Lesson Plan

Conservation vs Preservation and the National Park Service

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Grade Level:
Seventh Grade-Twelfth Grade
History, Science and Technology
One class period (~ 50 minutes)
Group Size:
Up to 36 (6-12 breakout groups)


Discover the difference between conservation and preservation and learn how the National Park Service plays a role in each.


Given an introduction to conservation, preservation, and the mission, history, and resources of the National Park Service, students will be able to complete a Venn diagram, distinguish between examples, and express their opinion through a writing prompt.


Conservation and preservation are closely linked and may indeed seem to mean the same thing. Both terms involve a degree of protection, but how that is protection is carried out is the key difference. Conservation is generally associated with the protection of natural resources, while preservation is associated with the protection of buildings, objects, and landscapes. Put simply conservation seeks the proper use of nature, while preservation seeks protection of nature from use.

During the environmental movement of the early 20th century, two opposing factions emerged: conservationists and preservationists. Conservationists sought to regulate human use while preservationists sought to eliminate human impact altogether.

Aldo Leopold, often called the father of ecology, called for wilderness protection and an enduring land ethic. Wilderness preservation is fundamental to the idea of deep ecology – the philosophy that recognizes an inherent worth of all living beings, regardless of their instrumental utility to human needs.

One of the largest conservation organizations in the world, the World Wildlife Fund, was created in 1961 to protect large spaces for wildlife conservation. Conservation generally follows an economic motive; in this case wildlife preserves in Africa during the dissolution of the British Empire in the late 1940s to ensure big game hunting remained commercially viable.

In 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring launched the modern environmental movement. Preservation groups such as the Sierra Club shifted from protesting to working with politicians to influence future environmental policy.

National Park Service History and Mission

By the Act of March 1, 1872, Congress established Yellowstone National Park in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming "as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people" and placed it "under exclusive control of the Secretary of the Interior." The founding of Yellowstone National Park began a worldwide national park movement. Today more than 100 nations contain some 1,200 national parks or equivalent preserves.

In the years following the establishment of Yellowstone, the United States authorized additional national parks and monuments, many of them carved from the federal lands of the West. These, also, were administered by the Department of the Interior, while other monuments and natural and historical areas were administered by the War Department and the Forest Service of the Department of Agriculture. No single agency provided unified management of the varied federal parklands.

White House letter to Stephen Mather after the President signed the Organic Act creating the National Park Service on August 25, 1916. On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service, a new federal bureau in the Department of the Interior responsible for protecting the 35 national parks and monuments then managed by the department and those yet to be established. This "Organic Act" states that "the Service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments and reservations . . . by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."


Conservation vs. Preservation and the National Park Service – Student Worksheet



This lesson is designed as a formative assessment. Teacher will evaluate initial definitions, responses during discussion, detail of Venn diagrams, accuracy of example identification, and depth of understanding in written response. Based on quality of proving behavior, teacher will reteach or progress.


Connect with local resources:
  • Ask students to research a nearby example of conservation or preservation 
  • Ask students to visit a local natural history museum and write about their experience 
  • Invite a local archaeologist to speak with the classroom

Additional Resources

Albright, Horace M., and Robert Cahn. The Birth of the National Park Service: The Founding Years, 1913–33. Salt Lake City: Howe Brothers, 1985.

Sellars, Richard West. Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

Last updated: April 14, 2015