Gifford Pinchot, Edited by Char Miller
Gifford Pinchot, Edited by Char Miller
“Gifford Pinchot: Selected Writings has resurrected a number of primary sources and offered them in the service of researchers and scholars. Pinchot’s unedited voice and opinions give a rare glimpse into one of America’s most significant figures. The collection and Char Miller’s commentary deserve and will no doubt receive a strong welcome from researchers of the early twentieth century and environmental history.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
A learned man and admirably accessible writer, Pinchot showed keen insight on issues as wide-ranging as the rights of women and minorities, war, education, Prohibition, agricultural policy, land use, and the craft of politics. He developed galvanizing arguments against the unregulated exploitation of natural resources, made a clear case for thinking globally but acting locally, railed at the pernicious impact of corporate power on democratic life, and firmly believed that governments were obligated to enhance public health, increase economic opportunity, and sustain the land. Pinchot’s policy accomplishments—including the first clean-water legislation in Pennsylvania and the nation—speak to his effectiveness as a communicator and a politician. His observations on environmental issues were exceptionally prescient, as they anticipated the dilemmas currently confronting those who shape environmental public policy.
Introduced and annotated by environmental historian Char Miller, this is the only comprehensive collection of Pinchot’s writings. Those interested in the history of conservation, the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, American politics, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania will find this book invaluable.
“Gifford Pinchot: Selected Writings has resurrected a number of primary sources and offered them in the service of researchers and scholars. Pinchot’s unedited voice and opinions give a rare glimpse into one of America’s most significant figures. The collection and Char Miller’s commentary deserve and will no doubt receive a strong welcome from researchers of the early twentieth century and environmental history.”
“There are [no other books] that have better captured the full depth and complexity of Gifford Pinchot, which Miller has skillfully and respectfully afforded Pinchot an opportunity to convey in his own words.”
“One might say that many of [Pinchot’s] opinions (spoken or written in the earlier parts of the 1900s) are contemporary and suited for analysis today. Highly recommended for libraries, schools, and personal libraries.”
“A valuable contribution that will significantly enhance our knowledge and awareness of one of the nation’s leading intellectuals in land use. Char Miller has thoughtfully collected and organized the writings that capture the ideas and development of arguably the most important mind in the American conservation tradition.”
“Despite Gifford Pinchot’s high-profile reputation as a founder of American conservation, most scholars have likely read few of his own writings. With these well-chosen documents from Pinchot's own hand, Char Miller provides a window onto Pinchot’s thinking about rivers, soils, minerals, agriculture, forestry, and public stewardship of natural resources during a time of sweeping change.”
“Gifford Pinchot: Selected Writings provides great insight into the conservation movement, Theodore Roosevelt-style progressivism, and Pennsylvania politics.”
Char Miller is W. M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College. He has published dozens of books, including Seeking the Greatest Good: The Conservation Legacy of Gifford Pinchot; Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism; and, with V. Alaric Sample and R. Patrick Bixler, Forest Conservation in the Anthropocene.
Forests, Forestry and Foresters
Government Forestry Abroad, 1891
The Forests of Ne-Ha-Sa-Ne Park in Northern New York, 1893
A Plan to Save the Forests, 1895
In the Philippine Forests, 1903
Dear Forester, 1905
The Proposed Eastern Forest Reserves, 1906
Speech to the Denver Lands Convention, 1907
The ABC of Conservation, 1909
Mr. Pinchot on Forest Fires, 1910
Roosevelt’s Part in Forestry, 1919
National or State Control of Forest Devastation, 1920
Letter to Foresters, 1930
Old Evils in New Clothes, 1937
War & Peace
North American Conservation Conference, 1909
England in War, 1915
Preparedness and Common Sense, 1916
Agriculture Policy in Wartime, 1917
A Forest Devastation Warning, 1925
Conservation as a Foundation for Permanent Peace, 1940
Governing the Keystone State
The Reclamation of Pennsylvania’s Desert, 1920
The Influence of Women in Politics, 1922
Inaugural Address, 1923
The Blazed Trail of Forest Depletion, 1923
Why I Believe in Enforcing Prohibition, 1923
Old Age Assistance in Pennsylvania, 1924
Politicians or the People? 1926
Inaugural Address, 1931
The Case for Federal Relief, 1932
Lifting Farmers Out of the Mud, 1932
Liquor Control in the United States: The State Store Plan, 1934
Pennsylvania State Forests, 1942
Water, Energy, and Power
What are we going to do about Coal in Alaska? 1911
Testimony on the Hetch Hetchy Dam, 1913
Muscle Shoals, 1921
Giant Power, 1924
Prevention First, 1927
The Power Monopoly: Its Makeup and Menace, 1928
The Long Struggle for Effective Water Power Legislation, 1945
One Afternoon at Pelican Bay, 1897
South Seas Reflections, 1930
Two’s Company, 1936
Time Like an Ever Rolling Stream, 1936
Gifford Pinchot had a keen sense of his place in history. With reason: he was one of the central forces behind the emergence of the conservation movement in the United States. As the founding chief of the U.S. Forest Service and a key political ally of President Theodore Roosevelt, as well as a relentless publicist for the cause, Pinchot helped make conservation a household term. Yet as illustrious as his forestry career was, his political impact was of equal significance. Historians of Pennsylvania consider Pinchot’s two terms as governor of the Commonwealth to be among the most important in the state’s modern history. During his first term in the Roaring Twenties, this no-nonsense crusader instituted critical administrative and budgetary reforms, and, during his second, battered as the industrialized state was by the worst of the Great Depression, Pinchot created jobs and generated hope in communities that had little of either.
