Letters to John Muir Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

These letters represent some of the communications between one of the leading conservationists at the end of the nineteenth century, Gifford Pinchot, and one of the leading preservationists, John Muir. While, initially, the two worked together to protect forests from wanton destruction, they parted ways in 1897 over the policies advocated by Pinchot in his December 1897 letter: the management of forests as resources versus their preservation in a natural state. Pinchot was from the East, with social and political connections that allowed him to be a part of the nation's power structure. As such, his views were important in the development of policies for the use of federal lands. Thus, throughout these letters are references to individuals and groups with whom Pinchot interacted and through whom he was able to directly shape the emerging policy for federally-owned forests.

Summary Overview

These letters represent some of the communications between one of the leading conservationists at the end of the nineteenth century, Gifford Pinchot, and one of the leading preservationists, John Muir. While, initially, the two worked together to protect forests from wanton destruction, they parted ways in 1897 over the policies advocated by Pinchot in his December 1897 letter: the management of forests as resources versus their preservation in a natural state. Pinchot was from the East, with social and political connections that allowed him to be a part of the nation's power structure. As such, his views were important in the development of policies for the use of federal lands. Thus, throughout these letters are references to individuals and groups with whom Pinchot interacted and through whom he was able to directly shape the emerging policy for federally-owned forests.

Defining Moment

The 1890s represent a key period in the administration of the forests owned by the United States government. American economic growth during the previous decades had been built on virtually open access to government-owned natural resources, resulting in the shrinkage of the forests. There was growing concern regarding National Forest lands. It was also a time when there was a split between those who wanted to focus on managing forests (Pinchot) and those whose focus was on preserving wilderness areas (Muir). These letters, from Pinchot to Muir, were the primary means of communication between these two environmental leaders. Although there had been a Division of Forestry within the Department of Agriculture since 1881, it was not until 1891 that protected forest reserves were authorized by Congress. Even though the forest reserves were under the Department of the Interior, it was the Division of Forestry that was charged with drawing up plans for the use of all federally owned forests.

Although virtually all of these letters were written prior to Pinchot becoming Chief of the Division of Forestry, they do contain indications of not only Pinchot's appreciation of the forest and wilderness areas, but his philosophy toward managing these resources. Thus, while he was not against using federally-owned forests to provide lumber needed by society, Pinchot did believe that there was a science to forest management. In part, it was because of his scientific approach to the forests that, in 1896–1897, Muir and Pinchot came to a parting of ways. The 1897 letter reprinted here indicates this difference, Pinchot seeking a politically expedient way to conserve some of the forests as against Muir's desire to preserve entire areas. Thus, the curt 1900 letter, when Pinchot held the title of Forester, shows a very different relationship than the friendly correspondence of six years earlier. The split between the conservation movement and the preservation movement was, by then, clear. In Pinchot's case, achieving some conservation measures through means that were virtually a politically sure thing was a far better path than gambling everything on a high-risk approach requiring the preservation of large tracts through the building of a broader political consensus. For whatever reason, the enthusiasm of the early letters faded when Pinchot had an opportunity to make real changes within the political system.

Author Biography

Gifford Pinchot (1865–1946) was born into a wealthy family in Connecticut. He graduated from Yale University, and then studied forestry in France, because no forestry program existed in the United States. (He later had his family endow a forestry program at Yale.) In 1891, he started full-time work, quickly becoming forester at the Biltmore Estate, in North Carolina, and then moving on to become Chief of the Division of Forestry in 1898. He served in this agency, working closely with President Theodore Roosevelt, as it evolved into the US Forest Service, until resigning after arguing with President William H. Taft. He continued to work in the conservation movement through the National Conservation Association. He was governor in Pennsylvania for two terms, during which he focused on the needs of the rural population and on regulating utilities. He married Cornelia Bryce later in life and had one son.

Historical Document

New York City, April 8, 1894.

Dear Mr. Muir:

I have felt for a long time that I owed you a report of progress, and I have very often meant to write, and as often felt uncomfortable because I had not done so. It is not because I have in any degree forgotten your kindness and interest in my work, or the advice you gave me to take time to get rich. I have kept that phrase pretty constantly in mind, and have been trying to live up to it. Not with any conspicuous success, as yet, but the chances seem to be that I shall have better luck in that line in the future.

Since your letter came, a long time back, I have been going on more or less steadily with my regular work at Biltmore, a short account of which has been printed, so far as the first year is concerned. I send you a copy by this mail. Beyond that, a good deal of my time has been given to getting my old papers in order and opening an office. One new branch of work has arisen in the large arboretum which is to be made at Biltmore. The enclosed typewritten circular, prepared to send to foresters in Europe, but which I hope you will accept as an urgent request for help, will give you a rough idea of what is in prospect. This is, unfortunately, one of the times when there was no chance to get rich at all, and so I had to take up the work on my very meagre preparation. It seemed likely that it would not be done unless I did it.

