Pinchot Becomes Head of the U.S. Forest Service Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As the nation’s chief forester, Gifford Pinchot combined crusading zeal with scientific analysis and administration to encourage the conservation of American resources.

Summary of Event

Calls for the planned management of U.S. national resources in order to safeguard land, water, forests, and mineral deposits from exploitation, waste, and neglect are as old as the country. During the nineteenth century, President Thomas Jefferson, author Henry David Thoreau, naturalist John Muir, explorer John Wesley Powell, and ecologist George Perkins Marsh were among the prominent personalities who, although differing in their approaches, advocated informed private action and vigorous governmental policies to protect the nation’s resource heritage. However, on a continent seemingly blessed with unbounded resources, and within a society dedicated to individual liberty as well as to the generally free pursuit of economic interests, these cries for husbanding national resources were raised outside the mainstream of American life. Forest Service, U.S. Wilderness preservation Conservation;wilderness Forestry [kw]Pinchot Becomes Head of the U.S. Forest Service (Jan. 3, 1905) [kw]U.S. Forest Service, Pinchot Becomes Head of the (Jan. 3, 1905) [kw]Forest Service, Pinchot Becomes Head of the U.S. (Jan. 3, 1905) Forest Service, U.S. Wilderness preservation Conservation;wilderness Forestry [g]United States;Jan. 3, 1905: Pinchot Becomes Head of the U.S. Forest Service[01220] [c]Environmental issues;Jan. 3, 1905: Pinchot Becomes Head of the U.S. Forest Service[01220] [c]Organizations and institutions;Jan. 3, 1905: Pinchot Becomes Head of the U.S. Forest Service[01220] [c]Natural resources;Jan. 3, 1905: Pinchot Becomes Head of the U.S. Forest Service[01220] Pinchot, Gifford Roosevelt, Theodore [p]Roosevelt, Theodore;conservation Ballinger, Richard Achilles Cleveland, Grover Vanderbilt, George W., II Garfield, James Rudolph

Nevertheless, by the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when the extent and uniqueness of the nation’s resources were carefully documented, the influence of naturalists and conservationists began affecting federal policy. So, too, did the views of scientists inside the federal scientific community informed by findings of the Coast (and Geodetic) Survey and the reports of the early Geological Survey. As the federal government was charged with responsibility for the ownership, lease, or sale of by far the greatest share of the nation’s lands, forests, and remaining metal and mineral resources, the importance of these influences was immense. By 1891, for example, the U.S. Congress empowered the president to withdraw forest lands from sale and to establish “public” forests. Accordingly, between 1891 and 1901, presidents Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, and William McKinley set aside 46 million acres denominated as national forest, a figure that rose to 148 million acres during the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt. Many U.S. states already had begun taking similar actions.

After 1890, Gifford Pinchot, who would make “conservation” a household word and who won renown both as the father of scientific resource management and as one of the chief philosophers of conservationism, was deeply involved in many of these events. Born into a wealthy family in Simbury, Connecticut, in 1865, Pinchot came from a cosmopolitan and patrician background. Trained at the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy, he subsequently attended Yale University, graduating in 1889. He would later return to Yale as a professor.

In the absence of American schools of forestry, Pinchot spent three years after his college graduation studying forestry under experts in France, Germany, and Switzerland. When he returned to the United States, he established a private consultancy in New York and began doing business as the nation’s first professional forester. In 1892, millionaire George W. Vanderbilt II engaged Pinchot’s services to initiate forest management on Vanderbilt’s estate in Asheville, North Carolina. Gaining repute as an expert, Pinchot became a member of the National Forest Commission, National Forest Commission a body designated to assess the nation’s forest resources, in 1896. Two years later, he won appointment as chief forester to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Division of Forestry, a position in which he succeeded German-born forester Bernhard E. Fernow.

Pinchot’s career and cause vaulted to prominence under the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt between 1901 and 1909. Both background and temperament inclined Roosevelt toward conservation; historians would ultimately identify his conservation measures as among the most enduring contributions of his presidency. Like Pinchot, Roosevelt recognized that the nation’s resources were not inexhaustible. He had long dissented from the prevalent public view that national resources should continue to be open to exploitation mainly for the profit of large private interests. Rather, he believed, the public domain should be organized and managed in accord with what he regarded as the general welfare. Amid rising tides of reformist Progressivism, which emphasized an expanding role for government, the application of scientific principles to cope with public problems, and administrative efficiency, Roosevelt recognized the potential popularity—and hence political importance—of conservation issues.

Gifford Pinchot.

