Pinchot, Gifford (1865 – 1946) American Conservationist and Forester

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Gifford Pinchot (1865 1946)
American conservationist and forester

Pinchot was born in Simsbury, Connecticut, to a prosperous business and industrial family, part of whose wealth came from timber holdings in several states. The Pinchots, like other lumber investors of their day, practiced clear-cutting on forests to maximize their profits, shipped the logs to market, and with the returns, repeated the cycle. Young Gifford was pressured by his grandfather to enter the family business, but his father James was beginning to dislike the deforestation of his area, and he encouraged his son to pursue forestry.

Pinchot was educated at Exeter and then Yale, graduating in 1889. After graduation, his family supported further education at L'Ecole nationale forestiere in Nancy, France, where he studied silviculture, or forest ecology . It was in Nancy that he learned "le coup d'oeil forestier the forester's eye, which sees what it looks at in the woods." In his 1947 book, Breaking New Ground, Pinchot noted that it was in France that he began to think of "the forest as a crop," that forests could sustain human use by a "fixed and annual supply of trees ready for the axe."

Returning to the United States in 1892, Pinchot engaged in "the first scientific forestry in America" on the Vanderbilt estate in North Carolina, hoping to prove that "trees could be cut and the forest preserved at one and the same time." Pinchot figured out how to sustain the forest while maintaining its yield, and thus its income. He called his first successful year "a balance on the side of practical forestry."

Pinchot then worked as a consulting forester in New York City, where he attracted increasing attention for his ideas. The National Academy of Science appointed him to the new National Forest Commission, organized by the U.S. Department of the Interior . On the Commission's recommendation, President Grover Cleveland added 13 more forest reserves totaling 21 million acres (8.5 million ha). Pinchot, voicing a minority opinion on the Commission, saw the reserves as property for public use, not as a way to lock up the nation's natural resources .

In 1898 Pinchot became head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Division of Forestry. The division did not operate the nation's forest reserves, which were then administered by the Department of the Interior's General Land Office. Pinchot lobbied hard to have the reserves transferred to his division, but his efforts were unsuccessful until William McKinley's assassination moved Theodore Roosevelt into the White House. Pinchot and Roosevelt together mustered enough support in Congress to approve the transfer to the renamed Bureau of Forestry in 1905, marking the beginning of the national forest system and what became the U.S. Forest Service .

Pinchot's long-time collaboration with Roosevelt was one of the benchmarks of the conservation movement, which culminated in the creation of what have been called the "midnight forests." These 16 million acres of forest were set aside as reserves late in the night before a Congressional bill to limit the President's power to do so took effect. After Roosevelt left office, Pinchot's association with President William Howard Taft soured quickly, climaxing in a feud with Richard Ballinger, Taft's Secretary of the Interior and ending in 1910, when Pinchot was fired by the President.

Despite leaving before he had accomplished all that he wished, Pinchot left his mark on the Forest Service. Ironically, both are often criticized by modern environmentalists for their utilitarian policies. Yet this early conservationist was one of first to protect national forest lands from the industrial powers who sought to destroy them completely.

Pinchot still generates controversy today. Most writers trace the conflict between conservationists and preservationists to his falling-out with John Muir over the Hetch-Hetchy Reservoir in California. Pinchot, with his pragmatic approach, argued that the river valley served the greatest public good as a dependable source of water for the people of San Francisco. Muir maintained that Hetch Hetchy was sacred and too beautiful to flood. He also believed the dam would betray the national park ideal, since Hetch Hetchy was in Yosemite National Park .

As he grew older, Pinchot did become less utilitarian, creating what he called the "new conservationism," but even his "new" approach was an extension of his long-held conviction that the forests of the nation belonged first to the people, to be used by them wisely and in perpetuity. To Pinchot, conservation meant "the greatest good to the greatest number for the longest time." Pinchot's beliefs, which have been revived in recent years, make sense both ecologically and economically. He claimed that "the central thing for which Conservation stands is to make this country the best possible place to live in, both for us and our descendants."

Pinchot was active on many fronts of the struggle for conservation. The Society of American Foresters , a professional association and major force in resource management and conservation today was created in 1900, due in part to his efforts. He served two terms as Governor of Pennsylvania (192327; 193135), and his efforts to relieve the effects of the Great Depression led to the creation of emergency work camps there, providing a model for the Civilian Conservation Corps started by President Franklin Roosevelt.

Pinchot recognized that people must live off the resources of land where they live. In The Fight for Conservation (1910), he stated bluntly that "the first principle of conservation is development, the use of the natural resources now existing on the continent for the benefit of the people who live here now." But, he also recognized that use of resources could quickly turn into abuse of resources, especially by exploitation for the few. He believed that destruction of forest resources was detrimental to the environment and to the many who depended on it.

Pinchot's ideas and his national forests are still with us today. His concern with producing the greatest totality of land use produced the wilderness that is preserved but accessible and forest that is logged and renewed. Pinchot, a giant of the conservation and the environmental movements, leaves his legacy of a vast forest domain that belong to the American people.

[Gerald L. Young Ph.D. ]



McGeary, M. N. Gifford Pinchot: Forester-Politician. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960.

Nash, R. "Gifford Pinchot." In From These Beginnings: A Biographical Approach to American History. Vol. 2. 2nd ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.

Norton, B. G. "Moralists and Aggregators: The Case of Muir and Pinchot." In Toward Unity Among Environmentalists. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Pinchot, G. Breaking New Ground. Covelo, CA: Island Press, 1947.


Miller, C. "The Greening of Gifford Pinchot." Environmental History Review 16 (Fall 1992): 120.

Watkins, T. H. "Father of the Forests." American Heritage 42 (FebruaryMarch 1991): 8698.