I had hoped to begin this summer putting your advice into practical operation by taking several months in the Sierras, studying the forest, and to follow that up with several months each year in the different government reservations, until I had an idea of what treatment each of them was best suited to. But reasons which are based on the interest of others have prevented that, and so I am to stay home and try to get a short primer of forestry ready to print. This is, I think, a useful piece of work, but not that which I would have chosen first. However, the other is only put off.

I am just starting for a month in camp in the southern Alleghenies, to study the treatment of a tract of about 150 square miles, part of it well timbered. As I must take others with me I am not going very light. It seems likely to be a pleasant trip, especially as I shall spend a good deal of time studying the reproduction of the Liriodendron, which seems likely to turn out in the end the most important timber tree of that region, as it certainly is just now. I think I am going to be able to start a friend of mine, who has been studying forestry for the last year, at work studying the reproduction and growth otherwise of the white Pine in Pa. and Mich, and the Adirondacks. He will keep at it for at least six months, and then I am to put his results into shape and get them published. I shall also make his scheme of study.

We have been having rather a curious time with the N. Y. State Forest Commission, the members of which have been desirous of letting the lumbermen into the state woods, with a merely nominal restriction, but at market prices for all logs cut. I hope the plan may be killed in the Comptroller's office.

Is there any chance of your coming East again in the near future? If so, I hope you will not fail to let me know. All my people have spoken so often of the pleasure you gave them that we do not want to miss you. And for myself, I have more than ever to talk over with you, and much advice to ask.

Very sincerely yours,

Gifford Pinchot

My father sends his best regards.

***

GIFFORD PINCHOT,

CONSULTING FORESTER,

NEW YORK.

UNITED CHARITIES BUILDING,

FOURTH AVE. AND 22D ST.

May 23rd, 1894.

Mr. John Muir,

Martinez, California.

Dear Mr. Muir:

I hope you do not mind typewritten letters. If you do please let me know and I will send you no more of them. But as it is so such easier to write this way I fall into it on all occasions. I am just up from the south, where your letter reached me, and have been in the woods for something over three weeks. In a very small way I have tried your plan of going alone, and was off for four days by myself. Except that I happened to be a little under the weather at the time, they were as pleasant days as I have ever passed in the woods, and I am only waiting for the chance to do more of the same thing. I am perfectly satisfied that I can learn more and get more out of the woods than is possible when there is any one else along, or at least any one who has not the same feeling about them that I have. While I am afraid that I shall never be able to do the amount of hard work that you have done, or get along on such slender rations, still I am going to put together a camp kit this summer that will weight not over 20 lbs. and will keep me in working order for a week or two, and then I hope to be able to get more into the life of the forest than I have ever done before.

I sent you the other day a pamphlet about the Adirondacks in the hope that you might be interested in looking it over.

Mr. Alvord has been kind enough to send me certain publications of the Sierra Club. These are Bulletins of January and June, 1893, and January, 1894, and “Articles of Association, etc.”, 1892. Could you help me to get the others? I have been greatly interested in them, although I have had almost no time to look them over.

My people would all send their best regards if they knew I was writing. We have all said very often how greatly we missed your visit last fall.

Very sincerely yours,

Gifford Pinchot

***

N.L.W.

GIFFORD PINCHOT,

CONSULTING FORESTER,

NEW YORK.

UNITED CHARITIES BUILDING,

FOURTH AVE. AND 22D ST.

Oct. 21st, 1896

Mr. John Muir,

Martinez, Cal.

Dear Mr. Muir:

I am sending you this hasty note (typewritten at that) just to say that I find a copy of The White Pine was sent to you as President of the Sierra Club in San Francisco. If it does not turn up speedily please let me know and I will be very glad indeed to send you another copy. I hope your opinion of it may be somewhat more favorable than that expressed by Mr. Fernow. In spite of the kindness of your interpretation I find his letter full of rather severe things, and since I read it to-day I have been considering how to answer it most effectively. I rather think it will be necessary to do so.

All our people are well and happy and much delighted that I was fortunate enough to spend so much time with you. I have told them the story of our day and night on the edge of the Canyon, much to their interest and pleasure, and I greatly wish that I could repeat to them the stories you told me that night. The next dog I get will be named after the one in your story.

