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Pinchot focus areas:

Climate & Energy
In the Long Run: Conservation and the Social Compact
Char Miller

During his frenetic, and ultimately unsuccessful, 1925 primary campaign for the US Senate in Pennsylvania, Gifford Pinchot paused to reflect what it meant to plant trees.

He and his wife Cornelia Bryce Pinchot were in the process of reforesting portions of Grey Towers, the family’s estate in Milford, with an array of oaks, pine, and beech. Of these many saplings, his favorite were the copper beeches whose height, dense foliage, and broad, arching crown he knew would bring much-needed shade to the once-cutover site. Their deep purple leaves, vividly setting off the bluestone chateau overlooking the Delaware River Valley, would anchor the landscape’s vistas and beautify its sweep. Visit Grey Towers today, now managed as a National Historic Site by the Forest Service, and you will see what he had in mind when he reportedly confided to Corvia Christian, his campaign manager, how much this regeneration project meant to him: “By George I’d like to come back a hundred years from now and see my trees.”
The John Muir Trail south of Pinchot Pass in Kings Canyon National Park Credit: Flickr user sheenjek CC BY-NC 2.0

Pinchot was also attracted to this particular species of beech because of when he first set eyes on it. In 1889, the 24-year-old Yale College graduate having decided that forestry—a profession hitherto unknown in the United States—was for him, sailed for Europe. Because countries as disparate as England, France, Prussia, and Switzerland had foresters and forestry schools, he headed across the Atlantic to learn what he could from those who taught and practiced the emerging discipline. Everywhere he traveled that next year, he made certain to walk through woodland and forest. One of these tramps led through England’s Windsor Park, where Pinchot came face-to-face with an ancient copper beech; it was, he noted in his diary, “very likely the oldest in the world (1000 or more years).” Its antiquity caught his eye but so did the larger terrain in which it was rooted: “The beautiful shape of the trees, the arrangement of them, the turf, the whole together was simply ideal.”1

At this most impressionable moment, as Pinchot began to define what it meant to be a forester, he recognized that his future work would entail more than turning timber into board feet. It also carried an aesthetic obligation: to care for the land and its beauty, a conviction he reaffirmed in his hope of seeing how his beloved copper beeches fared a century hence.

But then foresters are supposed to be farsighted about how their work in present-day woods will sustain forested environs over time.The future, in short, has rights in the present that the present must respect (just as the present, without knowing it, once had rights over the actions of those living in its past). This reciprocity was a key theme in Pinchot’s undergraduate musings about the nature of his future career. “I had a lively and deep-seated desire to be of use in the world,” he recalled, “and occasional questionings as to whether I could serve best as a minister, doctor, or a forester.”2 Strikingly, each profession is devoted to the care of others—souls, bodies, or land. Each also looks beyond the moment; its practitioners realizing that the enduring health of parishioners, patients, and ecosystems requires thinking about the long term. As Pinchot observed just before embarking on that life-changing voyage to Europe, his generation served as “trustees for the coming world.”3

Gifford and Cornelia Pinchot at the US Capitol in 1926 They did a pretty good job, too, judging from their environmental accomplishments. After all, this cohort pushed Congress to pass the Forest Reserves Act of 1891, granting the president authority to set aside reserves from the public domain, and the Organic Act of 1897, allowing the active management of these forests.Without this legislation there would have been no Forest Service or National Forests, which Pinchot, as the first head of the that agency, helped establish in 1905. As presidents from William Henry Harrison to Theodore Roosevelt used their new authorities to expand the reserves (TR alone designated upwards of 150 million acres), other conservationists pressed for the passage of laws such as the Lacey Act (1900), prohibiting the trade in illegally taken wildlife; the Antiquities Act (1906), designed to protect social and cultural artifacts; the Weeks Act (1911), which provided funding to expand the national forest system east of the Mississippi; and the National Park Service’s Organic Act of 1916. These Progressive Era reformers made conservation, conservation; theirs was a profound legacy and an inheritance of immeasurable worth.

