First Forester: The Enduring Conservation Legacy of Gifford Pinchot

Gifford Pinchot, the first U.S. forest chief and founder of the Yale Forest School, doesn’t get enough credit, says historian Char Miller. In the early 20th century, Miller says, Pinchot helped shape our modern understanding of conservation, environmental education, and the very notion of “public lands.”

Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.

During his tenure as chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot helped triple the nation’s forest reserves and shaped the agency’s guiding principle to “provide the greatest good for the greatest amount of people in the long run.”
nps logo yale fes <small>This fall the Yale School of Forestry &amp; Environmental Studies is marking the centennial of the U.S. National Park Service with a series of special events. <a href="">Read more</a>&nbsp;</small>
But according to historian Char Miller, those achievements only hint at Pinchot’s legacy. Pinchot, who also founded the Yale Forest School (now F&ES), was nothing less than a missionary for sustainable resource management during the early 20th century, says Miller, author of the books “Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism” and “America’s Great National Forests.

And at a time when conservation ideals barely permeated the nation’s consciousness, Pinchot grasped the ecological importance of forests and possessed the political skills to convince policymakers — and the public — that protecting these resources was “a social good,” Miller says.
During a recent visit to Yale, Miller described how Pinchot, along with his friend, Theodore Roosevelt, built the U.S. Forest Service, and along the way helped shape our modern understanding of conservation, environmental education, and the very notion of “public lands.”

Q: Why is Gifford Pinchot important?

gifford pinchot portrait Gifford Pinchot
CHAR MILLER: One of the things that he did was that he gave us what we now think of as “public lands.” The national forests in particular, in his case, but also the concept of the public lands in the whole breadth as we know it today: the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service. These entities didn’t exist in his time, but he created the process by which those things could occur.
More importantly, he gave us the notion that these lands are public, that we own them as a body politic. As a consequence, they don’t belong to Utah, they don’t belong to Florida…He recognized that public lands are democratic, something that all of us are invested in, and I don’t think that’s changed at all. There have been a lot of fights about that, most recently this past year in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. But I don’t think any of the larger issues have changed much at all.

Q: Gifford Pinchot’s story is a complex one: This is a guy whose family wealth was built cutting timber, and yet the profession of “forester” didn’t really exist in the U.S. at the time. Yet by the time he left Yale, he seemed to have known that professionalizing forestry management was what he was going to do with his career. What was driving him?

MILLER: When he was a child his parents watched what Pinchot loved to do, and what he liked to do as a 4-year-old was to be outdoors; He liked to fish, he liked to camp, he liked to do all that stuff that was possible for someone who came from a life of leisure as he did… So for his parents, the question was, “Well, how you can we figure out a professional path by which you can maintain that happiness?”
A part of it was also a religious or, in Pinchot’s case, a spiritual drive that came mostly through his mother. His letters to her early in his childhood are deeply spiritual, although framed in a sort of institutionalized religious way: What is our job here? What are we doing in the short lifetimes that we have? And I think those two things — the outdoor piece and the sort of quest — really drove him by the time he was at Yale… There was a missionary feel about him. It was true when he was an undergraduate. And 40 years later he was still a missionary, the prophetic voice on the mountaintop, bellowing away about why this stuff matters.
As for his career path, read his letters to his parents when he went to Europe to study forestry and you see just how much he and his parents were plotting out the next 10 years. “So you’ll go there, and you’ll study and then we’ll think about how we’ll use our political connections in the United States to build up your brand…” — they don’t use that language but it’s effectively what he’s doing — “…and you’ll work here and there, and then this will happen…” And by God it did! Including their plans to create a forestry school in the 1890s. Which is another one of his legacies: The notion that forestry, and now environmental studies, is something that must be taught. Which is probably Pinchot’s greatest legacy.

Q: Others saw the importance of having a forestry school in the United States at the time. How did it come to be that he founded the Yale Forest School?

