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Grey Towers: The Heart of the Modern Conservation Movement
Peter Pinchot

Peter PinchotToday, I want to talk about the evolution of the ideas and the practice of conservation in this country and how they played out at Grey Towers. I’m a sixth generation Milford person. My family came in the early 1800’s. My great-great grandfather set up a dry goods shop in Milford. He made his living partly in dry goods and partly by buying up land, cutting down the forest, and floating the logs down the Delaware River to markets in Philadelphia. Then the denuded landscape was sold to farmers, who generally found that the soils in Pike County were not too good. So, the Pinchots got our start here in Milford by being part of the great wave of deforestation that was sweeping across the United States. We were as guilty as everyone else in the United States who was cutting down trees for profit then. But once the forest was gone, my great-grandfather, James Pinchot, who later built Grey Towers, found that there wasn’t a lot of opportunity in Milford. So James, instead of becoming a farmer in Milford, went to New York and became a businessman, making his money in wallpaper. But he wasn’t just a businessman.

Soon after he arrived in New York, James started collecting Hudson River paintings. He also got involved with the American Forestry Association, and he became very interested in the whole idea of the restoration of nature. James traveled to Europe and encountered European forestry, which had been going on for centuries. There, he saw that sustainable management of forests was an integral part of the economic welfare of communities. This really struck a chord with him because of how Pike County had declined without its forests. James advised his son, Gifford, to go into forestry. At that point in time, around 1880, there were no American foresters. There was a preservation movement in the United States which recognized that you have to pull some forests out of the way of exploitation, but there was no such thing as managing a forest for the future. So James said to Gifford, “Go learn from Europe and come back here and apply these ideas in the United States because this is a fertile ground. You will have a wonderful career. There is huge opportunity here.”

And that’s what Gifford did. He came back in the 1890’s to a loss of forest that dwarfed what had happened a generation earlier in Pike County. Now deforestation was pushing across the United States. Wherever the railroads went, the forest was disappearing. Gifford got engaged in the whole national issue of how we were going to protect those forests. He studied the forest, toured his country, and ended up working in the Division of Forestry which later became the US Forest Service.

The political challenge at that time was to pull a huge amount of forest in the United States out of the pathway of exploitation. How do you do that? The whole social contract with the United States at that time was to get your plot of land and do what you wanted with it. It was a tremendous social change he had to come up with. He and Teddy Roosevelt and a bunch of other people in the early stages of the Forest Service had to come up with a political equation that would allow them to get permission to hold that land out of the public domain and to establish the National Forests.

The basic idea that they came up with was that conservation had to have three real components. The first one is surprising to anyone of us who thinks conservation is preservation. The first idea of conservation is that you develop the resource for the benefit of the current generation. The second idea of conservation is the preservation of the resources for the benefit of all the future generations, so they will have the same opportunities to develop the resources as the current generation. The third part is the social part—that you develop those resources not just for the benefit of the big corporations and the rich, but for the benefit of everybody in the country. This was the constituGrey Towersency whose support Gifford needed to put this big idea of conservation in place. He had to develop a system of thinking and communicating to allow people from all sides of the issue to recognize there was something in conservation for everyone.

Now that seems rational to us, right? But we all know that the rational thing doesn’t necessarily happen. It takes a fight to get everyone on board. It took his fight for conservation to achieve a win-win solution. He brought together as many stakeholders as he could, but he still had to go to the mat in order to build the public lands system, and this is what he did. He created a big tent philosophy that embraced businessmen and smalltime sheep grazers, preservationists like John Muir and large lumbermen, an almost impossible political combination. Part of his genius was his ability to balance activism and big tent stakeholder inclusion. He was an institution builder. His great contribution was to be the architect of the modern conservation movement.

I want to come back to Milford now and talk about the significance of the building up there? What is Grey Towers all about? What’s so special about it? What should we do with it? James Pinchot finished building the mansion in 1886 just as Gifford was going off to study forestry. Later, while Gifford was working in forestry with the federal government, there were no foresters to hire in this country to man up the agency. So, James and Gifford decided to start the Yale School of Forestry, which they endowed in 1901. In the summers, the young foresters would come up to the Pinchot property and spend 12weeks learning how to identify trees, and acquiring all the practical skills you need in field forestry. This Pinchot landscape has a deep history because the people who came out of that Yale program became the leaders of the Forest Service. They also became the leaders of the forest product industry. They were leaders throughout the whole realm of forestry.

The other thing that James and Gifford did at Grey Towers was to establish the Milford Experimental Forest in 1902, which was one of the first experimental forests in the United States. We don’t have a lot of records on that forest, which was run by the Yale Forestry students, but they were doing different kinds of research on second growth forest and on silvaculture, and creating lots of plantations. This is the sort of forestry landscape that we can still see here today. Gifford spent lots of time at Grey Towers with his associates talking about the big ideas of conservation. It was one of the seminal places where the whole concept of conservation originated.

