in the Wilderness Act are consistent with the liberal politics of the early 1960s and the Great Society.

The modern environmental movement is often regarded as a product not of the early 1960s but of the protest politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Indeed, when millions of Americans took part in the first Earth Day in 1970, much of the protest activity, political rhetoric, and anger with the federal government fit with that interpretation. Exercise 3 presents students with several speeches and photographs from the first Earth Day. Encourage students to listen to the different voices of Earth Day. Denis Hayes (one of the organizers of Earth Day) and Rennie Davis (a Students for a Democratic Society activist and one of the defendants in the 1969 trial of the Chicago Seven) call for revolution in their speeches. In their speeches, Senator Edmund Muskie and the anthropologist Margaret Mead offer another vision of environmental reform, which stemmed from the liberal priorities of the Democratic party. It was this latter approach to environmental reform that aligned with an expansion of the federal environmental regulatory state. Indeed, the longest-lasting legacy of environmentalism in the 1960s and 1970s was not the rhetoric of Hayes and Davis, but laws such as the Wilderness Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (1970), and the Clean Air Act (1970), which conveyed new powers to the federal government for protecting the environment.

This expanded role for the government in protecting public lands sparked opposition in the West. But western anger over environmental reform was as much a response to the changing West as it was a response to new protection for wilderness areas and public lands. Exercise 4 presents students with a range of data on the West’s demography, politics, economy, and environment between 1970 and 2000. With this information, students can begin to think for themselves about the transition from an “old” West to a “new” West and the significance of that transformation for debates over the environment and American politics.

Exercise 5 offers two sets of documents to explore how Republicans and conservative citizen groups have positioned themselves on environmental issues since the 1970s: one set is comprised of speeches and statements by presidents and their appointees; the second set is comprised of documents from the sagebrush rebellion (a populist protest against public lands reform supported by western citizens, natural resource industries, and local and state governments in the West) and wise use movement. These two sets of documents offer an opportunity to consider how conservative opposition to environmental reform evolved and to compare national and regional politics. Since the 1980s, many Republican politicians and conservative citizens have been concerned with the federal government’s expanding role in environmental regulation. In the early 1980s, the environmental opposition, as represented by Ronald Reagan and his secretary of the interior James Watt, was often reactionary and negative in its opposition to environmental protection. By the early 1990s, some opponents began to frame more carefully and successfully their opposition by emphasizing the rights of citizens, community values, and commonsense approaches to environmental protection.