MILLER: Part of what he was trying to do was to build upon the capacity for Americans to become foresters, so that they would not have to go over to Europe as he had to. One of the reasons, as he always argued, was that American conditions required American knowledge. But to get that knowledge you needed people who could train and teach you. He did it here, and there is the logic of course that he went to Yale as an undergraduate, so why would he not do it here? But he was actually talking with Columbia, Harvard, and Princeton as potential sites, too — though I suspect that was not going to ever happen.
pinchot with yale students Pinchot with Yale students.
One of the crucial things he did was that he paid his close friend at Yale, Henry Graves [the second U.S. Forest chief], to go to Europe to get his graduate education, and brought him into the early Bureau of Forestry. And the moment they made the deal to create the Yale Forest School, he asked Graves to go be its first dean. So he put somebody in place who was a lifelong friend, whom he’d helped train, but whom he also knew understood the educational piece better than he did. And then he could send those Yale students into the Forest Service.
And it worked! If you look at all the early foresters that came out of Yale, at some point early in their careers they worked for the Forest Service… And this becomes the catalyst for a lot of the conversation in the public and private sectors about forestry itself. It’s PR at one level, but it’s also a mission on the other. And to see Pinchot as anything but a missionary is to miss one of his real key virtues.

Q: In addition to helping create the Forest Service, they tripled the nation’s reserve forest in the face of steep opposition. How’d they do it? 

MILLER: It was a federal bureau that had virtually no staff when Pinchot entered in 1898 as head of the bureau. It had no land. (All of the land was over in the Department of Interior.) It had no cachet; no one was talking about the Bureau of Forestry in the United States. So part of Pinchot’s goal was to get people talking, to make them believe, as he did, that forestry was a kind of social good, something that really ought to be invested into the land and peoples’ lives. He worked the media; as he always liked to say, use the media first, last, and always. And at the moment in which the media was becoming national, there was Gifford Pinchot and his bureau making headlines. Creating stories. Pouring out press releases. Really articulating why conservation mattered.
He really understood how politics worked in the United States, and whom you needed to talk to get this kind of legislation passed through Congress.
That dovetailed with a political agenda that Pinchot shared with some people on Capitol Hill, and ultimately — when Teddy Roosevelt became president — was also embodied by the president. And that agenda was to begin to make national forests an important part of the political discourse, and to change the way land was managed in the United States.
Pinchot was also savvy about how to make this possible… He walked the halls of Congress for seven years. He went around the country and gave hundreds of talks every year on the value of doing what he wanted done. And he was successful... He really understood how politics worked in the United States, and whom you needed to talk to get this kind of legislation passed through Congress. It took him seven years for that to happen, and there was some luck along the way and a lot of convincing people dead-set against it that the change was needed.

Q: Beyond that political astuteness, he also understood forest ecology. Sustainability wasn’t a term yet, but that’s basically what he was professing: if you want to maintain a healthy society, you can’t go through all these resources without thinking about how to manage them responsibly. 

MILLER: The Pinchot quote that everyone uses is “the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.” Jeremy Benthem, the 18th century utilitarian, had come up with “the greatest good for the greatest number…” But Gifford Pinchot added “…in the long run.” Sustainability was at the foundation of the organization. And when he would go into public settings, many people were furious with him … But he deliberately put himself in front of them so that they could hear him. And he didn’t back off. He said, “Look, if you’re going to mine every mine, rip down every forest, and graze down every single grassland, what are you going to leave your kids? What are you going to leave your grandkids?” If you want to sustain yourself over time, you have to be conservative. You have to restrain your behaviors in ways that none of them wanted to do, but the logic was almost inescapable. We’ve now changed that to the language of sustainability.

Q: A major influence on his career of course was his relationship with Roosevelt. How much credit should Pinchot get in shaping Roosevelt’s environmental policies as president? 

