- 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
It all took him too far from the forests that were his abiding interests. He had never lost sight of them, of course. In 1937, at the age of seventy-two, he undertook a five-thousand-mile trip sponsored by the Forest Service through the national forests of Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and California, sleeping out in the open, flying in Forest Service planes, and generally re-creating the delights of his youthful days on the old Forest Commission. “What I saw gave me the greatest satisfaction,” he wrote upon his return. “The service is better than it was when I left and everywhere the forests are coming back. What more could a man ask?”
He was a good deal less mellow when FDR’s Secretary of the Interior, his old friend and colleague Harold L. Ickes, opened a campaign to have the national forests taken out of the Department of Agriculture and placed back in Interior—an effort that earlier Interior Secretaries had supported and to which Pinchot had taken predictable umbrage. This time, however, the invective he launched against the idea was more than matched by that of the self-described curmudgeon Ickes, as the two old Progressives attempted to outdo each other in vitriol.
“What is behind all this?” Pinchot asked the assembled members of the Izaak Walton League in April 1937. “The man who has been my friend for more than a quarter of a century has allowed his ambition to get away with his judgement,” and Ickes’s great power had “bred the lust of greater power.” Ickes countered that “Gifford Pinchot, who is a persistent fisherman in political waters, exemplifies more than anyone else in American public life how the itch for public office can break down one’s intellectual integrity.” The character of the debate between the two men rarely rose above this level until the beginning of World War II rendered the question moot. The forests stayed in the Department of Agriculture.
Appropriately, much of Pinchot’s remaining years were spent in the writing of Breaking New Ground, which remains one of the central documents of the American conservation movement. That was a legacy worth the offering, and it is a pity that he did not live to see its publication before his death on October 4, 1946.
But 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 mountain slopes and river valleys of the West like a great dark blanket, still the center of controversy, still threatened and mismanaged and nurtured and loved as they were when the son of a dry goods merchant first walked in an American wood and wondered what could be done to save it for the future.