So when it came time to write his autobiography, Pinchot had a lot to talk about. Fittingly enough, he opened his memoir, Breaking New Ground, with a blunt declaration about why his version of events should be understood as the version. “It is the story of an eyewitness, an account of events in which I had a part, written to tell not only what happened but also why and how it happened.” This insider perspective, Pinchot allowed, was essential to understanding the past, for “personal experience beats documentary history all hollow.” Although he conceded that documents were crucial to historical analysis, he made it clear to his readers that his “respect for history written from documents alone, after the men who lived it and made it have passed away, is distinctly qualified.” In so saying, he rejected the “common statement that actions or events cannot be properly appraised until after generations have passed,” arguing against its illogical implication—“that actions and events cannot be understood until there is nobody left alive who knows the inside causes which produced them, or the true conditions which gave them their meaning.” His autobiography was not a “formal history, decorated and delayed by references to authorities. As to nearly every statement it contains, you will have to take it on my say-so.”1
What Pinchot would say about this selected collection of his writings is anyone’s guess—he has been dead since 1946, and that makes these texts the kind of dread (and dead) documentation he believed could mislead subsequent readers unaware of their origins or their author’s original intentions. “I have been in on, or have known about the making of too many documents,” he asserted, “not to know how often they tell but part of the real story, or even distort it altogether.”2 Duly noted: Caveat lector!
That sensible caution notwithstanding, there is good reason to reengage with Pinchot’s essays, speeches, and articles, the literary leavings of his lengthy, and at times controversial, career as a public servant, political activist, and social critic. For more than fifty years, he wrote penetratingly about the enduring need for Americans (and all people) to manage their natural resources with greater care. The deliberate stewardship of timber, minerals, grass, and water, he believed, would ensure national prosperity, a matter of considerable concern to the newly powerful nation-state of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But Pinchot was more than an able technocrat devoted to the careful production of wood fiber to fuel a booming economy. Who benefitted from that growth, and who did not, were also matters of great concern to Pinchot; for forestry to fulfill its promise it must enhance the life chances of all Americans. So, too, with politics. Elected officials, Pinchot argued, must be committed to the commonweal, especially to those without access to the levers of power, to the marginalized and disenfranchised. Indeed, the social, political, and scientific insights that emerge in this collection of Pinchot’s writings—on war and the rights of women and minorities; education, prohibition, and hydropower; the art of fishing and the craft of politics—testify to the range of his interests and to his enduring progressive commitments. A complex figure, he also anticipated many of the dilemmas confronting those in the twenty-first century who are deliberating over environmental policy in an era of climate change; the cultural tensions implicit in American nature writing that focuses on the wild amid a rapidly urbanizing society; and the growing demands for environmental justice by those whose rural landscapes and city neighborhoods are disproportionately polluted. Even as Pinchot was resolutely a man of his time, he speaks to our own.
This claim of Pinchot’s continued relevance comes with a conundrum: how did someone born into a family of wealth and standing, who never lacked for anything material during his eighty years of life, become such a powerful advocate for sustained—or, as his legion of conservative critics argued, radical—social change? The answer depends in part on the very privilege that enveloped him at his birth on August 11, 1865. Pinchot’s parents, Mary Eno (1838–1914) and James Pinchot (1831–1908), had themselves grown up in comfort. The Enos, particularly Mary’s father, Amos Eno, had amassed a fortune speculating in New York City’s pre–Civil War land boom. On a smaller scale, the Pinchot family, who were French émigrés, owned significant acreage in Milford, Pennsylvania, that they logged and farmed, and through their general store they structured much of that community’s economic activity. When James left Milford in 1855 to pursue his entrepreneurial dreams in New York City, he struck gold by catering to the rising middle and upper classes’ desires for imported wallpaper and other domestic furnishings. His marriage to Mary Eno brought a sizeable dowry, to be sure, but also a life partner strongly convinced that the pursuit of mammon was less important than doing right in the world. To that end, she convinced her husband that he should retire in his mid-forties to serve as an example to their children—Gifford, Antoinette (1868–1934), and Amos (1873–1944)—for how to engage with the world. Rank had its duties and privileges.
