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Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism

Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism

by Char Miller

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<p>Gifford Pinchot is known primarily for his work as first chief of the U. S. Forest Service and for his argument that resources should be used to provide the "greatest good for the greatest number of people." But Pinchot was a more complicated figure than has generally been recognized, and more than half a century after his death, he continues to provoke


<p>Gifford Pinchot is known primarily for his work as first chief of the U. S. Forest Service and for his argument that resources should be used to provide the "greatest good for the greatest number of people." But Pinchot was a more complicated figure than has generally been recognized, and more than half a century after his death, he continues to provoke controversy.<p>This new biography, the first in more than three decades, offers a fresh interpretation of the life and work of the famed conservationist and Progressive politician. In addition to considering Pinchot's role in the environmental movement, historian Char Miller sets forth an engaging description and analysis of the man - his character, passions, and personality - and the larger world through which he moved.<p>Miller begins by describing Pinchot's early years and the often overlooked influence of his family and their aspirations for him. He examines Pinchot's post-graduate education in France and his ensuing efforts in promoting the profession of forestry in the United States and in establishing and running the Forest Service. While Pinchot's twelve years as chief forester (1898 - 1910) are the ones most historians and biographers focus on, Miller also offers an extensive examination of Pinchot's post-federal career as head of The National Conservation Association and as two-term governor of Pennsylvania. In addition, he looks at Pinchot's marriage to feminist Cornelia Bryce and discusses her role in Pinchot's political radicalization throughout the 1920s and 1930s. An epilogue explores Pinchot's final years and writings.<p>Miller offers a provocative reconsideration of key events in Pinchot's life, including his relationship with friend and mentor John Muir and their famous disagreement over damming Hetch Hetchy Valley. The author brings together insights from cultural and social history and recently discovered primary sources to support a new interpretation of Pinchot - whose activism not only helped define environmental politics in early twentieth century America but remains strikingly relevant today.

Editorial Reviews

University of California, Berkeley, author of The Death of Nature - Carolyn Merchant

"Char Miller's lively, insightful account of the life and world of American forester Gifford Pinchot fills a vitally important gap in environmental and conservation history. Anyone captivated by the issues and controversies surrounding the preservation and development of the nation's natural heritage should read this engaging, carefully researched biography."
Editor of American Heritage Illustrated History of the Presidents - Michael Beschloss

"...an absorbing, well-researched, and illuminating life of an American leader who now receives the full attention he deserves."
Library Journal
Miller (history, Trinity Univ. of San Antonio) examines the life of Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, remembered for a very public disagreement with Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger and President William Howard Taft. Pinchot emerges as a complicated person driven by a passion for public service and an abiding love for the outdoors. A Yale graduate, he utilized family connections to foster his political career. As a like-minded progressive, President Theodore Roosevelt teamed with Pinchot to advocate multiple use of the nation's forested lands and to identify and then set aside thousands of acres for preservation. This biography examines Pinchot's personality by presenting an extensive discussion of his career as head of the National Conservation Association, two-term governor of Pennsylvania, the author of a forestry training manual and an autobiography, and the husband of feminist Cornelia Bryce. Pinchot's life and work are as relevant today as they were during the early 20th century. A previous biography, Harold Pinkett's Gifford Pinchot: Public and Private Forester, is out of print. Recommended for all libraries, especially those with environmental collections. Patricia Ann Owens, Wabash Valley Coll., Mt. Carmel, IL Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Island Press
Publication date:
Pioneers of Conservation
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism

By Char Miller


Copyright © 2001 Char Miller
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-074-3


The World of His Father

THE SILLIEST tale Gifford Pinchot ever told about why he became a forester and an avid conservationist hinged on the gift of a red sled. That sled was all a young Gifford could think about, an obsession that grew each winter, when "with eyes of untold envy ... I watched the bigger boys go careering about on their steel-shod steeds of gravity." Each winter he lobbied his father for a sled of his own, and each year his father refused. Many years later, when he was forty-seven years old, Gifford would concur with his father's decision: "Red sleds," he would say, "are dangerous things for small boys to operate and there is the possible emergency of crashing into a curb or tree when going down a long hill at the rate of thirty miles an hour." James Pinchot had only had his son's best interests in mind, Gifford came to believe.

