Will the real Gifford Pinchot please stand up

  • Book cover of Giffot Pinchot: Making of Modern Environmentalism


Char Miller has written a book intended to rescue Forest Service founding chief Gifford Pinchot from the battering he has taken over the flooding of Northern California's Hetch Hetchy Valley. In almost all accounts of that fight, Sierra Club founder John Muir is the defender of the beautiful valley while Pinchot wants to flood it so San Francisco can continue to develop. By extension from that famous fight, Pinchot is said to have seen forests as standing two-by-fours, and to have founded an agency that has the same vision.

Miller, writing in Gifford Pinchot and the Foundation of Modern Environmentalism, says we should beware of putting the complex Pinchot into such a neat cubbyhole. Pinchot, Miller writes, was a political operator of the highest order, but he used his politics, where possible, to protect the environment.

According to Miller, Pinchot, like his champion, President Theodore Roosevelt, was an environmentalist who was a social progressive. At the Forest Service and later as two-time governor of Pennsylvania, he championed both trees and people, and fought for unions, for farmers, against child labor, and against the trusts and financiers who were degrading the American people and despoiling the American landscape.

There's a lot to what Miller, an historian at Trinity University in San Antonio, argues. But given Pinchot's supposed love of nature, it's amazing that he would work to flood Hetch Hetchy, already a longtime part of Yosemite National Park, without initially ever having seen the valley. That fight could have gone either way; the public was split, and there were other ways to water San Francisco. Pinchot wasn't just responding to the politics; in part, he was an important part of the politics.

Then, more than 20 years after leaving the Forest Service, he lined up with his old enemies, the timber companies, to stop President Franklin Delano Roosevelt from creating a cabinet-level Department of Conservation that would contain the Forest Service. Pinchot claimed the forests would be exploited if the national forests were transferred to a new Department of Conservation, but he never explained why the timber industry was also opposing the shift. Was the industry also intent on protecting the forests? Of course, we don't know how a new conservation department would have worked out, but we do know that the Forest Service, safe within the Department of Agriculture, went on to slaughter the national forests after World War II.

Pinchot's missteps don't overwhelm his creation of the U.S. Forest Service to protect the nation's forests from certain destruction; his alliance with Teddy Roosevelt to use middle-of-the-night executive orders to put vulnerable forested land under the protection of the Forest Service (shades of Bill Clinton and Bruce Babbitt and their new national monuments); and his many fights against monopolists and clear-cutters and exploiters of working people.

Which is the real Gifford Pinchot: flooder of beautiful valleys and clear-cutter of forests, or the creator of modern environmentalism? Neither, I think. As I read Miller's fine biography, Pinchot's core concern comes through as his career and how history would see him. Very early in his life, he saw the then nonexistent field of forestry as his passport to power. Using intelligence and hard work and ruthlessness (he discarded mentors and friends like Muir when it suited him), Pinchot came close enough to the pinnacle of power to think of running for president.

He didn't run, but he did the next best thing: he toppled a president - fellow Republican William Howard Taft - and he thwarted the nation's most powerful Secretary of Interior, Harold Ickes, and the second Roosevelt. He also made life miserable for President Warren G. Harding by publicizing the Teapot Dome scandal. That story, however, is missing from the biography.

Pinchot was groomed to exercise power from birth. He came from a family whose inherited wealth rested on clear-cutting, and his parents guided his every step. His mother once complained to former president Teddy Roosevelt that he hadn't given her son enough credit in the draft of his autobiography. Roosevelt rewrote the chapter to include her Gifford. Pinchot was 47 years old.

But Pinchot, warts and all, makes me nostalgic for the old days. How wonderful to have national forest issues so engage the nation that a forester could topple presidents and secretaries of Interior.

Today, I'm guessing, 99 percent of Americans could not name anyone associated with forestry. Pinchot may have been a self-serving careerist first, but he cared about forests second, and he had the power and smarts to inspire his fellow Americans to care about them, too. That's much more than we have today.

Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism, by Char Miller, 458 pages, Island Press, Washington, D.C.; cloth: $28.

Ed Marston is the publisher of High Country News.

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