Gifford Pinchot was both a politician and a scientist, living in a time when the two were not mutually exclusive, as they seemingly are today.
He was one of the pioneers of the US conservation movement and, as an adviser to President Theodore Roosevelt in the first decade of the 20th century, was instrumental in the creation of the US Forest Service and oversaw a huge increase in the amount of national forest land holdings.
An article published by the US Department of the Interior says Pinchot “established the modern definition of conservation as a ‘wise use’ approach to public land. Conservationists believe in using land sustainably to preserve it for future generations, rather than allowing it to be exploited and lost forever.”
Pinchot was born into a wealthy family on 11 August 1865 in Simsbury, Connecticut; one of his grandfathers had made a fortune as a timber magnate and real estate developer, clear-cutting forests across the US.
In the early 1870s the family toured Britain and Europe for three years and on their return his father, who had become concerned by what he saw as dwindling timber reserves in the US brought on by poor resource management, encouraged his son to take up forestry as a profession.
This was an unusual suggestion, notes an article in the University of Montana’s Wilderness Connect, “because no American had yet acknowledged its practical application and made forestry a career”.
But Pinchot was intrigued by the idea, although, according to Char Miller, who wrote the 2001 biography Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism, he later remarked: “I had no more conception of what it meant to be a forester than the man in the moon… But at least a forester worked in the woods and with the woods – and I loved the woods and everything about them.”
Pinchot completed undergraduate studies at Yale University in 1889 then studied forestry at the French National School of Forestry, in Nancy. Established in 1824, the school aimed to create “a technologically trained elite who would develop practical ways to both extract and conserve the nation’s resources in the post-Revolution era”, says Wilderness Connect.
“At the core of the school’s curriculum was an emphasis on silviculture, the means by which foresters produced and cared for forests, which finally enabled Pinchot to unite forestry as taught in the classroom with its reality on the ground.”
While in France, Pinchot was influenced by Dietrich Brandis, a German-British botanist who worked with the British Imperial Forestry Service in colonial India for nearly 30 years and is considered the father of tropical forestry.
Pinchot returned to the US and in 1892 went to work on George Vanderbilt’s 50,000-hectare Biltmore estate in North Carolina. According to a profile published by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission: “Proving that conservation practices could be both beneficial for forests and still profitable, the Biltmore arboretum became a model for forest management around the world.”
In 1900, Pinchot oversaw the establishment of a school of forestry at Yale University, which today operates as the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
When he became chief of the US Forest Service in 1905, 22 million hectares were held in 60 regional reserves under federal control, according to an article produced by the state of Connecticut. In 1910, when he left the service, there were 150 national forests in the US covering almost 70 million hectares.
Pinchot believed conservation should yield “the greatest good, for the greatest number, for the longest run”, but any discussion of his contribution to the science of forestry must note that he is often criticised as being “too pragmatic, too willing to compromise on conservation issues”.
As a conservationist, he was sometimes pitched against the renowned champion of wilderness preservation John Muir. He believed in practical environmentalism in which natural resources are used on a sustainable basis.
He wrote several books, including, in 1910, The Fight For Conservation, in which he said that to consider natural resources to be inexhaustible was “stupidly false”, adding that “the conservation of natural resources is the basis, and the only permanent basis, of national success”.
Pinchot served two terms as governor of Pennsylvania – 1923-27 and 1931-35. He was later stricken with leukemia and died on 4 October 1946.
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