(Library of Congress)

Disillusioned by the McKinley administration, Pinchot, whose interests had expanded from trees to encompass a wide range of natural resources, sought support from Roosevelt while Roosevelt was governor of New York. The two men became friends, and after his inauguration as president, Roosevelt inducted Pinchot into his “tennis cabinet,” an informal but influential body within which Pinchot expressed his views on policy making far more effectively than his official rank would have allowed. In 1905, Roosevelt appointed Pinchot to lead the newly created U.S. Forest Service. For a time, Pinchot’s views also received sympathetic support from Secretary of the Interior James Rudolph Garfield.

By 1907, Pinchot’s newly constituted Forest Service had launched a number of ambitious conservation programs and was budgeting more than five million dollars annually. A zealous reformer whose thinking and tactics were years ahead of those of most bureaucrats, Pinchot understood the importance not only of managing resources but also of managing public opinion. His office became a fount of educational publicity and propaganda, engaging in political lobbying and exerting pressure on lawmakers.

Pinchot’s objective was to shift decisions about the utilization of the country’s natural resources from private decision makers to public policy makers. With federal supervision, Pinchot believed, the uses of natural resources could be and should be determined according to scientific principles, thereby eliminating waste and neglect. He had no desire to see national resources “locked up”; indeed, both he and Roosevelt thought the use of resources to be essential to the nation’s economic growth. Like most Progressives, however, he had a strong animus against the corporate trusts and monopolies of the day. What he sought was a more equitable distribution of resources that favored individuals and more competitive enterprises.


The National Conservation Commission’s report of 1909 lent urgency to what Pinchot described as the virile evolution of his conservation campaign. With Pinchot as its chairman, the commission tried to produce a scientific inventory of the nation’s principal resources. Its conclusions were sobering: Much of the country’s stock of gold, silver, copper, lead, nickel, and other metals and minerals was in private hands and was rapidly being depleted. In addition, the commission foresaw early exhaustion of the nation’s coal, oil, and high-grade iron ores—the vital material of an industrial society—at then-current rates of exploitation and production. Conservation;natural resources

Because many state governments, particularly in the West, had earlier voiced alarm over resource depletion, the federal commission’s report almost immediately encouraged the tightening and enforcement of existing land and mineral laws, with the result that more efficient mining practices were swiftly introduced. Pinchot’s leadership of the commission, therefore, has been judged the high point of his career in federal government; however, it by no means ended his public presence.

A change in the political climate soon occurred: The moderate Progressive presidency of Roosevelt yielded to the conservatism of President William Howard Taft, Taft, William Howard and Pinchot’s insider role and presidential support were swept away. As a consequence, Pinchot and other conservationists were soon at odds with their administrative superiors. In 1910, Pinchot and other officials brought accusations against Taft’s secretary of the interior, Richard Achilles Ballinger, a former Seattle businessman and politician. Pinchot publicly accused Ballinger of granting powerful private interests water and power rights on lands in Montana and Wyoming that the Roosevelt administration had withdrawn from public sale. Almost simultaneously, Pinchot defended a federal land office investigator who had been fired because he had charged Ballinger with favoring a corporate syndicate’s claim to Alaskan coal lands. Not surprisingly, Pinchot was also dismissed.

The effects of the Ballinger-Pinchot controversy over conservation issues and Pinchot’s dismissal proved important. Aroused public opinion led to joint congressional investigation, and although the committee’s findings exonerated Ballinger, his position was made untenable, and he too resigned. Subsequently, a federal court substantiated the significant portion of Pinchot’s charges when it ruled that the private syndicate’s claim to Alaskan coal lands was indeed fraudulent. These controversies further weakened a Republican Party already divided by personal clashes between Taft and Roosevelt, fueling the open rupture that produced Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party in 1912.

While these events were unfolding, Pinchot in 1910 published The Fight for Conservation, Fight for Conservation, The (Pinchot) a manifesto that effectively summarized the goals of many Progressives who believed in conservation and that enunciated the basic strategies embraced by many conservationists ever since. An optimistic work aimed at augmenting the public’s growing awareness of conservation, the book bristled with Pinchot’s righteous fervor. To Pinchot, conservation above all presented U.S. citizens with moral choices, a theme he stressed repeatedly.

In simple, straightforward prose, Pinchot’s book discussed such topics as the basis of national prosperity through home building, better times on the farms (where most Americans then lived), waterways, business, public spirit, children and the future, the prospects of advancing equality through conservation, and the identification of conservation with patriotism. It also summarized conservationists’ ongoing struggles. Several major arguments emerged from his treatment of these subjects. In reply to critics, Pinchot emphasized that national resources were for use and should not be withheld. They were integral, he believed, to the nation’s growth and prosperity. He insisted, however, on the intelligent, rational, and efficient—that is, scientific—utilization of resources. Furthermore, he condemned unnecessary exploitation and waste, arguing that conservationists could develop and apply scientific methods to the use of all resources. Finally, voicing his fears about glaring economic inequalities in the United States, he argued for far more widely dispersed ownership of the nation’s natural resources.