MILLER: Roosevelt and Pinchot’s relationship was absolutely fascinating and fraught, in part because they were quite competitive even though one was a president and the other was simply an agency head. But Pinchot was no typical agency head; he was part of Roosevelt’s “tennis cabinet” (It has to be outdoors, it can’t be a “kitchen cabinet” for those guys.) They were close friends and had been before Roosevelt became president, but there’s a kind of sparring relationship at some level…
pinchot roosevelt uslibraryofcongress Roosevelt, left, and Pinchot during an Inland Waterways Commission tour of the Mississippi River in 1907.
But I think in a way their pairing is one of these extraordinary moments in American political life, in which the man who was president and the head of this new agency thought so much alike about how to pursue their shared agenda that they got an enormous amount done. Not only in bringing more and more lands into the national forest system, or having them designated as national forests with a great deal of opposition, but also in terms of a sense that the Constitution was more flexible than many conservatives thought it was. That you could stretch its limits periodically, partly to test it, but also to get things done in ways that you wanted to do.
And I think that part of what Roosevelt was looking at in Pinchot was that he had someone who was willing to go full steam non stop 24-7 in pursuit of a particular goal. You loved to have subordinates like that. And from Pinchot’s point of view, it’s great to have someone who has your back, and who was substantial in every sense of the word and would fend off critics. So they had this really symbiotic relationship. It’s hard to say one had more influence over the other because they’re working in concert.

Q: They also did this at an important moment, when the Eastern forests were nearly gone and the Western forests were on their way. What was protected because of their work? 

MILLER: Let me break it up in terms of East and West, because they’re different in their framings. In the West there was an articulation from the bottom up and from the top down that landscapes like the mountain ranges of the West were essentially valuable more for water than for timber. Timber was great, but water was absolutely essential, and in the arid parts of the West this was even more important.
My home today is about five miles from the Angeles National Forest, which drapes over the San Gabriel Mountains in Los Angeles. They never cut timber there, never even thought about cutting timber there outside of the odd tree here or there. They understood that the hydrology of Southern California depended upon those watersheds, and that Los Angeles would never be Los Angeles if it didn’t get water sheeting off of those mountains. You protect the watershed so that you can build urban life in the valleys below. That was as true in Phoenix, in Tucson, Denver…Take any one of the western cities that have mushroomed in size over the past century and look upstream from them, and every single one of them is surrounded by national forests. That’s what that late-19th early-20th century generation understood: that there’s a link between forest health and water flows, and urban life in valleys below. If you wanted strong cities you had to have healthy forests.
watershed stanislaus usfs A watershed within the Stanislaus National Forest in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of northern California.
They also connected with local groups that felt the same way… So there was a meeting of the science expertise and political power coming out of the East and local interests who were saying, “Yeah, that’s the same argument we’ve been making for more than two decades!” As a result you could have a national forest like the Angeles National Forest or the San Bernardino or any number of these that are spread out across the West.
The argument also works in the East. Even though many eastern forests, like the White Mountains and Green Mountains, had been obliterated over the previous century-and-a-half, the Weeks Act of 1911 — which was enacted after Pinchot and Roosevelt had been out of office but which they had pushed for while in office — gave the federal government for the first time the capacity to buy land from willing sellers. And what land was it going to be? What they had learned in the West was, go for the upper mountain watersheds… You look at where they went throughout the East and the Middle West, it’s high grounds and watersheds. In time that would expand in terms of other things they could purchase. But that act, and the run-up to getting it passed in 1911, was consistent with the action in the West, which meant that finally in 1911 we had a national Forest Service. So that the U.S. Forest Service, which was only in the West, was now covering and managing landscapes across the whole of the United States.
Pinchot can point to that as an accomplishment, as could Roosevelt, because it really was partly theirs. And in that way, it seems to me, I don’t know that in another time and place we could have gotten this done. I don’t know that in the 1920s you could have started fresh in a Republican set of administrations — which is a very different party than what Pinchot and Roosevelt belonged to — and achieved these ends. So they were lucky in their timing, and they were most effective in their energy.

Q: More broadly, the Forest Service reserves were only part of the public lands that were set aside as a consequence of policies from that era. 

