Wilderness Philosophy

Tom Beery, Center for Environmental Education, University of Minnesota-Duluth


This is an interdisciplinary field/lecture/discussion based course with a focus wilderness in an American context. The goal of the course is to deepen student understanding of the constructs wilderness and wildness as these terms apply to American history, land management, philosophy, and contemporary ideas regarding sense of place.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture and lab

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

This is an upper division course and primarily serves juniors and seniors in the Environmental and Outdoor Education and Environmental Studies majors and minors. The course stresses an emphasis on participation, both a physical participation in the field experience as well as engaged participation in class-based discussion. The course is offered during the fall term each year and has a regular enrollment of 25 students.

Course Content:

This course provides an in-depth look at the history of American land management as it pertains to the preservation of wilderness and wild places in the US. Considerations of romantic depictions and critical analysis of wilderness are explored in the context of an American historical narrative. Students will have a 48-hour field experience in a US designated wilderness area to set a context for lectures, readings, and class discussions. Students will study the history of Isle Royale and Isle Royale National Park as a case study of the complexity of wilderness conceptions in America. Students will investigate the issue of mining exploration and expansion adjacent to the BWCA in the Superior National Forest as a current, regionally significant, and potentially personal case study in wilderness philosophy.

Course Goals:

Students will be able to:

-Define "wilderness" from both a US land management perspective as well as from a personal conception of the value of wild places.
-Describe how American history important to the understanding of wilderness. Further, students will be able to articulate how cultural history relates to the idea of wilderness.
-Use the history of Isle Royale and Isle Royale National Park as an example of the complex idea of wilderness.
-Describe Aldo Leopold's concept of a "land ethic" and relate it to a general consideration of the value of wild places and the human relationship with nature.
-Describe how the current question of mining development adjacent to the BWCA in the Superior National Forest is relevant to the broader consideration of the role and value of wilderness to American society.
-Clarify a personal wilderness philosophy aligned with their beliefs about the human relationship with nature.

Course Features:

The key experience for this course is an overnight experience in a US designated wilderness area. The physical experience in the context of course topics creates a common experience to relate classroom lectures, readings, and course discussions upon. An important outcome of this course is for students to be able to articulate a personal wilderness philosophy. Another important outcome is student ability to articulate how land relationship and land management is a part of sustainability.

Course Philosophy:

This course is designed to provide a critical awareness of a key aspect of land management in America. The sustainability of America's natural resources and a heightened awareness of a personal relationship to wilderness and wild places are underlying themes of the course.


Students are assessed via an essay exam based on the noted course goals.


References and Notes:

Baldwin, A. T. (2011). Becoming Wilderness: Nature, History and the Making of Isle Royale National Park. Houghton: Isle Royale Keweenaw Parks Association.

Leopold, A. (1949). A Sand County Almanac. New York: Oxford

Nash, R. (1967). Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Spence, M. D. (1999). Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks. New York: Oxford.