The majestic Yosemite Valley in California is photographed from Inspiration Point: El Capitan, Bridal Veil Falls, Cathedral Spires, and Half Dome are seen in the distance with the Merced River Valley below. The year is 1865 or 1866. Over the course of the next decades, American tourists and foreign visitors to the United States will visit this and other national parks in growing numbers. Within the half-century, voices of alarm will be raised as the unique natural features that made these parks worthy of protection are increasingly threatened by commercial misuse and recreational overuse.
The tallest and the most massive trees on Earth- the Coast Redwoods and the Giant Sequoias of Northern California -- are seen in photographic images by disbelieving Eastern eyes in the 1850s and 1860s. Through the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth century, those who would preserve these big trees for future generations met opposition from those who saw the trees as a valuable source of lumber. The establishment of Kings Canyon National Park in 1939 assured protection for some of the most significant stands of sequoias. By the year 2000, however, more than 80 per cent of all Pacific Northwest old-growth forests have fallen to the insatiable axe and saw.
Some forty thousand hides from slaughtered buffalo are piled high in a commercial yard in Dodge City, Kansas in 1878, midway through the late nineteenth century's all-out effort to exterminate the many millions of American Bison from North American plains and woodlands. The buffalo's last minute rescue from extinction begins in the 1890s, and a concerted effort to restore it to viable numbers meets with success. This keystone species of the plains now numbers in excess of 350,000 buffalo in public and privately owned populations. An agricultural industry has developed based on the sustained use of buffalo meat and buffalo products.
Muir Glacier in Alaska is pictured in 1941 as an advancing conveyor belt of ice. Seen again in 2004 amidst concern about global warming, it is more accurately described as a feeder of melt water to a deep glacial lake. Eleven million gallons of crude petroleum oil seep from the Exxon Valdez supertanker after it runs aground in Prince William Sound in March 1989, and thirty thousand birds and at least 3500 sea otters die and wash on shore with oil-caked feathers and fur. The total cost of the cleanup and settlement of actual and punitive damages caused by this oil spill approaches $10 billion.
Each of the above stories is an example of an historical or a contemporary environmental issue that may be studied through the use of photographs. This curriculum unit presents a brief history of the environmental movement in America from the 1840s to the present. The unit relies on the close analysis of nineteenth and twentieth century photographs to examine America's changing worldviews of our natural heritage and how we choose to use our lands and natural resources. These visual images, identified from several easily referenced photographic archives and from photography books, introduce a series of topics that one studies in a high school environmental science course. Included among these topics are the exploration of the American West, the extraction of natural resources from the land and the sea, the exploitation of and subsequent efforts to restore and protect wildlife in America, the harmful impacts of indiscriminate use of toxic chemicals by agriculture and industry, and the degradation of the country's air, land, and water.
The photographs cited in this unit have been chosen to provoke thought and promote discussion about environmental topics. They are central to the unit's narrative description of key events in the American experience with nature, as well as to the various classroom activities that my students will conduct. In addition, the unit identifies key historical figures in the environmental movement and makes reference to some of their more important writings about nature. My intention is to portray a nation that continues to seek a workable definition of the relation between the economic and the ecological benefits of nature.