Grey Towers: The Origins
Gifford died in 1946. I was born four months earlier. We only spent four months together so I don’t remember him very well. I have to study him just like everybody else here. But I do remember my grandma very well, and she died in 1961. That started a conversation in our family, and my father said to his children, “What are we going to do with this piece of property? This is way too fancy. We can’t afford it. Do you want to own this in the future?” And we said, “No, Dad, we definitely don’t want to own this building.” Then he started talking both to the Forest Service and to conservation organizations, trying to figure out what to do with Grey Towers. What evolved out of that was the notion of setting up a conservation institute that would be a public/private partnership between the Forest Service and a New York conservation group called The Conservation Foundation. Two years later, in September of 1963, after a two year conversation between the Forest Service and other conservationists, a board of prominent national conservationists came into being to run a new institution called the Pinchot Institute for Conservation. This was the organization and the building that President Kennedy came to and dedicated in 1963.

I don’t know how many of you have seen the films of the dedication, but President Kennedy set a very high bar for what was supposed to happen here. Basically, he was saying we have this whole emerging set of environmental problems which Rachel Carson and others had made public and broadly disseminated. He said that we needed these kinds of institutes in different parts of the country that can bring people together to address how we are going to solve these problems, because these are difficult problems. These are problems that are going to take a lot of creativity. And we need institutions that can bring people together to do that. That was the original conception of Grey Towers.

For the first five years, this public-private institution focused on national environmental education. That partnership disintegrated because we didn’t know how to run public-private partnerships. The Forest Service and nonprofits have gotten a whole lot better at doing partnerships now than they were in 1963. There was a period where the Forest Service was the sole manager of the site, and they used it for internal policy analysis. Even though there were some really good people here, they were not using Grey Towers in any sense as a convening center.

In 1989, we were in a planning session retreat when a guy named Ed Brannon came in to be part of the planning process, and he said, “I know what we want to do at Grey Towers. We want to make Grey Towers the center of conservation leadership training for the Forest Service,” and we said, “Wow, there’s an idea that’s substantive.” So the Forest Service hired him. Ed started the process of getting serious with the restoration plan, and he also built up the leadership training program with the Forest Service, so that almost every forest district ranger supervisor and regional forester came through Grey Towers at one time or another. What Ed did was so remarkable. He understood that Grey Towers is a transformative space and that if you come into this building and you’re thinking of big issues and you’re thinking about your role in conservation, being in that building steeps you in the deep history of the conservation moment, and it changes people. I’ve seen many, many transforming experiences in the people who have come through Grey Towers. It is a brilliant and important piece of how Grey Towers should be used.

The Pinchot Institute at Grey Towers
Pinchot Institute dedication plaqueIn the late 80’s, early 90’s, the Forest Service began to shift from timber management to ecosystem management, and there was a huge crisis in leadership and management of the forests. The public surrounding the National Forests had turned against the Forest Service. It was a very difficult period, and the Pinchot Institute stepped into that space and did several things that made a big difference. One, they worked on collaborative leadership, working with the forest supervisors to teach them how to bring people into the planning process. The Forest Service was doing this on its own, too. The Pinchot Institute didn’t do it all, but they had a significant role in it. Second, they helped the Forest Service develop a method to reach out into the communities and employ them in managing the forest after they were no longer working on timber sales. These two things are really what launched the Pinchot Institute as a significant policy institute that could make a difference.

We have since continued to evolve towards many different kinds of programs whose fundamental nature is developing new models of conservation that apply the Gifford Pinchot model of inclusion. We stick mostly to the conservation side and not on the activist fight side. We like to bring everyone under the tent and discover solutions that work for the business community, work for nature, and work for the people in the communities.

The Forest Service at Grey Towers has seen its own evolution, especially the historic restoration that was completed in 2001. I have to tell you that the level of historic restoration that happened at Grey Towers is like nothing you have seen in another building. It was phenomenal, but that is the least of it. The fundamental problem before the restoration was that Grey Towers was not usable as a conference retreat. The historic restoration turned Grey Towers into a wonderful conservation retreat, inviting the exact kind of conversation my father had wanted. In 2004, Grey Towers was designated as a National Historic Site, which included our Pinchot family land as well as Grey Towers. As a result, we could start thinking about and reconstructing the landscape that James Pinchot had originally created, and interpreting conservation not only in this building but also in the forest. In 2001, our family also reestablished the Milford Experimental Forest, begun by James in 1901. So as a family, we are partnering with Grey Towers in a substantive way.

Over the last seven or eight years, as the Pinchot Institute has focused more on local issues in this region, we are finally seeing the pieces—the Forest Service, the Pinchot Institute, and the Pinchot family—being put back together again. With the founding of the Grey Towers Heritage Association and the arrival of Allison Stewart, there has been a process of real strengthening and reconciliation between the family, the Pinchot Institute and Grey Towers. We are now fully back on the same page, working on the Milford Experimental Forest, on conservation education, and a host of new programs.

There is more to do. We have this incredible facility. We know it transforms people when they come and use it. We are doing that with the Forest Service. We need to take this beyond the Forest Service. We need be to convening meetings around today’s major issues—clean water, our warming climate, biodiversity loss—and looking for a common language where people can talk about things they disagree about. That would allow us to move forward on some of these major issues, particularly the issue of climate change, which is very contentious right now. Grey Towers is a place where people can find common ground, and find the win-win solution. That’s the kind of conversations that took place when Gifford and James lived at Grey Towers, and it’s the kind of conversations we need to have again.

Peter Pinchot is a senior fellow with the Pinchot Institute and director of the EcoMadera community forestry initiative in Ecuador.
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