Gifford Pinchot (1865 - 1946)

Gifford Pinchot portraitGifford Pinchot was one of America's leading advocates of environmental conservation at the turn of the twentieth century. Born into wealth and endowed with imagination and a love of nature, he shared his money, possessions and intellect to further the causes of the common good. It was at Grey Towers that James Pinchot first encouraged his son to explore the profession of forestry. But such training did not yet exist in the United States, so, after graduating from Yale University in 1889, Gifford went abroad to study at L’Ecole Nationale Forestiere in Nancy, France.

“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.”

With equal fervor Pinchot set to work. In the next two decades he raised forestry and conservation of all our natural resources from an unknown experiment to a nationwide movement. He became head of the Division of Forestry in 1898 and under President Theodore Roosevelt was named Chief Forester of the redefined U.S. Forest Service. National forest management was guided by Pinchot’s principle, “the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run.” His magnetic personal leadership inspired and ignited the new organization.

During his government service, the number of national forests increased from 32 in 1898 to 149 in 1910 for a total of 193 million acres. Pinchot and Roosevelt together made conservation public issue and national policy. Roosevelt considered the enactment of a conservation program his greatest contribution to American domestic policy. In speaking of Gifford Pinchot’s role:

". . . among the many, many public officials who under my administration rendered literally invaluable service to the people of the United States, Gifford Pinchot on the whole, stood first." --Theodore Roosevelt

Gifford Pinchot was born at Simsbury, Connecticut, on August 11, 1865, in a house recently purchased by his grandfather, Amos R. Eno. The home had earlier been owned by Gifford's great grandfather, Elisha Phelps, a distinguished politician who served as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives during the 1820's.

Gifford grew up spending his early summers with relatives in Connecticut and the rest of his time in New York City. Because of his father's business interests abroad, the family traveled extensively while Gifford was a child. He prepared for college at Phillips Exeter Academy, and in the fall of 1885, entered Yale University. Deciding to pursue forestry, and finding no such beast at Yale, he left for Europe after graduation to pursue his dream.

The then renowned German forester, Dietrich Brandis, encouraged him to enroll in the Ecole Nationale Forestiere in Nancy, France. Impatient with the courses at Nancy, Gifford thirsted for practical experience and dropped out after a year. Upon returning to the United States in 1891, he took a job surveying forest lands for the Phelps-Dodge Company. Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect and an old friend of Gifford's father, soon recommended him to George Vanderbilt who hired the young forester to work on lands at his Biltmore estate near Asheville, North Carolina.

Pinchot set out to prove that forestry could both produce timber for harvest and maintain the forest for future generations. He took on other jobs, gained experience and sowed the seeds of his profession. Fending off constant pressure from his Grandfather Eno to join the family business and make a fortune, Gifford, who had already inherited a fortune, stuck with forestry.

Soon he was Chief of the little Division of Forphoto of Gifford Pinchot as a young boyestry in the Department of Agriculture. His outstanding ability as an administrator generated strong loyalty from the small staff. He flooded the press with the nation's need for forestry and began to influence public opinion. In 1905, he succeeded in getting all the country's Federal forest reserves (later renamed National Forests) transferred to his agency, by then called the Forest Service.

Pinchot extended Federal regulation to all resources in the national forests, including grazing, water power dam sites and mineral rights. The close friendship he had with President Theodore Roosevelt catalyzed the achievements of the conservation movement of the early 1900s. The two men held common interests. Pinchot soon became a confidant and a member of the President's inner circle, advising him on all conservation questions and frequently writing his speeches and policy statements.

Pinchot also served on a number of Roosevelt's commissions--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.

The 1908 Governors' Conference on Conservation, largely financed from Pinchot's personal income, brought conservation fully into public view. Attended by governors, members of Congress and the Cabinet, Supreme Court judges and prominent private citizens, it was the first meeting of its kind to address the problem of protection and management of natural resources. Shortly after, Pinchot was appointed chairman of the National Conservation Committee, whose task was to prepare an inventory of the United States' natural resources. In February 1909, the North American Conservation Conference convened at the forester's suggestion. Plans followed for an international conference to be held at The Hague but was aborted by change in administrations.

