- 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
The son proved open to his father’s enthusiasm. From childhood Pinchot had been active in the outdoors, fond of hiking, camping, and, especially, trout fishing. Since there was nowhere yet in the United States to study his chosen profession, after graduating from Yale he took himself back to Europe, where for more than a year he studied forest management at the French Forestry School in Nancy and put in a month of fieldwork under Forstmeister (“Chief Forester”) Ulrich Meister in the city forest of Zurich, Switzerland.
Back in this country he was hired by George W. Vanderbilt in 1892 to manage the five-thousand-acre forest on his Biltmore estate in North Carolina, a ragged patchwork of abused lands purchased from numerous individual farmers. While nursing this wrecked acreage back to health, the young forester persuaded Vanderbilt to expand his holdings by an additional one hundred thousand acres of nearly untouched forest land outside the estate. This new enterprise became known as the Pisgah Forest, and it was there in 1895 that Pinchot introduced what were almost certainly the first scientific logging operations ever undertaken in this country.
By then the young man had made a secure reputation in the field; indeed, he was the field. In December 1893 he opened an office in Manhattan as a “consulting forester.” Over the next several years, while continuing his work for Vanderbilt in North Carolina, he provided advice and research work on forest lands in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York State—including the six-millionacre Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve, established in 1895 as the largest state-owned park in the nation. He could—and doubtless did—take satisfaction from a description given of him by a newspaper columnist as early as 1892: “Contrast the career of this Yale graduate with that of certain young men of Gotham who flatten their noses against club windows in the morning, and soften their brains with gossip, champagne and the unmentionables at other periods of the day and night.”
There was nothing soft in this graduate’s brain, and since he lived most of his time at home with his mother and father, there was even less that could be called unmentionable in his behavior or experience (his first fiancée died in 1894, an event that so devastated him he did not marry until twenty years later, after his mother’s own death). By the turn of the century he was fully equipped by temperament and experience to assume the task that would soon be given him: the intelligent management of more forest land than had ever been placed in the control of any single individual.
It would be difficult to find a more convenient symbol for the dark side of American enterprise than the state of the nation’s forest lands in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Restrained only by the dictates of the marketplace, the timber industry had enjoyed a free hand for generations, and the wreckage was considerable. Most of the best forest land east of the Mississippi had long since been logged out—sometimes twice over—and while generally humid conditions had allowed some of the land to recover in second and third growth, erosion had permanently scarred many areas. Unimpeded runoff during seasonal rains had caused such ghastly floods as that leading to the destruction of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1889.
The land of the Mississippi and Ohio valleys was almost entirely privately owned; west of the Mississippi most of the land belonged to the nation. It was called the public domain, its steward was the federal government, as represented by the General Land Office, and for years it had been hostage to the careless enthusiasm of a tradition that looked upon land as a commodity to be sold or an opportunity to be exploited, not a resource to be husbanded. About two hundred million acres of this federal land were forested, and much of it, too, had been systematically mutilated. In addition to legitimate timber companies that consistently misused the various land laws by clear-cutting entire claims without even bothering to remain around long enough to establish final title, many “tramp” lumbermen simply marched men, mules, oxen, and sometimes donkey engines onto an attractive (and vacant) tract of public forest land, stripped it, and moved out, knowing full well that apprehension and prosecution were simply beyond the means or interest of the understaffed, overcommitted, and largely corrupt General Land Office. As early as 1866 such instances of cheerful plunder had gutted so many forests of the public domain that the surveyors general of both Washington Territory and Colorado Territory earnestly recommended to the General Land Office that the forest lands in their districts be sold immediately, while there was something left to sell.