Gifford Pinchot

Without natural resources life itself is impossible. From birth to death, natural resources, transformed for human use, feed, clothe, shelter, and transport us. Upon them we depend for every material necessity, comfort, convenience, and protection in our lives. Without abundant resources prosperity is out of reach. 

- Gifford Pinchot (Forest History Society, ¶6)

Gifford Pinchot was born on August 11, 1865 in Simsbury, Connecticut. His parents, James and Mary Pinchot, were wealthy and placed a strong emphasis on their children's education. Pinchot's grandfather had been a clear-cutting forestry tycoon, but his father greatly admired and recognized the value of the rapidly-depleting forests and sought to find a better way to manage the resources. In the early 1870s, the family, which now included Pinchot's younger siblings, Antoinette (known as Nettie) and Amos, travelled to Europe and spent three years touring England, Germany, Italy, and France.

At age 15, Pinchot revisited England alone for his studies, and his growing passion for wilderness was evident in his repeated expressions of delight while roaming the rural landscape and his disdain for dirty, chaotic London. When he returned to the United States in 1881, Pinchot was enrolled in Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire (Miller, 2001). 

The school was in a state of chaos when Pinchot arrived, but the 16-year-old thrived and developed a nearly-professional fascination with the sciences. However, Pinchot's complaints about his eyesight ultimately caused his parents to withdraw him from Exeter in the winter of 1883-84. To remedy their son's condition, his parents sent him to the Adirondack Mountains where he was to pursue restoration through a wilderness cure.

He spent the majority of his three month treatment in the Northern woods hiking and snowshoeing across the frozen landscape. His tutor also helped Pinchot prepare for the entrance examinations to Yale. It was his father, though, who ultimately suggested his career path (Miller, 2001). Shortly before Pinchot entered Yale, his father posed a question that would change his life: "How would you like to be a forester?" (57). 

This was an unusual question for the time period because no American had yet acknowledged its practical application and made forestry a career. Nonetheless, Pinchot was intrigued by the prospects of his father's fateful question and proclaimed that forestry would become his lifework (Miller, 2001). He later remarked: "I had no more conception of what it meant to be a forester than the man in the moon....But at least a forester worked in the woods and with the woods - and I loved the woods and everything about them....My Father's suggestion settled the question in favor of forestry" (Forest History Society, ¶1). 

The problem, however, was that neither Yale nor any other American university offered a degree in forestry. So, after completing his undergraduate studies at Yale in 1889, Pinchot traveled to Nancy, France to study the subject at L'Ecole Nationale Forestière. The school, established in 1824, was one of the grand schools of France devoted to establishing a technologically trained elite who would develop practical ways to both extract and conserve the nation's resources in the post-Revolution era.

At the core of the school's curriculum was an emphasis on silviculture, the means by which foresters produced and cared for forests, which finally enabled Pinchot to unite forestry as taught in the classroom with its reality on the ground. On the other hand, he recognized forestry in America would have to be as unique and diverse as the landscape itself (Miller, 2001). 

In October 1890, one year after arriving in Europe, Pinchot returned to the United States. His European mentors advised him to stay and continue his training, but his drive and ambition compelled him to begin his career promptly. Within two weeks of arriving in New York, he made his professional debut by delivering a talk on "Governmental Forestry Abroad" to a joint session of the annual American Economic Association and American Forestry Association meetings held in Washington, D.C. Finding a forestry job in the States, however, was difficult. Pinchot attended several interviews with members of the Departments of Agriculture and Interior while he was in Washington, but they were fruitless (Miller, 2001). 

Pinchot was finally hired to report on the prospects for forestry on some of the holdings of Phelps Dodge & Company in Arizona and California in the spring of 1891, and he was overwhelmed by his first encounter with the vastness of western land and sky. In January 1892, he began working as a resident forester for John Vanderbilt's massive estate, Biltmore, and it was there that forestry first made its mark on the American Forest (Miller, 2001). 