Pinchot did not share with President William Howard Taft the personal relationship he had enjoyed with Roosevelt. Taft was not an advocate of conservation. Nor, in Pinchot's view, was the President's new Secretary of the Interior, Richard Ballinger. Ballinger wanted to turn some Alaskan coal lands in the public domain over to private ownership. After a long battle, the indignant Pinchot, through a Senator, attacked both Ballinger and Taft on the floors of Congress. Taft fired him. The public was outraged, which is what Pinchot wanted, and the eventual backlash brought conservation back into the public arena.

The outcry against Pinchot's firing and his continued popularity undoubtedly fueled his thoughts for a political future. He formed and financed the National Conservation Association and served as its president from 1910 to 1925. The organization's two main objectives were to fight the movement to give the national forests over to the states, and to control power development on government property.

When Roosevelt failed to win the Republican presidential nomination from Taft in 1912, Pinchot took an active role in founding the new Progressive Party, commonly known as the Bull Moose Party. The forester represented the more radical wing of the party's politics and made strong statements on the need for stricter antitrust laws and innovative social reforms. In 1914, running on the Progressive platform, Pinchot became a candidate for an elective office for the first time with his bid to win a United States Senate seat in Pennsylvania. He lost.

That same year, at the age of forty-nine, Pinchot married Cornelia Bryce, great-granddaughter of industrialist Peter Cooper and daughter of Lloyd Bryce, the distinguished publisher of North American Review, U.S. minister to the Netherlands, congressman and novelist. A wealthy woman in her early thirties, Cornelia had already begun an independent political life as a champion of the working woman and an advocate of women's suffrage. Roosevelt considered her to have one of the best political minds he had ever known.

photo of Gifford Pinchot as Governor, c 1931-1935

Throughout much of his life in politics, Pinchot's name had been occasionally thrown around as a possible Presidential candidate. It never happened. He was eventually elected to public office as Governor of Pennsylvania in 1922, largely through the support of rural counties and the new women's vote. During his 1923-1927 administration, his major goals were the regulation of electric power companies and the enforcement of Prohibition. In a crusade for "clean politics," he reorganized state government, did away with many long-standing political practices, eliminated the state's $23,000,000 deficit, settled the anthracite coal strike of 1923 and was known for his accessibility to the public.

Because Pennsylvania governors were then prohibited from successive terms, Pinchot ran again for the Senate and lost. But in 1931, he began his second term as Pennsylvania's governor during the depression years. He advocated Federal economic relief for states and donated a quarter of his own gross salary for one year. He successfully pressed for large reductions in utility rates and built twenty thousand miles of paved rural roads to "get the farmer out of the mud."

When Pinchot left office in 1935, he was seventy years old. He made a third run for the Senate and later again for the governorship. Both campaigns stalled in the primaries. During his last decade, he fought the transfer of the Forest Service from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of the Interior, an agency he insisted was still corrupt. He assisted his wife in her political career and a third unsuccessful bid for a Congressional seat. During World War II, he developed for the Navy a special fishing kit to help sailors adrift in lifeboats survive. The military commended him for saving countless lives.

Shortly before his death, he completed a ten-year effort to write an autobiographical account of his work between 1889 and 1910 and his part in the development of forestry and conservation in the United States. Breaking New Ground, the title excerpted from a Roosevelt accolade, was published posthumously in 1947. Other writings that Pinchot had authored included The Fight for Conservation, a dozen monographs on forestry subjects, a popular book on his journey to the South Seas, and approximately 150 published articles, reports, bulletins, lectures and addresses.

On October 4,1946, at the age of eighty-one, Gifford Pinchot died in New York City of leukemia.