The question was how to fulfill those duties, how to use those privileges. To judge from the three Pinchot siblings’ adult activism, their parents trained them well. In line with her older brother’s public career, Antoinette, who married a titled English diplomat, threw herself into progressive social movements in her adopted country; during World War I, she turned her home into a hospital and served as a nurse. Amos, trained as a lawyer, was a more mercurial presence in the civic arena. One of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union, he wrote blistering critiques of entrenched power during the Progressive Era and then in the Great Depression swung hard right, lambasting Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. With other disaffected intellectuals, he established America First, an organization opposing the nation’s entrance into World War II. Whatever their political leanings, Mary and James Pinchot’s children were forces with which to be reckoned.
One of them, at least in their mother’s eyes, gleamed brighter. “My children have grown more than I,” Mary Pinchot wrote in her diary in 1909—Gifford “more than one could have imagined.” She reiterated this preferential point a year later to a reporter from the Detroit News: “I record as the paramount blessing of my life the fact that I am Gifford Pinchot’s mother and in a way one who helped to form his ideals, [and] who has always ardently sympathized with all that he hoped to do.”3
What young Pinchot hoped to do was become a forester, a career option his parents encouraged him to pursue. They appreciated that his love of the great outdoors was a clue to his outgoing personality and his professional possibilities. There was only one problem: the forestry profession did not yet exist in the United States of the 1880s. Here the family saw opportunity: might not Gifford become its progenitor? Theirs was no idle speculation, as is evident in the fact that within fifteen years of the family’s initial conversation about this glittering prospect, Gifford had made it happen. But the steps Gifford had to take to fulfill this seemingly far-fetched goal were as many as they were improvised. He would attend Yale, a member of the class of 1889, but knew going in that it offered no classes in anything approximating forestry, so he sampled the curriculum as best he could, earning the requisite gentleman’s Cs (except in French, his paternal family’s native tongue). His linguistic proficiency led to his receiving the college’s French prize as a senior, a fluency that would determine where he would study forestry; and, in another bit of foreshadowing, he also snagged the Townsend Prize for public debate. The latter earned him an invitation to speak at the 1889 Alumni Banquet following his graduation ceremonies. Well prepared to talk on “some subject long since forgotten,” on a whim Pinchot jettisoned his original speech and delivered an extemporaneous pitch for the importance of forestry to the country and himself, “my first public declaration that I had chosen it for my lifework.”4
Since there was no going back, he went forward, to Europe, where forestry was being formalized as a profession and certified through an emerging set of schools devoted to its study. Embedded in monarchical nation-states, European forestry quickly flourished in this paternalistic environment, James Scott argues, largely because this fledgling science made nature legible and manipulable. It turned scruffy natural forests into geometrically structured plantations, standing timber into board feet, and the seemingly valueless into a taxable commodity. All of this also gave the state new powers—a matter of considerable importance later, when Pinchot worked with Theodore Roosevelt to designate 150 million acres as National Forests and expand the regulatory authority of the national forest system. Not that Pinchot understood these implications when he disembarked in Southampton and traveled to London in hopes of purchasing some relevant books and treatises; he described himself at the juncture as “still being lost in the fog.”5
The fog cleared slowly, mostly as a result of a series of fortuitous encounters: a high-ranking official in the Indian Civil Service secured letters of introduction for Pinchot to two eminent German foresters, Sir William Schlich, head of the British forest school, and Sir Dietrich Brandis, formerly the inspector general of forests for the British government in India. These two men encouraged the young American to attend the École forestière in Nancy, France, putting his French to good use. Once properly schooled, Schlich counseled, Pinchot should then return to the States and advocate for the establishment of a system of national forests and an agency to manage them. Pinchot would prove an able student.
