- Historic Sites
Father Of The Forests
Ninety years ago a highborn zealot named Gifford Pinchot knew more about woodlands than any man in America. What he did about them changed the country we live in and helped define environmentalism.
February/March 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 1
Like most public officials, Gov. Gifford Pinchot of Pennsylvania could not answer all his mail personally. Much of it had to be left to aides, but not all of these realized the character of their boss. When a citizen wrote in 1931 to complain angrily about one of the governor’s appointments, Pinchot was not pleased to find the following prepared for his signature: “I am somewhat surprised at the tone of your letter.… It has been my aim since I became Governor to select the best possible person for each position. … I hope time will convince you how greatly you have erred.”
The governor was not given to such mewlings and forthwith composed his own letter: “Either you are totally out of touch with public sentiment, or you decline to believe what you hear. … To say that I was not attempting to do right when I made these appointments is nonsense. I was doing the best I knew how, and my confidence that I did so is by no means impaired by your letter.” That was more like it—and more like the man too.
Gifford Pinchot passed through nearly six decades of American public life like a Jeremiah, the flames of certitude seeming to dance behind his dark eyes. “Gifford Pinchot is a dear,” his good friend and mentor Theodore Roosevelt once said of him, “but he is a fanatic, with an element of hardness and narrowness in his temperament, and an extremist.”
The complaint was legitimate, but the zealot in question also was the living expression of an idea shared by much of an entire generation (indeed, shared by Roosevelt himself): the conviction that men and women could take hold of their government and shape it to great ends, great deeds, lifting all elements of American life to new levels of probity, grace, freedom, and prosperity. The urge was not entirely selfless; the acquisition and exercise of power have gratifications to which Pinchot and his kind were by no means immune. But at the forefront was a solemn and utterly earnest desire that the lot of humanity should be bettered by the work of those who were equipped by circumstance, talent, and training to change the world. It had something to do with duty and integrity and honesty, and if it was often marred by arrogance, at its best it was just as often touched by compassion.
And the world, in fact, was changed.
I have … been a Governor, every now and then, but I am a forester all the time—have been, and shall be, all my working life.” Gifford Pinchot made this pronouncement in a speech not long before his death at the age of eighty-one, and repeated it in Breaking New Ground , his account of the early years of the conservation movement and his considerable place in it. It was true enough, but it could just as legitimately be said of him that he had been a forester every now and then but was a politician, had been and would be, all his working life.
It could also be said that it was forestry that taught him his politics. Pinchot was born on August 11, 1865, into the sort of environment that would normally have pointed him in the direction of nothing more exotic than law or one of the other gentlemanly persuasions. His father, James, a selfmade man of the classic stripe, had acquired so much money as a dry goods merchant in New York City that he had been able to retire to the pursuit of good works at the age of forty-four. His mother, Mary, was the daughter of Amos Eno, a Manhattan real estate tycoon whose Fifth Avenue Hotel was so valuable a property that his estate was able to sell it after his death for the staggering figure of $7,250,000.
He and Theodore Roosevelt hit it off from the start. “There has been a peculiar intimacy between you … and me,” the President wrote in later years, “because [we] have worked for the same causes, have dreamed the same dreams.”
The Pinchots figured prominently, if sedately, in society and traveled ambitiously in England and on the Continent. Gifford, his younger brother, Amos, and their sister, Antoinette, all grew up able to speak French and snatches of German at early ages, and Antoinette, in fact, would become Lady Johnstone, wife of the British consul in Copenhagen.
Altogether it seemed an unlikely background for a man who was to spend much of his adult life with trees. There was not at the time a single American-born man and precious few men of any nationality in this country practicing anything that could remotely be described as forestry. Nevertheless, “How would you like to be a forester?” Pinchot’s father asked him in the summer of 1885, as the young man prepared to enter Yale. “It was an amazing question for that day and generation,” he remembered, “how amazing I didn’t begin to understand at the time.” In his travels the elder Pinchot had become an admirer of the kind of scientific forestry practiced in France, Germany, and Switzerland and had even written a few articles on the subject.