- 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
He crafted the Forest Service into an agency whose dedication to the ideal of service to the public was nearly unique. By 1909 its domain had been enlarged to 148 million acres and it was one of the most respected government organizations in the nation.
Nor was Roosevelt indifferent to forests. “The American had but one thought about a tree,” he once wrote, “and that was to cut it down.” While governor of New York, he had sought forestry advice from Pinchot, and they had hit it off from the start. “There has been a peculiar intimacy between you and Jim [James R. Garfield, his Secretary of the Interior] and me,” Roosevelt wrote Pinchot in later years, “because all three of us have worked for the same causes, have dreamed the same dreams, have felt a substantial identity of purpose as regards many of what we three deemed the most vital problems of today.” Pinchot’s own feelings bordered on adulation, although Roosevelt maintained that the younger man admired his predatory instincts above all else. “He thinks,” he told Archie Butt, his personal assistant, “that if we were cast away somewhere together and we were both hungry, I would kill him and eat him, and” he had added with that carnivore’s grin of his, "I would, too. ”
The two men combined almost immediately in an effort to get the forest reserves into Pinchot’s care. The public lands committees of both the House and Senate, however, were dominated by Westerners, many of whom had vested interests in the status quo, and it took more than three years of public campaigning and artful cajolery, Roosevelt himself bringing the full weight of the Presidency to bear on the point, before Pinchot was given his heart’s desire: passage of the Forest Transfer Act, on February 1, 1905. In addition to bringing over the forests—which now totaled more than sixty-three million acres—the new law provided for the charging of fees for cutting timber and grazing cattle and sheep, and this was followed by the Agricultural Appropriation Act of March 3, a section of which gave federal foresters “authority to make arrests for the violation of laws and regulations relating to the forest reserves. …”
The government was now in the tree business with a vengeance. Shortly the name of the reserves was changed to that of national forests, the Forestry Division to that of the U.S. Forest Service, and Gifford Pinchot was solidly in place as the nation’s first chief forester, a position he would hold officially only until his resignation in 1910 but would hold in his heart for the rest of his life.
With his President’s blessing, Pinchot crafted the young agency into a public bodv whose dedication to the ideal of service to the public was nearly unique for its time (or our own, for that matter). It came directly out of Pinchot’s own convictions. “It is the first duty of a public officer to obey the law,” he wrote in The Fight for Conservation, in 1910. “But it is his second duty, and a close second, to do everything the law will let him do for the public good. …”
It was an elite corps that Pinchot created, built on merit and merit alone, one in which both competence and stupidity were swiftly rewarded—and little went unnoticed by the chief forester (“I found him all tangled up,” Pinchot wrote to a lieutenant about one hapless employee, “and generally making an Ass of himself, with splendid success”). William R. Greeley, one of the twenty-five hundred foresters who served under Pinchot (and who later became chief forester himself), caught the spirit of Pinchot’s influence precisely: “He made us … feel like soldiers in a patriotic cause.”
The system this exemplary body of men administered was carefully structured by the chief forester. Individual forests were divided up into management units, each with its own ranger or ranger force, and administrative headquarters were established in the six districts across the West where most of the forests were grouped, from Missoula, Montana, to Portland, Oregon. Pinchot gave his district supervisors a great deal of autonomy and encouraged them to give their rangers similarly loose reins in the field—whether selecting stands of harvestable trees, supervising a timber sale, regulating the number of cows or sheep that might be allowed on a piece of grazing land, or fighting fires. The first step in proper administration, he said, “was to find the right man and see that he understood the scope and limits of his work, and just what was expected of him”; then “the next step was to give him his head and let him use it.”