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Gifford Pinchot, arguably the progenitor of modern American conservation and forestry, was born to a wealthy family in Connecticut in 1865. Upon graduating from Yale University, Pinchot went on to the French National Forestry School, learning techniques and concepts that would later develop further through German and British Imperial forestry, and which underpin modern natural resource management. After two years as a member of the National Forest Commission, he later served as the first chief of the United States Forest Service (1905-10). Pinchot also founded the Yale University School of Forestry and was elected governor of Pennsylvania for two terms. Owing to his lifelong efforts to reform management of natural resources, he engendered many controversies. Nevertheless, he helped to bring conservation issues to the forefront of politics.
With the help of President Theodore Roosevelt, Pinchot gave meaning to the word conservation and advocated the wiser use of natural resources. Defined in its historical context, conservation was understood to mean management of natural resources to maximize utilitarian benefits (e.g., timber) without depleting them unnecessarily over time. Pinchot asserted that if there was not proper state-led oversight of the use of natural resources, monopolies and corporate control might lead to overexploitation of public goods, especially forests, whose “sustainable yield” might be surpassed by overaggressive logging.
Pinchot was opposed on two fronts. More libertarian views about natural resources, oriented more exclusively toward markets, made conservation unpopular in some political circles. William Howard Taft, who succeeded Roosevelt in the White House, terminated Pinchot for speaking out against his policies as well as the policies of Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger. In what was later to be known as the Ballinger-Pinchot controversy, Pinchot showed his shrewd management of public opinion by subverting public confidence in Ballinger’s beliefs and character, forcing the latter to leave office.
On the other side, the dawning preservation movement (most prominently represented by John Muir) challenged the utilitarian philosophy at the core of conservation. The suspicion of preservationists about commercialization of nature caused ongoing public debates with Pinchot, not only over forestry but also the damming of rivers, most prominently in the Hetch Hetchy controversy.
Determined in his beliefs and efforts, Pinchot founded the National Conservation Association and served as its president for the group’s first 15 years. In 1914 Pinchot expressed his interest in the U.S. presidency and ran for the Senate as a candidate of the Progressive Party. During his campaign, he ran against President Woodrow Wilson’s World War I neutrality platform; Pinchot promoted the American movement to get involved in the war. After Wilson was reelected for a second term, Pinchot turned to Pennsylvania state politics and was appointed the Commissioner of Forestry in 1920. Pinchot’s interest, however, was in the office of governor.
Proposing popular reforms, he won a close gubernatorial election. At the end of his first term, Pinchot took a seven-month leave from office but returned when he was elected for a second term. At the age of 72, Pinchot attempted to gain another term as governor but was defeated due to lack of support from the leaders in his own party. Toward the end of his term, Pinchot was hospitalized, and his wife became the acting governor for the remainder of the term. Setting his sights on the Senate, Pinchot failed for the third time to win a seat.
In his final years, Pinchot retired from politics but still gave advice to the president. As a retired politician, Pinchot unflaggingly supported his conservation beliefs and wrote a book about his own life as a forester. He was not only knowledgeable in the forestry field-he also introduced a very useful fishing kit that was later used in lifeboats during World War II. Gifford Pinchot died from leukemia on October 4, 1946, at the age of 81. The Pinchot family left their mansion, Grey Towers in Milford, Pennsylvania, to the U.S. Forest Service to be used as a museum for forestry education.
- N. Clarke and D.C. McCool, Staking Out the Terrain: Power and Performance among Natural Resource Agencies (State University of New York Press, 1996);
- P. Hayes, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency: The Progressive Conservation Movement, 1890-1920 (Harvard University Press, 1959).