- 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 principles Pinchot put to work would become one of the roots of the sensibility we call environmentalism. It was called conservation then, which, he wrote, “means the wise use of the earth and its resources for the lasting good of men.”
The chief forester did not remain aloof. He was given to unannounced field trips, poking his prominent nose into every nook and cranny of the system to see what was what, and he maintained a body of field inspectors who reported regularly to him and him alone. “To set results,” he remembered, “we had to revise, common-sensitize, and make alive the whole attitude and action of the men who had learned the Land Office way of handling the Reserves. … We had to drive out red tape with intelligence, and unite the office and the field. Next … we had to bring about a fundamental change in the attitude and action of the men who lived in or near the Reserves and used them. We had to get their cooperation by earning their respect.”
That respect did not come easily. Those individuals and corporations that had become accustomed to unrestricted access to Western resources did not remain silent during all this, nor did their politicians. At one point in 1908 the Rocky Mountain News featured a cartoon showing “Czar Pinchot and His Cossack Rangers.” Others declared that the Forest Service was subverting the pioneering instinct that had built the country. “While these chiefs of the Bureau of Forestry sit within their marble halls,” Sen. Charles W. Fulton of Oregon intoned in 1907, “and theorize and dream of waters conserved, forests and streams protected and preserved throughout the ages and the ages, the lowly pioneer is climbing the mountain side where he will erect his humble cabin, and within the shadow of the whispering pines and the lofty firs of the forest engage in the laborious work of carving out for himself and his loved ones a home and a dwelling place.”
Despite such cavils, by the time Roosevelt left office in March 1909, the national forest system had been enlarged to 148 million acres, and the Forest Service had become one of the most respected government services in the nation—reason enough for the historian M. Nelson McGeary’s encomium of 1960: “Had there been no Pinchot to build the U.S. Forest Service into an exceptionally effective agency, it would hardly have been possible to report in 1957 that ‘most’ of the big lumber operators had adopted forestry as a policy; or that the growth of saw timber has almost caught up with the rate of drain on forest resources from cutting, fire, and natural losses. …”
Nor, it is safe to say, would there have been much left of the forests themselves. The principles Pinchot put to work would inform the management of the public lands throughout most of the twentieth century and become one of the roots of the sensibility we call environmentalism. It was called conservation then, and Pinchot always claimed that he was the first to put that use upon the word. “Conservation,” he wrote, “means the wise use of the earth and its resources for the lasting good of men. Conservation is the foresighted utilization, preservation, and / or renewal of forests, waters, lands, and minerals, for the greatest good of the greatest i lumber for the longest time.”
Wise use was the cornerstone, and Pinchot and his followers had little patience with the still-embryonic notion that the natural world deserved preservation quite as much for its own sake as for the sake of the men and women who used it. John Muir, a hairy wood sprite of a naturalist whom Pinchot had met and befriended as early as 1896, personified this more idealistic instinct, tracing the roots of his own inspiration back to Henry David Thoreau’s declaration that “in Wildness is the preservation of the World.” For a time, the two men were allies in spite of their differences, but the friendship disintegrated after 1905, when Pinchot lent his support to the efforts of the city of San Francisco to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park for a public water-and-power project in order to free the city from a private power monopoly.
Muir, whose writings about Yosemite had brought him a measure of fame, had founded the Sierra Club in 1892 largely as a tool to protect the glorious trench of the Yosemite Valley and other pristine areas in the Sierra Nevada. Among these was the Hetch Hetchy Valley, which these early preservationists maintained was the equal of Yosemite itself in beauty. The reservoir that would fill up behind the proposed dam on the Tuolumne River would obliterate that beauty. But this was exactly the sort of public power-and-water project that spoke most eloquently to the deepest pragmatic instincts of Pinchot and his kind, who argued that every measure of conservation as they understood it would be fulfilled by approval of the project. “Whoever dominates power,” Pinchot wrote, “dominates all industry.”