But his father had a heart, too, finally giving a sled to the grateful Gifford in the winter following the boy's tenth birthday. "Fortune smiled that first Christmas of the sled," Gifford later noted, for "the snows were deep and persistent." The red sled was "the Christmas present that I have loved best of any that have come to me throughout life."

The moral of this story, as Pinchot recounted it in 1912 to a newspaper reporter, was not simply that delayed gratification is good, though that was also true. "It was probably because of this long period of anticipation that the sled was so highly appreciated when it came." The story had another significance in its teller's eyes. His devotion to the art of sledding, "and the joy of the outside it had a tendency to develop, may have had something to do with the career that the man chose when he came to maturity."

This "creation story" is a bit of a stretch, but one element rings true, at least in a biographical context. The central role that James Pinchot played in the gift of the sled supports Gifford's long-standing claim that it was actually his father who was the "father of conservation," having encouraged his son to become one of the nation's first foresters. Bestowing paternity on James Pinchot confirmed Gifford's sense of his own preeminent place in the history of forestry and conservation, conferring genealogical sanction upon and precedence for his activities within these movements. But it is somewhat overstated, for there were a number of prominent American scientists, naturalists, and publicists in the late nineteenth century who developed the idea of conservation and encouraged the growth of a receptive public. Among these were forester Bernhard Eduard Fernow, George Bird Grinnell, who was editor of Forest and Stream, naturalist John Muir, and Harvard botanist Charles Sprague Sargent — a distinguished roster on which James Pinchot does not belong.

James nonetheless figured prominently in all of Gifford's theories about why he chose his profession. The most sustained "creation story" that the son would write was entitled "50 Years Ago" and was a narrative of the Pinchot family's 1879 excursion into Keene Valley, in New York's Adirondack Mountains. It reveals why Gifford felt so compelled to equate conservation with his father.

It was on this trip, when he was thirteen years old, that Gifford had his first brush with wilderness, a brush that he would later remember as being critical to his life course. This was a civilized wilderness, to be sure — or, rather, one that was in the process of being domesticated. His parents, like other urbanites of means, repaired to the mountains to escape New York City's heat and humidity, its dirt, clamor, and disease. This seasonal migration had particular resonance for members of the post–Civil War generation, who at once benefited from but felt uneasy about living within the industrializing metropolitan economy.

Their ambivalence was understandable. In the postwar years, American cities had mushroomed in physical size, population density, and economic might. The industrial revolution produced a staggering array of goods and services for these new consumers, but the grimy, fetid, and massive urban areas that spread out and around the new factories swallowed up what was once open space and robbed the citizenry — native and immigrant alike — of any breathing room. No wonder that in the 1870s many newly rich Americans, who yearned to escape the turmoil of modern urban life, sought release in a grand tour of the North Woods.

The Pinchots thus followed a well-beaten path into this wild land, traveling along the new rail lines and roadways that penetrated the woods, staying in boardinghouses and hostelries constructed to lodge summer guests, and plying the region's many clear lakes and rushing streams in canoes and guide boats. The ample presence of these tourist services suggested just how popular the Adirondacks had become within a decade of their "discovery." The Pinchots' two-week excursion was social — their letters reveal that they bumped into friends and acquaintances, or people much like those they knew — and, in that sense, familiar. Not for them a sylvan solitude.

The Adirondacks furthermore offered little respite from familiar bodily complaints. Neither the constitution of Gifford's mother, Mary Pinchot, nor that of his younger sister, ten-yearold Antoinette, improved much during their summer travels; rather, they did daily battle with a parsimonious landlady whose meals were as small as they were unappetizing (complaints echoed by other travelers). Grumbling stomachs undercut the meditative calm and rustic charm of this forested landscape.

There was a moment on this 1879 trip, however, when Gifford and his father were able to slip away from the domestic troubles they had helped carry into the woods and, hiking up and out of the Keene Valley, made camp along the Upper Ausable Pond. Before setting off on their journey, which bore all the marks of a male initiation ceremony, James gave his son a present — a fly rod, Gifford's first. The young man had come of age, at least in his father's eyes, a psychological transition that Gifford would acknowledge a half-century later when he offered a detailed description of his father's gift. "The rod my father gave me had a hickory butt, a second joint of ash, and a lancewood tip. What became of the other joints, I'll never tell you," he wrote whimsically; but "the butt reposes, ferrule gone, in my rod rack, and, like the old horse turned out to grass, in its senectitude has naught to do but enjoy its well-earned rest."