MILLER: If you look at the broad nature of public lands — including refuges, parks, grasslands, and the like — what we the people got out of this process, and the articulation of Roosevelt, Pinchot and a lot of other people made in the early part of the 20th century, was the capacity to slow down the onslaught of the Industrial Revolution on those lands in the first place. Also, we got a tourist industry: the landscapes that we can now climb on, hike in, camp on, fish, hunt, recreate in any number of ways. That was important in the early 20th century, but is absolutely essential in the 21st century since our population has exploded in size — it’s more than three times what Gifford Pinchot and Roosevelt knew. And so one of the things that they gave us is the capacity to go outdoors… That was not always what they had in mind; recreation was not first on their list of things that would happen. But it is how it has morphed.
Another thing was their careful understanding of why public lands matter from a resource point of view. Whether it’s mining or timber or grasslands (for livestock), if you could control our behavior on these lands, these millions of acres, you can also set those acres as a sort of educational process, to show how these processes work, to do the science and then take that management ethos into the communities that are working on private lands and say, “Look, we’ve discovered these things, and it might be possible for you to do better work, too.”
There is a downside to these public lands that we don’t always acknowledge: there were other people on these lands when we decided that they were going to be parks and forests and refuges.
And finally, water. All of these public lands — especially in the West, but also in the East — are around rivers and the watersheds. That water is absolutely essential for human civilization and for all species that exist in these landscapes. And it turns out that clean water coming off of healthy forests is a lot cheaper to manage in many respects than water that is not clean and that you have to purify in some sense. So I think there is some cost savings that these public lands grant to us, and we don’t pay attention to it. We don’t even know when we flip the faucet and out pours water where the source of that water is. And it’s crucial that we do so, because it leads us back to a history that has enabled us to live in this way.
But that history is complicated. And there is a downside to these public lands that we don’t always acknowledge: there were other people on these lands when we decided that they were going to be parks and forests and refuges. The Paiute — who lived in and around the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge that the Bundys tried to take over this past winter — were the first frontline people who were protesting that action. But in so protesting they raised the question about an agency that’s managing the land without their participation. That’s as true in the parks as it is in the forests. And in many cases when they were demarcated as a refuge, park or forests, those native peoples’ access to those spaces, which they had lived on for tens of thousands of years, had been abrogated. They were pushed out. The Park Service is now wrestling with that in a way that is I think very important in its centennial.
This year I moderated a panel on the Park Service at conference in Seattle. And during that discussion, members of the agency — including current members and retirees — talked about the need for a sort of truth-and-reconciliation internal to the agency. How can we go forward into the second century if we don’t acknowledge our errors in the first? The same is true for the Forest Service. The same is true for Fish and Wildlife. The same is true for [Bureau of Land Management]. And so until we have that conversation we’ve got a pretty iffy relationship, even if there are all these virtues these lands have given us.
Beside that, they’re spectacular. Let’s face it: Bryce, Zion, Grand Canyon, just tick off the national parks, and they’re in the most beautiful terrain imaginable. But that terrain has some blood on its hand. And I think we have to acknowledge that… It reverberates, but more softly in those of us who don’t pay much attention to this history. And frankly it’s been my students who have been pushing me hard to think through some of the implications.

Q: The discussion about the benefits of these lands — who they belong to and whether they will always be public — is still very much relevant. 

MILLER: None of the questions about public lands that Pinchot and Roosevelt worked on, that John Muir advocated, that the Audubon Society and every other group in the 20th century pushed for, are settled. What they thought they were achieving they achieved. But they also knew that every generation was going to question that process.
So I think part of what we’re looking at is this now 120- to 150-year process whereby public lands get debated. As they should! That’s what makes them public, they’re within the democratic process. Invading those lands, taking those lands over with guns, as we saw at Malheur Wildlife Refuge, is beyond the pale. It’s outside the political discourse. But it’s not that far away from what the so-called Sagebrush Rebellions of the early 20th century. And frankly the language of the Bundys ties directly into the language of 110 years ago. Tweak a verb here or there and you’re basically in the same landscape. So part of what we need to understand is that the legacy that an earlier generation bequeathed us is a legacy that we have to bequeath to our successors. Every generation goes through these struggles, and those are the struggles of a democratic society.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.