Fortunately for President Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot came along at just the right time to help him with the daunting task of sustainably managing our nation’s millions of acres of national forests. Nobody—including Roosevelt—epitomized the ideals of the Progressive Conservation Movement more than Pinchot.
A tall, dapper man—always sporting a world-class handlebar moustache and a gentlemanly forbearance—Gifford Pinchot was born in 1865 into a very wealthy family in Simsbury, Connecticut. His family’s money gave him top-flight education where he matriculated from the famed Philip Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and then moved on to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
When he entered Yale University in 1885, his father asked him this simple question, “How would you like to be a forester?” At the time, not a single American had ever made forestry a profession. Pinchot replied that he … “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.”
Enthused by this paternal conversation, Pinchot enrolled in the L’Ecole Nationale Forestiere in Nancy, France since education in forestry did not exist in the US at the time. He returned a year later “fired with enthusiasm for managing forests as a crop”. But he quickly realized that land development in the US was out of control and wrote: “When I got home at the end of 1890 . . . the nation was obsessed by a fury of development. The American Colossus was fiercely intent on appropriating and exploiting the riches of the richest of all continents.”
Pinchot’s observations were actually right on the mark. During the so-called “Gay Nineties”, the American public still believed that the abundance of US forestland was inexhaustible. The forestry practices in vogue at the time were cut, slash, level, and leave. No consideration was given to replanting to restore the resource for future use. In fact, wasting timber was considered a “virtue, not a crime” while second growth management was just a “delusion of fools”. In Pinchot’s words: “What talk there was of forest protection was no more to the average American than the buzzing of a mosquito and just about as irritating.”
Spurred on by these strong feelings about abysmal land management practices, Pinchot jumped into his now chosen profession—as America’s first professional forester—with unabashed enthusiasm. In 1892, he accepted a position as Resident Forester on the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina. Due to Pinchot’s leadership in sustainable forestrymanagement, the Biltmore Estate is now known as the “Cradle of American Forestry”. Over the next 15 years, he worked a variety of other positions that raised forestry and conservation of all our natural resources from an unknown experiment to a nationwide movement.
Gifford Pinchot—as a U.S. Forest Service Supervisor— surveying parts of the western U.S.
Then in 1905, capitalizing on his significant skills as a public relations master, Pinchot made himself the perfect choice as President Roosevelt’s first Chief Forester of the newly created U.S. Forest Service (USFS) within the Department of Agriculture. Once in office, he used his energy, maverick philosophy, and dynamic personality to permanently transform management of forestland across the US. He diligently campaigned for wisely using the nation’s forests for the benefit of man, not just preserving them for nature’s sake. Pinchot believed that “The object of our forest policy is not to preserve the forests (just) because they are beautiful … or because they are refuges for the wild creatures of the wilderness. The forests are to be used by man. Every other consideration comes secondary.”
Despite this belief that forest use had to be the first priority, Pinchot’s primary goal was to prove that forestry could produce timber for harvest while also maintaining the quality of forests for future generations. With this philosophy, he was the first person to coin the term conservation ethic and one of the first practitioners of what is now known as managing for resource sustainability.
Emphasizing Pinchot’s two primary driving philosophies—“the greatest good for the greatest number over the long run”and “conservation coupled with wise use of natural resources” [i], the redefined USFS soared to great new heights. Under his administration, the number of forest reserves—later called “National Forests”—grew from 60 units covering 56 million acres in 1905 to 150 separate management areas covering 172 million acres in 1910.
Believing that multi-use management was the best way to go, Pinchot extended Federal regulation to all resources—including forestry, grazing, water power dam sites, mineral rights, and recreational activities—within national forests boundaries. This management approach still abides throughout today’s USFS.
Maintaining his close friendship with Roosevelt, Pinchot also served on a number of the President’s commissions including the Commission on the Organization of Government Scientific Work, the Commission on Public Lands, the Commission on Departmental Methods, the Inland Waterways Commission, and the Country Life Commission. He was also the primary founder of the Society of American Foresters, which first met at his home in Washington, DC. Pinchot died of leukemia in New York City on October 4, 1946, at the age of eighty-one.
“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
Gifford Pinchot was as dedicated to his beliefs as any man who ever lived—perhaps even to a fault. In a love story for the ages, Pinchot maintained a secret affair with Laura Houghteling—a socialite and the jewel of his life—whom he met in 1893. At first blush, this affair may not sound that unusual, but deeper investigation reveals the intrigue. Ms. Houghteling actually died less than one year after she first met Pinchot. But Pinchot wrote letters to her and kept dairies describing their imagined—or perhaps very realistic, at least in his own mind—relationship for 20 more years after her death. He remained faithful and celibate during this whole time, not marrying until he was 49.
We bring this up to emphasize the level of commitment that will be required to make a difference on the Climate Changefront. Pinchot also exhibited the same level of dedication to transforming the nation’s forest management system from wanton slash and burn to wise, sustainable, long-term use. All along the way, he battled both corporate and political resistance to “changing the way things have always been done”. His legacy of making wise short-term use of natural resources to foster their long-term protection endures to this day and provides a prototype for achieving sustainable management of the Earth’s energy sources.
Text excerpted from book: “PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change” written by Budd Titlow and Mariah Tinger and published by Prometheus Books.
Photo caption and credit: Gifford Pinchot—as a U.S. Forest Service Supervisor— surveying parts of the western U.S. Copyright Shutterstock
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. “PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change”, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — “COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America” — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.