On November 7, 1998, Greenville College (GC) dedicated the Zahniser Institute for Environmental Studies (ZIES). The ZIES dedication ceremony drew many big names in environmental and wilderness activism from around the country, including Stewart Brandborg, former executive director of the Wilderness Society, and Doug Scott, former conservation director and associate executive director of the Sierra Club.

The Zahniser Institute was named after Howard Zahniser, the champion and writer of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which created the National Wilderness Preservation System. Zahniser graduated in 1928 with a bachelor's degree in English from Greenville College. In 1944 he became the executive secretary of the budding Wilderness Society and editor of their journal The Living Wilderness. Additionally, among many other roles, Zahniser wrote for Nature Magazine and served as the third president of the Thoreau Society. Howard Zahniser was also the father of GC professor and Scholar-In-Residence Mathias Zahniser and editor, author and wilderness advocate Ed Zahniser.

The ZIES mission when it was founded was: “to educate and edify in matters of sustainable use/management of natural resources and public lands, particularly wilderness and wildlands; to promote the preservation of unique and wild places; to facilitate the integration of an ethic of environmental stewardship into the conservative moral constructs of our society; and to use muscle, sinew, will and spirit to restore nature.”

From 1998 to 2003, ZIES worked toward this mission by providing students with hands on research opportunities in natural resource studies and habitat restoration and creation. The Institute also purchased and maintained Hoiles Gardens, an 11.4 acre parcel of land affectionately known as “the Gullies” by GC students. Additionally, ZIES created and ran a recycling program on campus until 2009.

In 2010, the Zahniser Institute began re-envisioning itself as an educational nonprofit separate from, but in partnership with, Greenville College. The Institute restarted its programming in 2012 with a six part lecture series at Greenville College on "Salvation Means Creation Healed." Since 2012, ZI has sponsored several environmental education events at Greenville College and in the Greenville community.

The current mission for ZI is "providing opportunities for students, faculty, staff and community members to learn about and actively care for all of creation."