Yet even as he learned the scientific nomenclature of forestry and embraced its technical approach to timber management, Pinchot recognized this discipline’s essential interdisciplinarity. Foresters had to know more about a tree than its capacity to produce wood fiber. They also must be expert in soils, light, and temperature, geology and geography, economics and politics: about forests as living, breathing entities and the human context in which such well-wooded lands were admired, utilized, and regulated. That meant that forestry was at once site specific—trees grew in particular ways within specific ecosystems—and global in its reach and ramifications. The illustrious careers of his German mentors, who brought European ideas of forest management to the Indian subcontinent on behalf of their British employers, made clear that these concepts, with modifications, were transportable to the United States and, by extension, to the empire it would secure following the Spanish-American War of 1898. It was not by happenstance that in 1903, Pinchot, then head of the Bureau of Forestry—precursor to the Forest Service—would travel to the Philippines to advise U.S. colonial administrators about how to introduce forestry to a tropical rainforest ecosystem, or that he would send agency staff to do the same for Puerto Rico. “Putting empire and environment in the same frame,” notes Ian Tyrrell, “enables us to better understand the consolidation of national power under Roosevelt.” No member of Theodore Roosevelt’s administration contributed more to the “process of creating a stronger American state,” home and abroad, than the forester Pinchot.6
Although these expansive ambitions lay in the future, Pinchot was no less ambitious for the more immediate opportunities to promote forest work and himself, a twinned subject that occupied his attention as he sailed back to New York in late 1890. A born promoter, Pinchot had been sending regular dispatches about aspects of European forestry to Garden and Forest, the leading conservationist journal in the United States at that time, transferring the knowledge he was gleaning to its readers, many of whom would become early adopters of Pinchot’s cause. These articles won him some renown, though they did little to appease his maternal grandfather; Amos Eno, who wanted his talented grandson to join his moneymaking operations, was “still soured on forestry,” Pinchot noted in his diary. But other family members and friends rallied to his side, so much so that he began to resent the attention. “No talks on forestry,” he noted after one social event, “which was a relief, for people seem to think I have distinguished myself. Which is nonsense.”7
There was nothing nonsensical about his articulation of the principles he thought essential to establishing forestry in the United States. Most crucial, and thus most far-reaching, was the need for an interventionist nation-state: a strong federal government administering national forests was necessary for forestry to flourish in a society too long given to destructive, wasteful lumbering. He laid out what he believed was the best means of controlling the “gigantic and lamentable massacre of trees” in a speech to the American Economic Association, whose annual meeting was held within days of his December 1890 return to New York. Strikingly, his talk’s thesis statement doubled as the call to action that would define his activism for the next two decades. “A definite, far-seeing plan is necessary for the rational management of any forest,” he declared, but to create such plans and ensure their long-term viability required consistent oversight: “forest property is safest under the supervision of some imperishable guardian; or, in other words, of the State.”8
Establishing this supervisory state took some doing, work that was not Pinchot’s alone; its creation was one of the hallmarks of the Progressive Era and the reformist energies that animated it. Pinchot was in close touch with many of these like-minded women and men, including Jane Addams, Louis Brandeis, Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Charles Beard, Florence Kelley, Stephen S. Wise, and a host of others pressing for a more conscientious government and beneficent society. His particular contribution to their shared crusade—forestry—only appeared to be disconnected from the social questions that shaped the others’ actions. For him, forest management could not be divorced from the human context in which it was to be established; it was as political as the demand for unionization and women’s rights or the need for enhanced public health, consumer protection, and child welfare. That for a time Pinchot had an office in the United Charities Building in New York City, which then served as the epicenter of “middle-class social politics,” underscores the self-conscious links he forged with contemporary change agents.9