We have a meeting of the Commission on Saturday of this week, at which I suppose the policy to be pursued will be decided. I am getting ready for it now and am somewhat anxious to know just how the eat will jump. It is a rather critical time.

I must ask you to excuse this hasty letter, dictated because in the immediate rush of business this is the only way I could write you. With many thanks for all your kindness, believe me,

Very sincerely yours,

***

GIFFORD PINCHOT,

CONSULTING FORESTER,

NEW YORK.

UNITED CHARITIES BUILDING,

FOURTH AVE. AND 22D ST.

Dec. 9th, 1896

John Muir, Esq.,

Martinez, Cal.

My Dear Mr. Muir:

I am going to take the liberty of sending you another copy of my little book on the White Pine, because I want very much to have you see it, and because I am fearful else the copy which I sent you last Spring may have been lost. If the two reach you safely perhaps you can find someone else upon whom the burden of one of them may be thrown.

As Prof. Sargent may have written you, the report of the Commission will not be presented to the coming Congress but to its successor. While I had been strongly in favor of immediate action, still my own personal convenience is very materially served by this delay for it has given me a chance to get at certain work which would otherwise have been still longer delayed. I am going ahead with it now full steam.

In accordance with your advice, and also I must say, with my own inclination in the matter, I have made no answer to Mr. Fernow; After going over his article very carefully I found that an adequate answer would be so vigorous an attack on his whole conception of Forestry in this country that I did not think the result would be worth the quarrel. On the other hand, I am trying to get “square” with him by laying the foundations for two more books, so that he will eventually have considerable new material upon which to exercise himself.

My hope for getting into the West this winter is completely gone. In fact, I am beginning to figure rather anxiously on the time which will see the end of the office work which confronts me now. I am laying plans for another trip to the West, beginning, if it is in any way possible, about the middle of May. But whether any such luck will befall me is, I am afraid, very doubtful, for a good many reasons. If it does I will, of course, write you as soon as I know myself, and this time I shall most earnestly hope to be able to accompany you on some longer trip than was my fortune last summer. You know that my appetite for being in the woods with you has grown vastly by what it fed on.

Both my father and mother would send their best regards if they knew I was writing. They were both extremely pleased at your remembrance of them.

Very sincerely yours,

***

DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR,

WASHINGTON, D.C.

Dec. 15, 1897

Mr. John Muir,

Martinez, California.

Dear Mr. Muir:

The work in the field is at an end for the present season, and I am now busy preparing my report. Two alternatives present themselves for the treatment of the reserved public timber lands. One is to reserve all such lands at one blow by refusing to allow any forest lands of the United States to be disposed of hereafter. This course would probably require Congressional action, and it is by no means certain that such action could be obtained. The other course is to secure the reservation of considerable bodies not now reserved, so as to include, as far as possible, all mountain ranges and any other considerable bodies of government timber land which may exist. The President has the necessary authority, and Congress would not require to be directly consulted. I shall recommend the general withdrawal of all lands as the best plan, but if it is out of reach, I wish to be in a position to describe accurately such large bodies of government forests, that with good will on the part of the President, we could secure essentially the same result. Of course, we can be said to have secured nothing so far except the chance to fight, but even that is a great thing.

***

[Feb. 2, 1900]

Mr. John Muir.

Martinez, Calif.

Dear Mr. Muir:

Many thanks for your telegram, which gives us exactly the information I was after. We are going to try to interest Congress in the preservation of the Calaveras Groves. I will keep you posted from time to time as the matter progresses.

Very sincerely yours,

[illegible]

Forester.

Glossary

Biltmore: an estate built by the Vanderbilt family in western North Carolina

Calaveras Groves: two groves of giant sequoia trees, now in a California state park

Liriodendron: commonly known as the tulip tree

Southern Alleghenies: a section of the Appalachian Mountains, the north part of the west side

Document Analysis

Gifford Pinchot and John Muir were worlds apart in every way except for their concern for forests. Pinchot was born into a supportive, wealthy New England family, an Ivy League graduate, formally trained in the methods of European forestry, and a part of the Eastern establishment, who used a scientific approach to implement his interest in conserving natural resources, especially the forests. Muir, a generation older, was born in Scotland as part of a working-class immigrant family, attended a few years of college, trained himself regarding forests, lived on the fringes of the American West, and approached many forests and wilderness areas in an almost spiritual way, seeking to preserve them, untouched. When the men first met, their common interest in experiencing forests and making this experience available to others, brought them together. However, as they developed different sociopolitical bases for their efforts to control the development of the federally-owned forests, their ways began to diverge. In the end, while they could both seek the same goals, the friendship had disappeared; they were only professional allies.

