Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Milford, Pike County
The nation's first trained forester, Gifford Pinchot of Milford served two terms as Pennsylvania governor. A national forest in Washington is named for him.
Gifford Pinchot was born in Connecticut to James and Mary (Eno) Pinchot in 1865, but he spent much of his life at his family’s estate in Milford, Pennsylvania. After graduating from Yale, Pinchot went to Europe to become the nation’s first scientifically trained forester. Upon returning to the U.S., he wrote textbooks on American forestry and established the U.S. Forest Service. He served as Republican governor of Pennsylvania from 1923-26 and 1931-34. He wrote political speeches, letters, and books on subjects including forestry, union disputes, electric company monopolies, fishing, and his role in the conservation movement. Pinchot died of leukemia in Milford in 1946.
Gifford Pinchot, often called the Father of American Forestry, was raised in a small town in Pike County. His family history was tightly linked to the story of the timber industry in the America frontier. His grandfather had been a clear-cutting timber baron, and Gifford’s father, James, living among the denuded hills, hoped America could find a new way. Gifford fulfilled his father’s wish, studying first at Yale and then setting off to at a forestry academy in France. While in Europe, Pinchot received special tutelage from the world’s foremost forester of the time, Sir Dietrich Brandes. This education, the first scientific forestry training of any American, solidified Pinchot’s ambition to bring forestry home to a country where short-term profit was the sole governor of the tree cutting industry.
Upon his return to the U.S., Pinchot worked his way up from independent forestry jobs to national advisory committees on forest management. He soon had a reputation for continuously advocating forest policies that favored long-term efficiency and prosperity over short-term profits. In 1896 Grover Cleveland appointed Pinchot to head the new U.S. Forest Service, where his talents as an administrator were first honed. During his career as the first “chief forester,” Pinchot secured legal powers for the Forest Service, quadrupled the number of national forests, and founded the world’s largest forest products laboratory.
Pinchot and the early conservation movement made the greatest progress under Theodore Roosevelt when conservation on the American frontier became standard practice. Pinchot received top honors in Roosevelt’s Autobiography (1913), as Roosevelt noted, “Among the many, many public officials who under my administration rendered literally invaluable service to the people of the United States, he, on the whole, stood first.”
Perhaps spoiled by his time under a supportive administration, Pinchot could not tolerate William Taft’s support of a Secretary of the Interior who sided with big businesses’ fast-extraction schemes, and Taft soon fired Pinchot for his scathing criticisms. Pinchot then returned to Pennsylvania. Here he revamped the state forestry system, initiating massive land-buybacks by the government and forest replantings, establishing many of the state forests we have to this day. In 1922 he ran for governor, winning with the support of women, rural farmers, union workers, and prohibitionists. Pinchot reorganized the budget and power structure of the whole state government, turning a $30 million deficit into a $6 million surplus. He won another term as governor in 1930, just as the Great Depression hit the state. Pinchot surprised some Republican colleagues by crossing party lines in support of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s federal aid programs. He was also among the first governors to hire people from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.
In his later years, Pinchot continued fighting for conservation causes in Washington. As an old man, Pinchot was proud to contribute to the World War II effort by devising a lifeboat fishing kit with directions for extracting fresh water from fish. This kit was adopted by the Navy, Army, and Coast Guard. His proposals for an international conference on natural resource conservation as a basis for world peace finally led to the United Nations Scientific Conference on the Conservation and Utilization of Resources in 1949, but Pinchot did not live to see it.
From a literary perspective, Pinchot’s fame was widest during his days as a bureaucrat and a politician when he wrote scores of letters to newspapers across the country, taking bold moral stances on issues from women’s suffrage to regulating electric power. Pinchot was not above making fierce public attacks on any politician who stood in the way of his policies. Pinchot wrote conservation speeches that President Theodore Roosevelt delivered to the nation without much editing, suggesting that Pinchot’s speech writing was quite good.
In his later years, Pinchot reflected that he had been “a governor every now and then, but I am a forester all the time” (as quoted in Gifford Pinchot, Private and Public Forester by Harold T. Pinkett). While his political works are not widely recognized today by the general public, forestry students still study his works. His early reports describing certain trees and forests were models for the forest scientists that followed him. In 1899 he compiled one of the first forestry textbooks, A Primer on Forestry. His second textbook, The Training of a Forester (1914), introduced the budding field to anyone interested in the future of the nation’s forests. Decades later, after leaving public office, Pinchot authored a new edition of Training of a Forester that incorporated the rudiments of forest ecology, once again putting the book decades ahead of its time. Aside from a pair of books about fishing, Pinchot’s most consuming job was the five-year project to record the process of establishing American Forestry. In this book, Breaking New Ground (1947), Pinchot made sure that the history of his contributions to founding American forestry be known from an insider’s perspective. Pinchot wanted all the nuances of political pressures and long-term goals to be clear, so anyone could understand how it all came together.
After Pinchot finished Breaking New Ground at the age of 81, his health soon took its final downturn. His works, though, were not fleeting: he had established enduring organizations, created a dramatic imprint on the American landscape, and recorded the story of how he had done it. He could die content that he had pursued his often-quoted goal, to do “the greatest good, for the greatest number, over the longest term.”
Today, Pinchot lies in his grave in Milford, Pennsylvania. His family estate just outside of town, Grey Towers, where he spent the later years of his life, is a National Historic Landmark managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Two forest reserves bear his name: Gifford Pinchot State Park in York County, Pennsylvania, and Gifford Pinchot National Forest between Mount Rainier and Mount Saint Helens in southwestern Washington.
Selected Books on Forestry
A Primer of Forestry. (Vol. 1: The Forest, Vol. 2: Practical Forestry). Washington: Government Printing Office, 1899-1905.
Forest Conservation in the Adirondacks. N.p.: n.p., 1911.
The Training of a Forester. New York: J.B. Lippincott, 1914.
Talks on Forestry. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Dept. of Forests and Waters, 1925.
The Fight for Conservation. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1910.
Wages, Margins, and Anthracite Prices. Philadelphia: American Academy of Political and Social Science, 1924.
The Power Monopoly: Its Make-up and Its Menace. Milford, PA: n.p., 1928.
To the South Seas. Philadelphia: The John C. Winston Company, 1930.
Just Fishing Talk. Harrisburg: The Telegraph Press, 1936.
Breaking New Ground. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1947.
Diaries of Gifford Pinchot, 1882-1946. Washington: Library of Congress Photoduplication Service, 1976.
Bixler, Patricia E. Gifford Pinchot. Harold Myers ed. Historic Pennsylvania Leaflet No. 39. Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission: Harrisburg, 1976.