These connections, when combined with Pinchot’s public relations acumen, propelled him and forestry forward. It helped, too, that the public at large, and scientists and activists in particular, had become deeply concerned by the mangled nature of American forests. Although the early settler-colonists who invaded North America immediately began swinging axes, wielding firebrands, and letting livestock loose to clear away the woods to convert the land to agriculture, their collective impact was largely concentrated along waterways; it took nearly two hundred years to clear-cut New England. The felling of trees accelerated with the nineteenth-century advent of the industrial revolution and its enormous appetite for wood. New, more powerful and efficient saws and mills, in combination with the intensifying demand for timber for housing, wharves, highways, canals, railroads, and mine shafts, among a thousand other needs, led loggers to follow the rapidly shifting lumberman’s frontier—from Maine to the Great Lakes and then to the South. Millions of board feet were cut down and sent to market, often rafted to port along snowmelt-driven rivers that every spring became logjammed. Henry David Thoreau reports that in 1837 an estimated 250 mills were operating along the Penobscot and its tributaries above Bangor, Maine, annually turning out 200 million board feet. “To this is to be added the lumber of the Kennebec, Androscoggin, Saco, Passamaquoddy and other streams. No wonder we hear so often of vessels becalmed off our coast being surrounded a week at a time by floating lumber from the Maine woods.”10
A half century later, after Pinchot’s return from France, the neophyte forester was stunned by the celerity with which his compatriots were slicing through forests thick and deep. The iron horse was especially insatiable. By 1890, one billion board feet had gone into the creation of railroad ties alone. Pinchot and his generation bore witness to what he described as “the most rapid and extensive forest destruction ever known.” All resources were threatened: “The nation was obsessed, when I got home, by a fury of development. The American Colossus was fiercely intent on appropriating and exploiting the riches of the richest of all continents—grasping with both hands, reaping what he had not sown, wasting what he thought would last forever.” As the exploiters pushed “farther and farther into the wilderness,” the losses mounted—losses that were environmental and ethical. “The man who could get his hands on the biggest slice of natural resources,” Pinchot lamented, “was the best citizen. Wealth and virtue were supposed to trot in double harness.”11
Given his critique, there is no little irony that George W. Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the steamboat and railroad magnate, offered Pinchot his first significant opportunity to put forestry—and its conservation measures designed to slow down the colossus—into practice. The site was palatial: Vanderbilt’s 250-room house, Biltmore, near Asheville, North Carolina, a manse reputed to have been the largest in the United States. One of Pinchot’s jobs was to develop a forest-management plan to bring the burned-over, grazed down woods back to life. A second was to recommend another 100,000 acres for Vanderbilt to purchase. Yet his professional enthusiasm for these initiatives did not blind him to what Biltmore also represented: “Its setting was superb, the view from it breathtaking, and if it was a feudal castle it would have been beyond criticism, and perhaps beyond praise. But in the United States of the nineteenth century and among the one-room cabins of the Appalachian mountaineers, it did not belong. The contrast was a devastating commentary on the injustice of concentrated wealth. Even in the early nineties I had sense enough to see that.”12
That sensibility did not stop him from seizing this chance to make his mark. Ever the publicist, Pinchot produced a small, heavily illustrated book identifying the experiment’s profitability as a promotional tool. His media-savvy approach to his work continued during subsequent years as a consulting forester to other owners of large wooded acreage: each project generated another article testifying to forestry’s prospects and possibilities, a branding that made forestry a matter of public record and debate and that gave Pinchot a wider audience. Few of his attentive peers were surprised when in 1898 he was tapped to become the fourth head of the Division (later, Bureau) of Forestry in the Department of Agriculture. It looked like a dead-end job: the agency had a tiny budget, few personnel, and did not manage a single acre of forest, as the nation’s forest reserves were then under the control of the Department of the Interior. But Pinchot had a plan. He was convinced that he could flip these disadvantages into advantages.
