- 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
Both sides in the argument faced off energetically in this first major conflict between the utilitarian and the preservationist wings of the conservation movement, and it took nearly ten years, the approval of two Presidents, and the passage of special legislation by Congress in 1913 before San Francisco obtained permission to build its dam. “The destruction of the charming groves and gardens, the finest in all California,” Muir wrote to a friend, “goes to my heart. But in spite of Satan & Co., some sort of compensation must surely come out of this dark damn-dam damnation.” Pinchot had no doubts and no regrets.
Pinchot’s devotion to the principles of conservation went beyond the immediate question of use versus preservation. Monopoly was evil personified, and monopoly, he believed, stemmed directly from the control of the natural world. “Monopoly of resources,” he wrote in Breaking New Ground, “which prevents, limits, or destroys equality of opportunity is one of the most effective of all ways to control and limit human rights, especially the right of self-government.” With this conviction to guide him, it did not take him long to find his way from the world of conservation to the world of politics, where, like thousands of his class, he found his imagination seized by Progressive Republicanism.
The movement had been distilled from more than forty years of what the historian Howard Mumford Jones called “exuberance and wrath” following the Civil War. Its followers saw themselves and their values caught in a vise: threatened on one side by an increasingly violent and potentially revolutionary uprising on the part of the great unwashed—largely represented by the Democratic party—and on the other by a cynical plutocratic brotherhood—largely represented by the regular Republican party—which brutally twisted and subverted American institutions for purposes of personal greed and power.
Imperfectly but noisily, Theodore Roosevelt had given these people in the middle a voice and a symbol to call their own, and when he chose not to run for a third term in 1908, they felt abandoned. Prominent among them was Gifford Pinchot, and there is some evidence to suggest that he engineered his own dismissal as chief forester by President William Howard Taft, whom Roosevelt had groomed as his own chosen successor. The opportunity came in 1909, when Pinchot learned that Taft’s Secretary of the Interior, Richard Ballinger, was determined to honor a number of coal-mining claims on lands in Alaska that Roosevelt had earlier withdrawn from such uses.
When Taft backed his Interior Secretary, Pinchot chose to see it as the beginning of a wholesale repudiation of all that Roosevelt had done to champion the public interest. He made no secret of his conclusions, and Taft was certain that more than bureaucratic integrity was behind Pinchot’s loudly voiced concerns. “I am convinced,” he wrote his brother, “that Pinchot with his fanaticism and his disappointment at my decision in the Ballinger case plans a coup by which I shall be compelled to dismiss him and he will be able to make out a martyrdom and try to raise opposition against me.”
Taft resisted as long as he reasonably could, but when Pinchot violated the President’s direct orders to maintain silence by writing an open letter to a Senate committee investigating the Ballinger matter, he decided he had no choice. Calling the letter an example of insubordination “almost unparalleled in the history of the government,” Taft fired the chief forester of the United States on January 7, 1910. Pinchot rushed home with the letter of dismissal and waved it at his mother, crying, “I’m fired!.” “My Mother’s eyes flashed,” he remembered, in Breaking New Ground; “she threw back her head, flung one hand high above it, and answered with one word: ‘Hurrah!’ ”
The essential legacy of this committed, driven man, this public servant, this prince of rectitude, is the national forests themselves. There are 191 million acres of them now, spreading over the West, still threatened and mismanaged and loved.
Despite these memories of triumph, the most effective and rewarding part of Pinchot’s career had come to an end. It certainly would not have seemed so to him at the time, however, as he joined in his friend Roosevelt’s 1912 campaign to unseat Taft as a third-party candidate. Pinchot had been promised the State Department if Roosevelt won, but Roosevelt lost and, losing, split the Republican party and gave the Presidency to Woodrow Wilson. All Pinchot got was the satisfaction of seeing Taft humiliated—which nonetheless was “something to be proud and happy about,” he crowed.
There followed years of politicking, all with his old vigor, but with mixed results and mostly confined to the state of Pennsylvania, where he served a couple of stormy, largely unproductive terms as governor.