In 1878, however, the rod and boy were young and untested. That his emerging manhood was twined with this expedition is as clear as the reflections of sublime "gigantic mountain sentinels" that played across the surface of the Upper Ausable Pond; these images, one contemporary guidebook put it, evoked a scenery "of remarkable wildness," and Pinchot himself was struck by "the steep dark mountain slope" that rose from the opposite shore "in full view of our camp by day." A better backdrop for self-discovery could not have been imagined.

Like all such passages, Gifford's began with a journey away from the family or, more precisely, away from his mother, sister Antoinette, and five-year-old brother, Amos. An arduous trek it was, too, beginning with its first stage. "The road from Keene Valley to the Lower Ausable Pond has loomed in rocky grandeur all my life as the roughest road I ever traveled," Pinchot later recalled. "My father and I walked over it rather than sit in the bucking buckboard, and so did Judge William Hammersley of Hartford, the third member of our party." After a tough ascent covering about eight miles, the group, which included two brawny local guides, loaded their boats and rowed nearly two miles to the mouth of an unnavigable stream flowing down from the upper pond, which they then reached after a mile portage. Once on the Upper Ausable Pond, the company selected its campsite, constructed a lean-to near the shore, and built "deep and delicious balsam beds" into which a tired thirteen-year-old boy gratefully tumbled.

The days and nights that followed were less strenuous physically but not emotionally, for each moment was packed with the hitherto unknown trappings of adult male experience, with new sights, tastes, and sounds. There was the time, for instance, when the group had to ford a rock-filled stream that the less than nimble Judge Hammersley, "no lightweight in mind or body," could not negotiate. Gifford was astonished when one of the guides, "who had spent much of his life with a travelling circus, picked up the Judge's 250 pounds or so and carried him across ... with the greatest of ease."

The youthful onlooker was equally excited by the camp fare, especially the daily flapjacks, which he had never eaten before, sweetened by another novelty, maple syrup, made each morning by heating up chunks broken off from a cake of maple sugar. The landscape itself contained surprises both gentle and wild. As he washed up in the morning or waded in the pond's cool water at midday, chubs would gather just beneath the surface, waiting for scraps. The fish "would even run in and out between my fingers in search of food," Gifford found. "I could feel them and even catch one now and then if I tried." This sense of wonder, this recognition of nature's palpable presence, was offset by its ability to inflict pain, as innumerable "black flies, midges, and mosquitoes worked their wicked will upon us. They were like a cloud by day and needles of fire by night." But what really impressed Gifford were the "calls of the wild" that echoed off the mountain on the far shore's mountainside. One night he heard what the guides identified as the roar of a bear. "Whether they were right or not, I do not know," Pinchot wrote. "At any rate I have never heard its like again." Most riveting of all was the sleep-shattering scream of a panther, the memory of which "will remain till my very substance is worn away."

For Gifford, this had been an unforgettable journey on which he gained a "new and lasting conception of the wilderness" and his place within it. Every night the men would gather around the campfire, passing time by telling "stories of hunting and fishing ... till the booming of the bullfrogs sent me to bed," Pinchot remembered. These stories gave him insight into the nature of the hunt, the refining of outdoor skills, and the character of the sportsman's code.

The more the young Gifford embodied these adult behaviors and attitudes, the more he was allowed to fish on his own. It was while he was soloing early one morning, in silent pursuit of "a one-pound trout" he thought he had spied lurking in a pool shaded by the branches of an alder, that his father let slip a compliment about the boy's abilities that the son forever treasured. The cast had been tricky and he never landed the elusive trout, but his efforts had not gone unnoticed. James Pinchot and Judge Hammersley, "in another boat a long bow shot away," had observed Gifford's technique and tenacity, and at one point the young man overheard his father comment, "The boy doesn't fish as if he were only thirteen." That compliment, Gifford later wrote, "gave me something to stiffen my backbone then and now and all the years between." He concluded that the significance of this memory "is not hard to read: Whenever you go, and whenever you can, take the youngster along."