The speed with which he instituted his ideas is remarkable. Within seven years of entering government service, he had launched a professional organization, the Society of American Foresters (1900). Many of the group’s earliest members would come from the first wave of students graduating from the Yale Forest School (1900), the nation’s first graduate program in forestry. (Pinchot and his parents had donated the school’s foundational gift.) During their first summer at the school, students would get hands-on lessons in forest management at the Milford Experimental Forest, woodlands that were contiguous to the Pinchot estate in northeastern Pennsylvania and were leased to Yale College by the family. In subsequent summers, the students would intern with the Bureau, gaining invaluable experience in forests across the country. And as Pinchot convinced Congress to expand his agency’s budget and increase the salaries he could offer, who better to hire but the sons of Yale? The demand for them would only escalate in 1905, following President Roosevelt’s signing of legislation that transferred 86 million forested public lands from Interior to Agriculture and created the Forest Service to steward them—with Pinchot as its first chief. The forty-year-old Pinchot had had plenty of allies in the White House and on the Hill, but these culminating outcomes were largely his handiwork.
The new chief’s job description and mission statement, conveyed in a letter that Agriculture Secretary James Wilson sent him on day one, bear Pinchot’s fingerprints, too. He wrote it for his boss to sign! Although the full text is reproduced in this volume, one of its key phrases has remained a guiding principle for the Forest Service for more than a century: “where conflicting interests must be reconciled” on the national forests, “the question will always be decided from the standpoint of the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.” The last four words tempers the utilitarian bent of the concept of the greatest good. Sustainable management across time was to be—and has largely remained—the agency’s objective. That kind of enduring influence might have softened Amos Eno’s initial dismissal of his grandson’s choice of profession.
Eno, a whiz-bang land speculator in New York City, might have recognized himself in Pinchot’s expansive ambitions for the new agency’s reach and impact, as well as in his creative leadership of the fledgling organization. To effectively manage the millions of acres now under the Forest Service’s purview, Pinchot needed to secure larger budgets and a stream of additional personnel. He routinely walked the corridors of power on Capitol Hill, negotiating for more funding, building up alliances across the aisle in support of the agency’s actions, and using his clout in the White House—he was a close friend and confidant of President Roosevelt—to gain additional resources. Recognizing that he was to be the public face (and voice) of the Forest Service, Pinchot hired a group of individuals at all levels who had the expertise he lacked. Three in particular are of note. For day-to-day management, he tapped Overton Price to oversee the agency’s internal workings, an arrangement that Pinchot later credited with much of the organization’s success. Because developing a robust science of forest management would be critical to those working on the ground, he turned that initiative over to Raphael Zon; research stations and experimental forests, and the data that they generated, were essential then (and are still today) for managerial decision-making. Albert Potter was also emblematic of Pinchot’s astute hiring practices. The new chief knew little about rangelands management but knew enough to see that grazing was, as he once put it, the “bloody angle.” If the agency could not figure out how to work with and manage those using its grasslands, which constituted roughly 50 percent of the national forests, it would die aborning. Pinchot had met Potter on an inspection trip in 1900; Potter had worked for the livestock industry in Arizona at the time. He made such an impression on the forester that within a year Pinchot had hired Potter to develop the new Branch of Grazing. Giving such key personnel their lead was a cornerstone of Pinchot’s managerial strategy as chief forester and, later, as governor.13
What this strategic approach also achieved was to free Pinchot to do what he did best, keeping the organization on message and mission, galvanizing public opinion through countless speeches and articles, and daily championing the Roosevelt administration’s conservation commitments. A key component of this work was rebutting what we now call the first Sagebrush Rebellions (whose troubling legacy extends to the January 2016 armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge). The rebellions initially erupted because western resource interests—mining, livestock, and logging operators, along with a sizeable segment of voters and their political representatives—denied the right of the federal government to designate national forests or to manage and regulate the use of these lands. The rhetoric could become white-hot, and Pinchot came in for his share of heated pushback—a Rocky Mountain News Republican anti-Pinchot cartoon was titled “Czar Pinchot and His Cossack Rangers Administering the Forest Reserves.” Yet the chief forester did not shy away from this charged debate. In 1907, he was invited to attend the Denver Public Lands Convention and was loudly heckled when he stepped up to the dais. Unfazed, Pinchot assured his skeptical audience that their economic future looked better with careful resource management than with the rapid exploitation of minerals, grasslands, and timber, as was then under way. Conservation protected land and water and stymied the growth of monopolies, and that meant prosperity for the West. At the close, the jeers reportedly had turned to cheers.14
That moment, like many others, also revealed the role that Pinchot played within the Roosevelt administration. He was its lightning rod, absorbing its critics’ anger so that the chief executive could appear—and be—above the fray. Pinchot’s commitment to the president extended across his lifetime, for he routinely identified himself as a Roosevelt Progressive whenever he hit the hustings, deference movingly reflected in Pinchot’s 1919 remembrance of TR’s definitive impact on his political ideals.15
This close identification made it difficult for Pinchot to imagine the Forest Service without Roosevelt’s supportive presence. In retrospect, the twenty-sixth president’s decision in 1908 not to run for reelection might have been the best time for Pinchot to step aside, too. As it was, although he initially hoped that President William Howard Taft, who as governor general of the Philippines had worked with Pinchot on his forestry initiatives in the archipelago, would uphold the Rooseveltian conservationist standard, he grew steadily disenchanted. Most concerning was that Taft, a lawyer by profession, was not as enthusiastic about his predecessor’s willingness to use his executive authority without consultation with the Congress. Taft was much more cautious and consultative, traits that Pinchot pushed against. (Taft, for his part, recognized that Pinchot and Roosevelt “sympathized much more than [Pinchot] and I can, for they both have more of a Socialist tendency.”)16
These tensions came to a head in 1909. Already worried that the newly inaugurated president seemed willing to go along with those powerful resource-extraction industries that the Forest Service was supposed to regulate, additional evidence seemed manifest in news that the secretary of the interior, Richard A. Ballinger, planned to lease Alaskan coalfields located within the Chugach National Forest to the well-heeled, New York–based Guggenheim syndicate. The story is complicated, but Pinchot came to believe that the administration’s decision was corrupt. He first challenged it quietly within the executive branch, then let the president know in advance that he intended to go public with his concerns. What became known as the Ballinger-Pinchot controversy exploded across the front pages of every major newspaper in the country, damaging the Taft administration and leading the president to fire Pinchot for insubordination. The imbroglio continued as congressional investigations deepened and extended the controversy, one consequence of which was that Theodore Roosevelt would decide to return to the political arena, challenging Taft for the Republican presidential nomination in 1912. Losing that bid, he then mounted a third-party bid for the White House via the Bull Moose ticket, with Pinchot as a key advisor, donor, and speechwriter. With the GOP badly split, the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, prevailed that November, an outcome that disappointed Pinchot but which he did not regret. The forester had been bitten by the political bug.17
Between 1914 and 1938, a relentless Pinchot seemed forever in campaign mode, repeatedly running for the House and Senate at the national level and for governor at the state level; periodically, too, he had allies float the possibility of a White House bid. He only won twice, serving as governor first between 1923 and 1927, and again from 1931 to 1935, but he had a decided impact on the state: balancing budgets in good times and bad; staunchly advocating for all citizens’ civil rights; building roads and other infrastructure to reduce unemployment; promoting rural economies and schools in an urban-dominated state; and vigorously enforcing Prohibition. (So, not perfect.)