The Fight for Conservation marked neither the end of Pinchot’s writings in behalf of Progressive causes nor his political swan song. In 1928, he published The Power Monopoly, Power Monopoly, The (Pinchot) which attacked the vast and intricate holding companies that dominated the production of water and electric power. He recounted a lifetime of reformist experiences in Breaking New Ground (1947), Breaking New Ground (Pinchot) which was published posthumously. Having failed to bring Roosevelt back into the White House as the Progressive candidate in 1912, Pinchot pursued political office for himself; he served two divided terms (1923-1926 and 1931-1934) as governor of Pennsylvania.

Having known Pinchot well, Theodore Roosevelt praised him as the most valuable of all the public officials who had served in his administration. A generation later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes, remarked that there was no one in public life for whom he had greater admiration than the still-active Pinchot.

Critics, however, often characterized Gifford Pinchot as cranky, overzealous, self-righteous, technocratic, and moralistic. A number of others thought he claimed too much, recognizing that Pinchot was not the first significant personality to question traditional attitudes toward the nation’s natural resources or American perceptions of nature. Nor was he the first to urge a reformulation of these attitudes or to seek change in the practices that flowed from them. Even during his lifetime, there were many approaches to conservation and many divergent philosophies and opinions about how to proceed.

Nevertheless, during the first half of the twentieth century no one did a better job than Pinchot of making conservation a household term and a popular cause, the liberal goal of which was to bring greater equality and justice into American life. Few other ecologists, environmentalists, or conservationists, moreover, have been credited by historians with equal displays of political vision. During the remainder of the century, many environmentalists, naturalists, pastoralists, Greens, and advocates of “deep ecology” developed philosophies that rejected Pinchot’s rational, technocratic, and utilitarian approach to the handling of national resources. Others, however, including Roderick Nash, Barry Commoner, and Murray Bookchin, continued to draw on and amend Pinchot’s philosophy.

In 1949, three years after Pinchot’s death, the Columbia National Forest in southwest Washington was renamed the Gifford Pinchot National Forest Gifford Pinchot National Forest in honor of his leadership in the Forest Service. The forest includes the 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, established by Congress in 1982, which is living testimony to the tremendous destructive powers of nature as well as the rapid recuperative power of forest life. Forest Service, U.S. Wilderness preservation Conservation;wilderness Forestry

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fausold, Martin L. Gifford Pinchot: Bull Moose Progressive. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1961. A scholarly study that concentrates on Pinchot’s political values and activities. Places Pinchot’s conservationism within the broader context of Progressivism. Clearly written and insightful. Includes notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hays, Samuel P. Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency. 1959. Reprint. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999. A seminal work on the early history of conservation. Argues that the movement began as a search for greater efficiency in resource management, not as a democratic crusade against supposed business rapacity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McGeary, M. Nelson. Gifford Pinchot, Forester-Politician. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1960. Fine biography illuminates Pinchot’s chief goal of bringing economic equality and greater justice into American life through conservation. Despite a sympathetic treatment, it also notes Pinchot’s rashness and frequent instabilities. Includes photographs, notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mann, Alpheus Thomas. Bureaucracy Convicts Itself. New York: Viking Press, 1941. Clearly written study concentrates on the Ballinger-Pinchot controversy and is enriched by interviews with the principals. Includes illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Char. Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism. Washington, D.C.: Shearwater Books, 2004. First full-length biography of Pinchot in forty years draws on previously unavailable materials to illuminate his life and times. Includes notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nash, Roderick Frazier. Wilderness and the American Mind. 4th ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. Intellectual history of Americans’ relationship with the wilderness, beginning with the earliest days of European contact. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Penick, James L., Jr. Progressive Politics and Conservation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968. A study of the Ballinger-Pinchot affair that examines the relationships between the conservation movement and the trust issue. Pinchot viewed conservation as an instrument of control, whereas Ballinger believed that the movement favored the trusts. Includes extensive notes and excellent index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pinchot, Gifford. The Fight for Conservation. 1910. Reprint. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1967. Pinchot uses simple, forceful prose and many telling examples to make his case. Reprint includes a useful introduction and a biographical sketch of Pinchot.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, Bob Pepperman. Our Limits Transgressed: Environmental Political Thought in America. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992. An outstanding, clearly written scholarly analysis of environmental thinking in the United States. Invaluable for its extensive treatment of Pinchot’s values, views, and objectives in their proper historical context. Includes notes, bibliography, and index.

Roosevelt Withdraws the Grand Canyon from Mining Claims

Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources

Steinmetz Warns of Pollution in “The Future of Electricity”

U.S. Congress Approves a Dam in Hetch Hetchy Valley

National Park Service Is Created

Mineral Act Regulates Public Lands

Federal Power Commission Disallows Kings River Dams

Categories: History