Much of the land in western North Carolina that Vanderbilt purchased for Biltmore had been cleared for farming and timber, so he hired Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York's Central Park, to design the grounds. Olmsted was conservation-minded and felt creating a managed forest on the estate could serve as an example for the rest of the country. When Pinchot came on board, he implemented a unique management plan designed to improve the forest while profiting the landowner. This plan included identifying tree species, growth conditions, and volumes of timber per acre as well as improving tree growth through selective thinning. Pinchot's approach was the first of its kind in the United States and served as a national model (Biltmore). 

Pinchot was appointed as a special forest agent for the federal government in 1897 and was made chief of the Division of Forestry (later the Bureau) of the Department of Agriculture the following year. In 1905, the bureau was renamed the Forest Service and given control of the national forest reserves. President Theodore Roosevelt, Pinchot's friend and fellow Republican, allowed him a great deal of independence in administrating the service, and he responded by imparting a spirit of diligence and sense of mission to his staff.

Roosevelt and Pinchot observed the reckless exploitation of the country's limited natural resources and predicted that, unless scientific management of the resources was implemented, America would fail to meet its future demands. The duo is credited with bestowing the name "conservation" to the movement for the preservation and stewardship of natural resources. Under Pinchot, the Forest Service added millions of acres to the national forests, controlled their use, and regulated their harvest (Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission). 

Roosevelt's presidential successor, Howard Taft, lacked fervor for the government ownership of land. The administration's apathy toward conservation ignited a public dispute between Pinchot and Department of the Interior secretary, Richard Achilles Ballinger. This feud, known as the Ballinger- Pinchot controversy, escalated and ultimately resulted in Pinchot's dismissal from the Forest Service in 1909. This was a major cause of the splinter in the Republican Party that divided Taft and Roosevelt and led to the formation of the Progressive Party, with Roosevelt as its 1912 presidential candidate (Miller, 2001).

Pinchot supported the Progressive Party, which had more radical approach that included proposals for regulation of child labor, a minimum wage for women, and unemployment insurance. Following Roosevelt's defeat, Pinchot tried in vain to keep the party together and ran unsuccessfully for the United States Senate as a member of the Progressive Party in 1914 (Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission). 

During his ill-fated senatorial campaign, Pinchot married Cornelia Bryce, and the couple had a son, Gifford Bryce Pinchot, in 1915. Following his defeat, the Progressive Party dissolved, and its members returned to their original parties. In 1920, Pinchot, once again a Republican, was appointed Commissioner of Forestry. His goal, however, was the governorship, where he felt he would have more opportunity to initiate the reforms he desired. He campaigned for governor of Pennsylvania in 1922 and won a close election. During his tenure, Pinchot increased the efficiency and economy of the state government.

In 1926, he retired from office for a term but was reelected in 1930. The depression hit Pennsylvania severely soon after he began his second term, and Pinchot was one of the first governors to decide that federal aid was needed. He worked incessantly for economic relief and promoted "Pinchot Roads," 20,000 miles of paved roads to benefit struggling farmers. During his last year as governor, Pinchot ran unsuccessfully, for the third and final time, for the Republican nomination for election to the U.S. Senate (Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission). 

In his remaining years, Pinchot offered advice to the president, wrote an autobiography of his life in forestry, and developed a fishing kit to be used in lifeboats during World War II. The forestry pioneer died of leukemia on October 4, 1946 at age 81. His mansion, Grey Towers, has been donated to the Forest Service to serve as a museum and training center for foresters (Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission). In 1949, the Columbia National Forest in Washington State, established in 1908 under the guidance of Pinchot, was renamed the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in honor of his contributions to American forestry and the Forest Service (Gifford Pinchot National Forest). 


Forest History Society

Gifford Pinchot National Forest

Miller, Char. (2001). Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism. Washington/Covelo/London: Island Press. 

Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. "Gifford Pinchot."