What had made James Pinchot's words so delicious, however, was not simply that they affirmed Gifford's maturity but that Gifford believed he had listened in on a private, adult conversation — "My father never knew I heard him, but still waters carried the sound, as still waters do." But still waters also run deep, especially in the often controlling and manipulative James Pinchot. It is quite likely that he had staged this particular moment with the same care with which he had managed the whole trip; he intended his son to hear his encouraging words. That calculated compliment, like the earlier gifts of the shiny red sled and the fly rod, were of a piece, elements of the elder Pinchot's deliberate effort to mold his firstborn son into the man he would have him become.


Becoming Gifford Pinchot had much to do with James Pinchot — about this, Gifford was correct. But the context of his maturation also had much to do with his paternal family's long history, a heralded past whose roots drew upon a complex network of French and American cultural legacies.

In 1816, members of the Pinchot family were forced to cross the Atlantic to America because Napoleon Bonaparte had taken to the seas, breaking out of his exile on Elba in late February 1815 and sailing north on the Mediterranean toward the southern coast of France. Within twenty days of Napoleon's landing in France, in what is now known as the "flight of the eagle," the self-proclaimed "Man of Destiny" swept into Paris to loud acclaim. Fearing the outbreak of civil war and concerned for his own safety, Louis XVIII had already fled to Belgium, opening the way for Napoleon to proclaim a new constitution and begin his second reign.

Among those who were overjoyed that the eagle had landed was Gifford's grandfather, Cyrille Constantine Désiré Pinchot. Then only sixteen, he lived with his parents in Breteuil, a small, prosperous community hugging the banks of the Noye River, approximately sixty miles north of Paris. If this youth "warmly espoused" the Bonapartist cause, the European powers of the Congress of Vienna did not. Labeling Napoleon "an enemy and disturber of the peace of the world," they gathered their armed forces to confront him. Napoleon, unable to convince his enemies of his pacific intentions, launched an offensive into Belgium in June to challenge those arrayed against him. Young Pinchot hoped to come to his emperor's aid. One family legend held that his hopes went unfulfilled because he was under enlistment age. Another linked his dashed hopes to bad timing. His father, Constantine, a dry-goods merchant and political figure in Breteuil, raised a detachment of troops, placed Cyrille at its head, and then sent them off to battle, but they failed to reach the French army before its disastrous defeat at Waterloo. Either way, the Pinchots' political allegiance proved costly, for with the return of Louis XVIII to the French throne in 1815 and Napoleon's subsequent exile to St. Helena, the family fell victim to the White Terror, a short-lived period of persecution that marked the Bourbon Restoration. When a cousin, said to have been an "uncompromising Bourbon adherent," denounced Cyrille to the royal authorities, he, his father Constantine, and his mother Maria fled first to England and then to the United States, hoping that the New World would be a safe haven.

Unlike many Europeans who took shelter in America, these new French immigrants came well-heeled and were able to cushion the shocks of the transatlantic migration. Constantine apparently had sold his mercantile concern in Breteuil, but he also brought a considerable stock of goods with him, material that enabled him to reestablish himself in New York City. Three years later he sold his business, and with the profits purchased four hundred acres of prime farmland outside Milford, Pennsylvania, and a town lot on which he erected a store and a house. Located in the northeastern corner of the state, at the head of the Delaware River Water Gap, the Milford region was home to an increasing number of French émigré families, no doubt one reason that the Pinchots moved there in 1819. But they had no intention of simply replicating French provincial life. They were eager to exploit this rich land and in the process refashion themselves as sturdy republicans.

Exploit the land they did. Anything but simple yeoman farmers, the Pinchots took advantage of the economic interaction between the community's dusty commercial byways and the bountiful harvests of corn and other grains that their tenants reaped from the farmlands on which the Pinchots would never live. Profits, not purity, guided their actions and defined their ambition.


Excerpted from Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism by Char Miller. Copyright © 2001 Char Miller. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Char Miller is professor and chair of the history department at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. He is co-author of The Greatest Good: 100 Years of Forestry in America (Society of American Foresters, 1999), and editor of Fluid Arguments: Five Centuries of Western Water Conflict (University of Arizona Press, 2001).

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