Gifford Pinchot


As Union College rolls out the red carpet for its first ever Adirondack Week, we highlight Gifford Pinchot, a man who put a distinctly American spin on the notion of forestry and in the process helped birth the U.S. conservation movement.

Pinchot was born into a wealthy family, and like many young men of high social standing in the late 19th Century, was pressed by the need to contribute usefully to his society and make good on the investment his parents had made in his education. He liked the outdoors, and although no clear path involving nature presented itself to an aspiring professional, he forged ahead and essentially built a career for himself in forestry.

He studied at Yale at a time when the mandate of a university was to build character, not skill sets. Pinchot made connections, and in later years his Yale buddies would make up the loyal core of what became a progressive, technocratic machine flowing out of the offices of the Forest Service. In 1889 Pinchot traveled to Europe to continue his studies. Europe, unlike the United States, comprised a bustle of geographically confined countries competing for scarce natural resources, and because of this, specialties like forest management had been around for decades before it was even a notion in the Americas. A German student of forestry might master his profession in 7 years, but Pinchot returned to the United States after just one. If he didn’t have the technical skills, for an unlearned American public Pinchot had the air of wisdom about him, which he used as a springboard into service. Pinchot was hired to manage the Biltmore estate, and through skillful employ of the media was able to present the large forest preserve as a test case for the kind of forest management he wanted to undertake.

Biltmore Estate. Taken from a pamphlet that Pinchot designed for the Chicago World’s Fair. Much like today’s environmental activists, Pinchot realized the power that photography had to connect people to nature, even over hundreds of miles.

Pinchot’s innovative angle was to market the regulation of forest reserves, and the idea of conservation in general, as sound economics. In a letter to John Bigelow he writes that it seems “the time has come for us to apply some of the same simple business principles to the management of our affairs as individuals.” Forest reserves could be lumbered, lands mined, and waterways harvested for energy, as long as it was done along lines that would continue to make these resources productive for generations to come.

Pinchot’s keen awareness of American political and business zeitgeist caught the imagination of Bigelow as well. Once on the hook, Bigelow did his best to ensure Pinchot’s continued employment for the public; from 1908 until his death in 1911, Bigelow peppered Pinchot with minor requests for facts on various U.S. expenditures and incomes, along with a fair share of paternalistic abuse:

Opening one such request in September 1908: “If this dry weather continues another week, the indications are that your vocation as a forester will be gone, and you’ll have to look to pastures new for business to keep you out of mischief.”

Later that month: “I send this little job, assuming that by the time you get it all the forests in the United States will be turned into ashes…”

In March 1909: “As you are receiving a bloated salary for doing nothing of consequence I venture to trouble you to ascertain…”

When Pinchot seemed to side with the tariff lobby to prevent lumber coming in from Canada: “Don’t my dear Gifford, allow yourself to become such a partisan of protection as to be blind, deaf and dumb to the most incontrovertible of economic laws.”

But Bigelow’s wasn’t the only ear in which Pinchot’s message found purchase. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt took major steps to put the Forest Reserves under the control of Pinchot’s Forest Service, and Pinchot had enough influence with Roosevelt that on several occasions the President took unilateral (and congressionally unpopular) action to implement the kind of regulatory policies Pinchot favored. It was not to last, however. With Taft’s succession to the presidency came a reorganization of power in the cabinet and Pinchot found himself, with a shrinking circle of influence, battling it out with the Secretary of the Interior, Richard Ballinger, for control over forest ministry. Bigelow’s words proved perhaps a little more welcome on this occasion:

Don’t kick, don’t say a word to the newspapers; and don’t resign… Bismark said wisely that revenge was a delicacy that should always be eaten cold. You need the facilities of your office to let the public in good time know the result of giving B[allinger] and his partisans’ rope. If Wilson [Pinchot’s superior] does not ask your resignation – be quiet, let the newspapers edit themselves and mind your own business severely…If [Taft] leaves you, though he gives B. the victory he leaves you with all your weapons both for defence and for War.

Pinchot was eventually removed from office, but, true to Bigelow’s word, was vindicated by the press and the public. More importantly, it was Pinchot’s vision of regulation run by competent civil servants that formed the model for strong government and progressivism over the next half century. By marketing conservation in terms appreciable to private business, he helped the movement gain traction and blazed the way for a professional class of environmental activists.

For more fatherly advice on how to weather scandals, downsizings, and forest fires, visit our website, The Correspondence of John Bigelow, and check back here for more Bigelownians each week.


Image Source: Pinchot, Gifford. Biltmore Forest: The Property of Mr. George W. Vanderbilt. Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1893. Image courtesy of Google Books.