The two letters that Pinchot sent to Muir in 1894 were letters of friendship. They two men had met in 1893, when Muir was in New York. Assuming that they each discussed their work, Pinchot's April 1894 letter basically summarizes the work he had recently completed at the Biltmore Estate, along with related documents. Demands upon Pinchot to publish a book on forestry, and his willingness to do that rather than travel through the western United States, was an indication of the differences between Pinchot and Muir. Muir would have done just the opposite. It also indicates the fact that Pinchot was interested in applying science to forestry and using this to develop the means for conservation. The May 1894 letter indicates that Pinchot had been introduced to Muir's new advocacy group, the Sierra Club.

The 1896 letters were sent after the National Forest Commission, composed of leading scientists with ties to the federal government, had been established, giving Pinchot a means to directly influence federal policy. This differed greatly from the Sierra Club, which did not have the connections in Washington that the commission had. Muir wanted things to change immediately, while Pinchot was willing to work through the system. This was reflected in the second letter, where Pinchot passively accepted a delay in the National Forest Commission report. The trip to which Pinchot refers was a fact-finding tour for the commission, for which Pinchot was the secretary and which Muir joined unofficially. Mr. Fernow, the Chief of the Forest Division and the immediate predecessor to Pinchot, was not a member of the commission. Thus, his disagreements with Pinchot were not only based on the differences between his Prussian training and Pinchot's French training, but also on professional rivalry. Pinchot did not want to lose possible support from the Forest Division, so he let things slide. Thus, even in these friendly letters to Muir, Pinchot comes through clearly as concerned with political realities, not just nature conservation.

The 1897 and 1900 letters were from a period when Pinchot was a part of the Forest Division, initially as a special agent, then as its head. Here, the division with Muir is clear. In the 1897 letter, Pinchot makes it clear that he was willing to take small steps and preserve some land while losing other areas. The land disposal, to which Pinchot refers, was states seeking land in order to allow more economic development on it than the federal government would allow. Pinchot believed that preserving some by presidential declaration would “secure essentially the same result” as the more ambitious proposal from Muir. In the 1900 letter, Pinchot acknowledged receiving the “information I was after,” and gave a standard affirmation of keeping in touch, perhaps without meaning it. While even Muir accepted the idea that some of the National Forests would be harvested to supply lumber to the country, he differed with Pinchot as to the extent to which this should happen. Thus, with the 1900 letter, it was clear that the two men, who once had been close associates, were going their separate ways.

Essential Themes

Although John Muir is much better known than Gifford Pinchot, Pinchot had almost as much influence, but in a different manner. Muir, and the Sierra Club, were, and are, internationally known for their advocacy of the preservation of wilderness and other areas of special significance. While Pinchot was also interested in preserving areas of special significance, his contribution was much broader. By helping to bring the applied science of forestry to the United States, he made a major contribution to the preservation of forests, as well as to the sustainable use of this natural resource. While he and his family helped found what is now the oldest school of forestry in the United States (at Yale), this was only part of his contribution. His work in using his studies and his skills in the development of the National Forest Service demonstrated to politicians and the public that having professionally trained foresters was something desirable.

Pinchot was also one of the individuals who helped make efforts to conserve forests, and other unique natural entities, a widely acceptable goal. Although working with President Theodore Roosevelt obviously greatly contributed to the cause, Pinchot's ability to work with him, and with other politicians, brought conservation to the forefront. Some people credit Pinchot and Roosevelt jointly with coining the word “conservation,” as a description of what they hoped to do. As one who was seen by many as part of the Eastern establishment, Pinchot had the connections to excel in this effort. Pinchot's willingness to compromise was much greater than was Muir's, allowing him to accomplish more politically. However, his principles of conservation and the “wise use” of forest resources were not always followed in practice. Pinchot was outraged when he saw the widespread clear-cutting in the Pacific Northwest, as this was not his conception of how to make use of the National Forests. Yet, even though his ideas and example were not always followed by his successors in the National Forest Service, Pinchot offered to many a more practical view of how to save America's natural resources than did the more radical preservationists, such as John Muir.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Forest History Society. “Gifford Pinchot (1865–1946).” U.S. Forest Service History. Durham, North Carolina: Forest History Society, 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.
  • Miller, Char. Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism. Washington, DC: Island P, 2004. Print.
  • Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission. “Governor Gifford Pinchot,” Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.
  • Pinchot, Gifford. Breaking New Ground. 1947. Washington, DC: Island P, 1998. Print.
  • Walsh, Barry, Edward Barnard, & John Nesbitt. “The Pinchot-Muir Split Revisited,” Society of American Foresters. Bethesda, Maryland: Society of American Foresters, 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.
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