That he tooted his own horn is to be expected: that’s a given in the political rough-and-tumble. More notable is that he as assiduously beat the drum for his wife’s aspirations. Cornelia Bryce Pinchot, an indispensable advisor whenever her husband sought office, was on the receiving end of his support during her own three campaigns for Congress. She never won, but like her husband, she understood that the fight was worth such setbacks. “My feminism tells me,” she wrote in the Nation in the 1920s, “that a woman can bear children, charm her lovers, boss a business, swim the Channel, stand at Armageddon and battle for the Lord—all in the day’s work!” An early sign of her steadfast convictions, and Gifford’s, emerged in their decision, within hours of their marriage in August 1914, to put their honeymoon on hold so that they could crisscross Pennsylvania, earnestly pressing the flesh during Gifford’s first, if unsuccessful, run for office. Before Franklin and Eleanor, before Bill and Hillary (and before Hillary and Bill), there were Gifford and Cornelia.18
The couple’s intensely public life had private consequences. Their only child, Gifford Bryce Pinchot, was never easy in the glare of attention that followed his parents (and which they avidly courted). Whether his father was in or out of office, the family’s home base, Grey Towers, offered little respite; Gifford Bryce’s parents invited scores of guests to visit, with meals often taking on the aura of a debating society. The same was true if it was just family around the table, as Gifford Bryce recalled of the “arguments between the liberal Giffords and the more conservative Amoses.” A threat to kidnap Gifford Bryce during his father’s first term as Pennsylvania’s chief executive—a threat taken very seriously, given the tragic outcome of the much-publicized Lindbergh baby’s abduction—led his parents to send him back to Milford (which he loved) under round-the-clock guard (which he did not). Even a multi-month cruise in 1929 across the South Pacific had its political undertones. The power couple had their departure from Philadelphia, down the Delaware River, filmed, with the moving images distributed across the state; they kept in close contact with Pennsylvania’s public affairs by radio, telegraph, and correspondence; and much to their son’s disappointment, they cut short their itinerary when they got wind that the Depression was disrupting Pennsylvania’s political order, potentially opening the way for another run for the Governor’s Mansion. It is no wonder that Gifford Bryce vowed never to take up his parents’ (pre)occupation. Instead, he became a biologist and medical researcher, and when not in the lab or classroom, this gifted sailor could be found at sea.19
However blind Gifford may have been to the degree to which being “Gifford Pinchot” shaped his relations with his family, he saw quite clearly another aspect of his years in the civic arena: he lost a lot of elections. His lack of success at the polls was not a liability, exactly. Learning that his sister Antoinette’s son, Harcourt Johnstone, a perennial candidate for the British House of Commons, had been defeated in the 1927 elections, he cheered his nephew on and urged him not to be downcast: “I have been licked so many times in so many different ways,” Gifford noted, “that I have sort of become immune to it.” For all its travails, politics was an elixir.20
It also offered an unparalleled opportunity to do good, for public service was service. That was why Pinchot wanted the Forest Service to be so named, a signal to the American people that these public lands were public, owned by all citizens, and that those who managed them were there to serve the land and the people who depended on its manifold resources. This ethos also was integrated into his political discourse. Why enter politics if not to serve the larger community? Pinchot’s faith in the reciprocal relationship between the government and the governed gained its first expression when he was but twenty-four. In 1889, asked to speak at Milford’s centennial celebration of the U.S. Constitution, he assured his fellow citizens that together they were “trustees of a coming world.” To fulfill that high office, and the mutual responsibilities that come with it, required the (then all-male) electorate to realize, “every man of us, not only that we have a share in the commonwealth, but that the commonwealth has a share in us.” 21
Pinchot upheld this conviction that the citizenry and their representatives had a shared responsibility, even in the most fiercely contested of political brawls—and he was embroiled in, and sparked, any number of them. Note the language Pinchot deployed in 1926 when rebutting those members of his own Republican party who tried to get rid of the direct primary system, which granted voters the power to select the final candidates to run in the general election. Invoking the nation’s revolutionary past—“One hundred and fifty years ago our ancestors laid down their lives for the principle that taxation without representation was tyranny and could not be tolerated by a free people. They won that fight and with it the right to vote and choose their own representatives”—he argued that that principle was “under attack. A handful of politicians have set on foot a movement designed to rob the people of this country of their fundamental right to govern themselves. If the politicians have their way, they and not the people will really govern.” A savvy Pinchot was not surprised that this attempt came shortly after women began to exercise their right to vote; its purpose, he argued, was to disenfranchise them. A free people required free choice, and, logically enough, candidate Pinchot hoped they would exercise that choice in his favor.22
To persuade them of the power of his ideas, whether as forester or politician, required more than political acumen. It also demanded a voice. Early on, Pinchot found it through his command of words. An award-winning debater in college, he loved to speak in public and could be blunt or conciliatory depending on the occasion. He was also a vigorous stylist, engaging his readers directly and without flourish. There is an economy to his writing; short, tight sentences were his preferred form. Even Breaking New Ground (1946), which weighs in at 510 pages, is a quick read (well, most of it is). By the time he began to write this tome, Pinchot had had a lot of practice, dating back to his first professional publication in Garden and Forest, which appeared more than five decades before his final book hit the bookstores. Practice made perfect.
Yet his commitment to writing can be further backdated: from the moment he could form letters, James and Mary Pinchot insisted that Gifford keep a diary, and whenever he was separated from them for even a short period of time, he was to send home detailed notes about his day and his doings. When the anticipated missive failed to arrive, or was late—a not infrequent occurrence during Gifford’s youth—the senior Pinchots scolded their firstborn, worried that his inexactness was a sign of personal laxity. They were no less concerned as he matured. While the twenty-five-year-old studied forestry in Europe, he was expected to send a steady stream of letters describing his courses, teachers, fellow students, and most of all his plans for the future. The trio’s transatlantic exchanges are revelatory, for in them the family collectively mapped out the next ten years of Gifford’s career. That said, should their son have been tardy in replying promptly to every request for information embedded in the letters he received in a week’s time from one or another of his parents, he could expect a passive-aggressive query wondering whether he had taken ill, or a stern remonstrance to fulfill his filial duties as a correspondent.23
These parental corrections were not the only ones Pinchot received during his time at the French forestry school. His German mentor, Dietrich Brandis, had his ambitious American charge write a weekly report about what he had learned in his classes and out in the field. Instructed to use only the left-hand side of a page for his notes, Pinchot was to leave blank the right-hand side so that Brandis could critique Pinchot’s recitations of his lessons. In English, French, and German, the message was consistent. Words matter.
