Posted by: Phil DeLong | September 5, 2014

The Wilderness Act at Fifty

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On Wednesday, September 3, the Conserve School community joined with others around the county to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the signing, by President Lyndon Johnson, of the Wilderness Act. The act established the National Wilderness Preservation System, which today protects more than 109 million acres of our nation’s land as wilderness. The list of 758 designated wilderness areas includes large, iconic holdings such as Alaska’s Denali, California’s Yosemite, Utah’s Zion, and Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area. The list also includes hundreds of smaller areas, including the 18,000-acre Sylvania Wilderness, which borders Conserve School to the north.

For our students, the concept of wilderness is no mere abstraction. In the first two weeks of the semester, Jeff Rennicke’s English class has challenged students to think more critically about the meaning and value of wilderness. Jeff describes one lesson this way:

During the Wilderness Act rewriting assignment, strains of “Hail to the Chief” waft through the air. Two members of the Secret Service (Michael Salat, the History teacher and I) sweep the combined English and History room for dangers. And then, in steps the President of the United States, the Vice President, Secretary of Interior, and the Director of the National Park Service. The President steps to the podium to speak and sign into law the world’s very first wilderness protection legislation.
It is a light-hearted moment after a complex and engaging afternoon in class. In the first week of classes here at Conserve, both our English class (Wilderness Voices) and our History class (History of Wilderness Exploration) are seeking to lay a foundation of knowledge for the students about just exactly what is meant by the term “wilderness.” In this interdisciplinary class, we begin a formal inquiry into the meaning of Wilderness by looking closely at the political definition of the term. Howard Zahniser, considered the author of the 1964 Wilderness Act, wrote 66 drafts of the legislation before it was passed. In a combined class of History and English, students were asked to break up into groups and write the “67th Draft” of the bill, a process that requires contemplation of the rules, regulations, and language that led to this historic piece of legislation.
Students rewrite the Act section by section in their groups, discussing and debating among themselves, read their final versions to the group at-large, and then we read and discuss the actual wording of the bill itself as written by Howard Zahniser. It is a 3 hour and 55 minute class period full of deep thought, passionate discussion, learning, sharing, and hard work. Finally, when a “bill” is written, one student is elected “President” and a light-hearted signing ceremony is held to finalize the day of hard work. It is an activity that sets the stage for the Conserve experience in English and History stressing our emphasis on collaboration, interdisciplinary learning, group discussion, debate, active listening, and all of it with a bit of humor all in the name of learning.
Within the next couple of weeks, students in their English and history classes will find themselves paddling in the Sylvania, providing richer context to their study of wilderness. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate our wilderness heritage.
Phil DeLong
Director of Enrollment and Student Support

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