Pinchot and his conservationist colleagues knew their work must mean more than the simply the protection of natural resources for contemporary consumption. That’s what the newly minted Chief Forester had in mind when he crafted the Forest Service‘s mission; its task was to secure “the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run.” The final four words are the most important—sustainability was then, and remains now, a cross-generational responsibility.

That commitment defined his public activism after President William Howard Taft cashiered him in 1910 for insubordination. For the next 35 years, Pinchot contributed— often forcefully—to hot-button conservation debates. Through his work for the National Conservation Association (which he founded and funded), as Commissioner of Forestry in Pennsylvania (1920–22), while running nonstop for elected office (his first campaign kicked off in 1914, his last in 1938), and in countless books, articles, and editorials, Pinchot reaffirmed that conservationists must embrace what he believed was their essential, inescapable moral calling. “Conservation is not merely a question about business, but a question of a vastly higher duty,” he wrote in his aptly titled book, The Fight for Conservation. “If we owe anything to the United States, if this country has been good to us, if it has given us our prosperity, our education, and our chance of happiness, then there is a duty rising upon us. That duty is to see, so far as in us lies, that those who are coming after us shall have the same opportunity for happiness as we have had ourselves.”4

pull quoteBut we must envision that role for ourselves, Pinchot argued in this and other texts. Arguing bluntly against the effort of private individuals and shadowy syndicates to usurp public ownership of water and coal—“I see no reason why we should deliberately keep on helping to fasten the handcuffs of corporate control upon ourselves for all time merely because the few men who would profit by it most have heretofore had the power to compel it”—he urged restraint and accountability. “It is perfectly clear that one hundred, fifty, or even twenty-five years ago our present industrial conditions and industrial needs were completely beyond the imagination of the wisest of our predecessors,” a reality that was as descriptive of his generation’s situation: “it is just as true that we cannot imagine or foresee the industrial needs or conditions of the future.”This did not release contemporaries from factoring the unknowable into their calculations about the utilization of resources, quite the reverse. Because “our descendants should be left free to meet their own necessities as they arise,” he argued that it could not be right or just to grant “perpetual rights” to critical resources. “It is just as wrong as it is foolish, and just as needless as it is wrong, to mortgage the welfare of our children in such a way as this.”5

These ideals drove his legislative agenda during two terms as Pennsylvania’s governor (1923–27; 1931–35). Among the hallmarks of his eight years in office were the boosting of the K-12 budget, securing old-age pensions, signing some of the nation‘s first interstate clean-water laws, expanding the number and size of state forests and parks; he also launched sustained efforts to root out governmental corruption and corporate dominance. Even Pinchot’s rigorous enforcement of prohibition was part of the larger package; because alcohol undercut America’s moral fiber, it robbed the future of its future.

It was just such a long view that propelled Gifford and Cornelia Pinchot to plant so many trees on the grounds of Grey Towers, despite knowing they would never live to see the once-bare landscape spring back to life. But they acted on their faith in the world to come and believed that the copper beeches would be a sign of their careful and considered stewardship. I’m not sure what the Pinchots would have thought about their grandsons Gifford III and Peter shimmying down the broad-limbed beech late at night to escape parental oversight, but suspect they would have understood that the future makes use of the past as it sees fit.

Senior Fellow Char Miller is the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College. His recent publications include Seeking the Greatest Good: The Conservation Legacy of Gifford Pinchot and America’s Great National Forests, Wildernesses, and Grasslands.

1 Pinchot, Gifford. Diary, October 22, 1889, Gifford Pinchot Papers, Library of Congress.
2 Pinchot, Gifford. 1998. Breaking New Ground, 4th Edition. Washington, DC: Island Press.
3 New York World, August 30, 1889.
4 Pinchot, Gifford. 1910. The Fight for Conservation New York: Doubleday, Page & Company.
5 Ibid.
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