Pinchot was not shy about emphasizing that same point to those who worked for him in the Bureau of Forestry and later the Forest Service. Every forest ranger and supervisor had to submit quarterly and annual reports to the office in Washington, D.C., and although they might have chafed at the red tape–like nature of this paperwork, they learned soon enough that the chief took their accounts seriously. More than a few found themselves on the wrong end of his thick blue pencil. Pinchot slashed through their prose, demanding greater clarity of expression and a cleaner narration before requiring the chastened to revise and resubmit. As Pennsylvania’s governor, he followed the same practice; efficiency in prose, like a speedy response, was the hallmark of a good memo, letter, or report.24
He was as tough when he put pen to paper. The drafts of Pinchot’s speeches and articles located in his voluminous papers in the Library of Congress reveal the same attention to word choice, texture, and tone that he demanded of his subordinates. The talks he delivered demonstrate as well his sharp ear for how words might sound to those gathered in an auditorium or around a radio: the blue pen underlined words or phrases he was to stress, editing that structured his cadence.
This willingness to revise himself was a key to the successful and collaborative revision of Pinchot’s The Training of a Forester. Originally published in 1914, it was reissued twice in the succeeding decades, but in 1937, when its publisher proposed yet another uncorrected edition, Pinchot balked, thinking the book too out-of-date. No longer in close touch with the latest research in forestry, he hired Massachusetts State College forester Robert P. Holdsworth to help make the book more relevant to its intended readers—contemporary students and those interested in the field more generally. Over that summer, as Holdsworth reworked each chapter, Pinchot followed behind him, blue pencil to hand, cutting, rewriting, and rearranging, a process that carried on through three full drafts of the manuscript.25
As smooth as that process was, Pinchot had a hard time replicating it in his faltering efforts to write what would become Breaking New Ground. There were too many moments when he despaired of completing his magnum opus. This was not for the lack of help—he had more than enough colleagues willing to pitch in, including some of his former Forest Service staffers, such as Raphael Zon, as well as Holdsworth again. He did not suffer from a small data bank with which to craft his life story, either. Thanks to his parents’ insistent (and incessant) demands that he stay in close touch with them, and as a result of their pack-rat tendencies to save everything Gifford wrote, he had access to every diary, post card, and letter he had written since childhood. This remarkable archive made it possible for Breaking New Ground to be quite faithful to these many texts that had preserved his (almost) every thought or reflection.26
What bedeviled Pinchot was how to frame this wealth of information into a cogent argument and coherent narrative. By the late 1930s, he had an array of sections written but could not figure out how to link them into a satisfying whole. Like a barometer measuring changes in atmospheric pressure, Pinchot’s diary registers his every high and low while seeking a way out of this literary impasse. Finally, in February 1937, he asked Charles Beard for the secret to his “enormous production of books.” The distinguished historian, author of such landmark texts as An Economic Interpretation of the U.S. Constitution (1913) and, with his wife, Mary, of The Rise of American Civilization (1927), laid out his surefire strategy: before he began to write any of his bestselling volumes, Beard told Pinchot, he first constructed a highly detailed outline that consisted of a series of subject subdivisions, one after the other. Once this was completed, “all you have to do is to put in the verbs and the book is done.” For the record, Beard’s prose reads as flat as his regimented methodology; Pinchot’s is a good deal more vibrant. But for the blocked writer, Beard’s approach seemed ideal—though it still took Pinchot the better part of a decade to finish his autobiography. At his death in October 1946, the book was at the printer.27
Once in print, Breaking New Ground confirmed his lifelong desire to make history. He also wanted to curate—if not control—its contours; through that book, in which he righted (some) old wrongs, he gained a modicum of management over his message and its meanings. By contrast, the selected collection of Pinchot’s writings in this volume deliberately does not include any excerpts from his memoir. Rather, it reproduces Pinchot’s words captured at those moments in which they were spoken and/or written. The texts included here are as purposeful as his autobiography, but they are not as polished, with an eye to how history would receive and interpret them. Pinchot wrote these speeches, articles, and essays for his contemporary listeners and readers, not necessarily for those of us to come, and this gives them an immediacy precisely because they were crafted at and for a particular time, place, and audience. They therefore offer us an unparalleled view of his active engagements as he lived them, thought about them, and captured them on the page. His past can become part of our present, history brought back to life.
Also of Interest
Subscribe to our mailing list and be notified about new titles, journals and catalogs.