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Father Of The Forests

May 2024
19min read

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.

Like most public officials, Gov. Gifford Pinchot of Pennsylvania could not answer all his mail personally. Much of it had to be left to aides, but not all of these realized the character of their boss. When a citizen wrote in 1931 to complain angrily about one of the governor’s appointments, Pinchot was not pleased to find the following prepared for his signature: “I am somewhat surprised at the tone of your letter.… It has been my aim since I became Governor to select the best possible person for each position. … I hope time will convince you how greatly you have erred.”

The governor was not given to such mewlings and forthwith composed his own letter: “Either you are totally out of touch with public sentiment, or you decline to believe what you hear. … To say that I was not attempting to do right when I made these appointments is nonsense. I was doing the best I knew how, and my confidence that I did so is by no means impaired by your letter.” That was more like it—and more like the man too.

Gifford Pinchot passed through nearly six decades of American public life like a Jeremiah, the flames of certitude seeming to dance behind his dark eyes. “Gifford Pinchot is a dear,” his good friend and mentor Theodore Roosevelt once said of him, “but he is a fanatic, with an element of hardness and narrowness in his temperament, and an extremist.”

The complaint was legitimate, but the zealot in question also was the living expression of an idea shared by much of an entire generation (indeed, shared by Roosevelt himself): the conviction that men and women could take hold of their government and shape it to great ends, great deeds, lifting all elements of American life to new levels of probity, grace, freedom, and prosperity. The urge was not entirely selfless; the acquisition and exercise of power have gratifications to which Pinchot and his kind were by no means immune. But at the forefront was a solemn and utterly earnest desire that the lot of humanity should be bettered by the work of those who were equipped by circumstance, talent, and training to change the world. It had something to do with duty and integrity and honesty, and if it was often marred by arrogance, at its best it was just as often touched by compassion.

And the world, in fact, was changed.

I have … been a Governor, every now and then, but I am a forester all the time—have been, and shall be, all my working life.” Gifford Pinchot made this pronouncement in a speech not long before his death at the age of eighty-one, and repeated it in Breaking New Ground, his account of the early years of the conservation movement and his considerable place in it. It was true enough, but it could just as legitimately be said of him that he had been a forester every now and then but was a politician, had been and would be, all his working life.

It could also be said that it was forestry that taught him his politics. Pinchot was born on August 11, 1865, into the sort of environment that would normally have pointed him in the direction of nothing more exotic than law or one of the other gentlemanly persuasions. His father, James, a selfmade man of the classic stripe, had acquired so much money as a dry goods merchant in New York City that he had been able to retire to the pursuit of good works at the age of forty-four. His mother, Mary, was the daughter of Amos Eno, a Manhattan real estate tycoon whose Fifth Avenue Hotel was so valuable a property that his estate was able to sell it after his death for the staggering figure of $7,250,000.

He and Theodore Roosevelt hit it off from the start. “There has been a peculiar intimacy between you … and me,” the President wrote in later years, “because [we] have worked for the same causes, have dreamed the same dreams.”

The Pinchots figured prominently, if sedately, in society and traveled ambitiously in England and on the Continent. Gifford, his younger brother, Amos, and their sister, Antoinette, all grew up able to speak French and snatches of German at early ages, and Antoinette, in fact, would become Lady Johnstone, wife of the British consul in Copenhagen.

Altogether it seemed an unlikely background for a man who was to spend much of his adult life with trees. There was not at the time a single American-born man and precious few men of any nationality in this country practicing anything that could remotely be described as forestry. Nevertheless, “How would you like to be a forester?” Pinchot’s father asked him in the summer of 1885, as the young man prepared to enter Yale. “It was an amazing question for that day and generation,” he remembered, “how amazing I didn’t begin to understand at the time.” In his travels the elder Pinchot had become an admirer of the kind of scientific forestry practiced in France, Germany, and Switzerland and had even written a few articles on the subject.

The son proved open to his father’s enthusiasm. From childhood Pinchot had been active in the outdoors, fond of hiking, camping, and, especially, trout fishing. Since there was nowhere yet in the United States to study his chosen profession, after graduating from Yale he took himself back to Europe, where for more than a year he studied forest management at the French Forestry School in Nancy and put in a month of fieldwork under Forstmeister (“Chief Forester”) Ulrich Meister in the city forest of Zurich, Switzerland.

Back in this country he was hired by George W. Vanderbilt in 1892 to manage the five-thousand-acre forest on his Biltmore estate in North Carolina, a ragged patchwork of abused lands purchased from numerous individual farmers. While nursing this wrecked acreage back to health, the young forester persuaded Vanderbilt to expand his holdings by an additional one hundred thousand acres of nearly untouched forest land outside the estate. This new enterprise became known as the Pisgah Forest, and it was there in 1895 that Pinchot introduced what were almost certainly the first scientific logging operations ever undertaken in this country.

By then the young man had made a secure reputation in the field; indeed, he was the field. In December 1893 he opened an office in Manhattan as a “consulting forester.” Over the next several years, while continuing his work for Vanderbilt in North Carolina, he provided advice and research work on forest lands in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York State—including the six-millionacre Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve, established in 1895 as the largest state-owned park in the nation. He could—and doubtless did—take satisfaction from a description given of him by a newspaper columnist as early as 1892: “Contrast the career of this Yale graduate with that of certain young men of Gotham who flatten their noses against club windows in the morning, and soften their brains with gossip, champagne and the unmentionables at other periods of the day and night.”

There was nothing soft in this graduate’s brain, and since he lived most of his time at home with his mother and father, there was even less that could be called unmentionable in his behavior or experience (his first fiancée died in 1894, an event that so devastated him he did not marry until twenty years later, after his mother’s own death). By the turn of the century he was fully equipped by temperament and experience to assume the task that would soon be given him: the intelligent management of more forest land than had ever been placed in the control of any single individual.

It would be difficult to find a more convenient symbol for the dark side of American enterprise than the state of the nation’s forest lands in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Restrained only by the dictates of the marketplace, the timber industry had enjoyed a free hand for generations, and the wreckage was considerable. Most of the best forest land east of the Mississippi had long since been logged out—sometimes twice over—and while generally humid conditions had allowed some of the land to recover in second and third growth, erosion had permanently scarred many areas. Unimpeded runoff during seasonal rains had caused such ghastly floods as that leading to the destruction of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1889.


The land of the Mississippi and Ohio valleys was almost entirely privately owned; west of the Mississippi most of the land belonged to the nation. It was called the public domain, its steward was the federal government, as represented by the General Land Office, and for years it had been hostage to the careless enthusiasm of a tradition that looked upon land as a commodity to be sold or an opportunity to be exploited, not a resource to be husbanded. About two hundred million acres of this federal land were forested, and much of it, too, had been systematically mutilated. In addition to legitimate timber companies that consistently misused the various land laws by clear-cutting entire claims without even bothering to remain around long enough to establish final title, many “tramp” lumbermen simply marched men, mules, oxen, and sometimes donkey engines onto an attractive (and vacant) tract of public forest land, stripped it, and moved out, knowing full well that apprehension and prosecution were simply beyond the means or interest of the understaffed, overcommitted, and largely corrupt General Land Office. As early as 1866 such instances of cheerful plunder had gutted so many forests of the public domain that the surveyors general of both Washington Territory and Colorado Territory earnestly recommended to the General Land Office that the forest lands in their districts be sold immediately, while there was something left to sell.

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.

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.”

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.”

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.

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.


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