- 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 forests were not sold, nor did they vanish entirely, but they did remain vulnerable to regular depredation. It was not until 1891 and passage of an obscure legislative rider called the Forest Reserve Clause that the slowly growing reform element in the executive branch was enabled to do anything about it. Armed with the power of this law, President Benjamin Harrison withdrew thirteen million acres of public forest land in the West from uses that would have been permitted by any of the plethora of lenient land laws then on the books, and at the end of his second term, President Grover Cleveland added another twenty-one million acres. Since there was virtually no enforcement of the new law, however, withdrawal provided little protection from illegal use; at the same time, it specifically disallowed legitimate use of public timber and grasslands. In response to the howl that arose in the West and to give some semblance of protection and managed use, Congress passed the Forest Organic Act of June 1897, which stipulated that the forest reserves were intended “to improve and protect the forest… for the purpose of securing favorable conditions of water flow, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities of citizens of the United States.”
Gifford Pinchot, the young “consulting forester,” was the author of much of the language of the act. In the summer of 1896 he had distinguished himself as the secretary of the National Forest Commission, a body formed by President Cleveland to investigate conditions in the nation’s public forests and to recommend action for their proper use and protection, and it was the commission that had put forth the need for an organic act. No one knew more about American forests than Pinchot did, and he seemed the only logical choice to head the Department of Agriculture’s Forestry Division when the position of director fell vacant in May 1898.
On the face of it, Pinchot’s new post was less than prestigious. The Forestry Division was housed in two rooms of the old red-brick Agriculture Building on the south side of the Mall in Washington, D.C. It enjoyed a total of eleven employees and an annual appropriation of $28,500. And since the forest reserves remained under the jurisdiction of the Interior Department, the Forestry Division had little to do beyond advising private landowners on the proper management of their wood lots and forests. This was anathema to an activist like Pinchot, and he was soon honing the skills that would make him one of the most persistent and effective lobbyists who ever prowled the cloakrooms and cubbyholes of Congress.
His ambition was not a small one: He wanted nothing less than to get the forest reserves transferred to Agriculture and placed under his care in the Forestry Division and then to build the division into the first effective agency for the management and conservation of public lands in the history of the nation. It did not hurt his chances when he became intimate with another early American conservationist—Theodore Roosevelt.
Roosevelt had spent much of his youth killing and stuffing birds and was to spend much of his adult life shooting bigger and better animals, which he had other people stuff for him. Nevertheless, when he assumed the Presidency in 1901, he became the first Chief Executive to play an informed and active role in the conservation movement. With George Bird Grinnell (editor of Forest and Stream magazine) he had been a cofounder of the Boone and Crockett Club, an exclusive gathering of conservation-minded hook-and-bullet men whose influence had gone a long way toward preserving the wildlife in Yellowstone National Park and toward slowing the wholesale commercial slaughter that had exterminated the passenger pigeon and was well on its way toward wiping out several other species. During his Presidency Roosevelt would establish the first federal wildlife refuges, support the expansion of the national park system, back passage of the Reclamation Act of 1902, and use the full power of the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate no fewer than eighteen national monuments, including Grand Canyon, in Arizona.