Honoring America’s First Forester on His 150th Birthday
The following is an op-ed piece by FHS staff historian James G. Lewis that appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times on August 9, 2015, in honor of Gifford Pinchot’s 150th birthday on August 11.
Born just after the guns of the Civil War fell silent, he died the year after the first atomic bomb was dropped. He was, in his own words, a “governor every now and then” but a forester all the time. Indeed, Gifford Pinchot, born 150 years ago on Aug. 11, served two terms as Pennsylvania governor but is best known as the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service (established 1905), which today manages 192 million acres. He also created the Society of American Foresters (1900), the organization that oversees his chosen profession, and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (1900), the oldest forestry school in America. And just south of Asheville, in the Pisgah National Forest, is the Cradle of Forestry in America, both of which exist in part because of him.
But perhaps his greatest legacy is his prescient call, made 75 years ago, for conservation as the foundation for permanent peace.
When Pinchot enrolled at Yale College in 1885, his father encouraged him to pursue forestry. It was a radical idea. The United States had no forestry school, no working foresters, no land being managed on scientific principles. To become a forester, in 1889 Pinchot traveled to Europe. There he met Sir Dietrich Brandis, who was leading British forestry students on tours of sustainably managed forests in Germany. The best way to introduce forestry to the United States, Brandis told him, was to demonstrate that scientific forest management could earn a private landowner a steady income.
Pinchot came home in 1890 full of ideas but few job prospects. Through family connections, he learned of George Vanderbilt’s great undertaking in Asheville. Vanderbilt hired him to be his estate’s—and thus the nation’s—first working forester. When some of Pinchot’s employees began asking why he did things a certain way, like selecting only some trees to cut instead of cutting them all, he decided to teach them in the evenings.
Pinchot didn’t have the temperament to be a teacher, and the classes, such as they were, didn’t last. But fortunately for America, his forestry exhibit at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 and accompanying booklet, Biltmore Forest, attracted wider attention, and he left Biltmore in 1895. On his recommendation, Vanderbilt hired Carl Alwin Schenck, another Brandis protégé, who in 1898 established the Biltmore Forest School, the first forestry school in America.
In 1898, Pinchot was appointed chief of what would become the U.S. Forest Service. He and his friend President Theodore Roosevelt made forestry the focus of a national conservation movement. The two held national and North American conservation conferences before Roosevelt left office in 1909. An international one was scuttled after Pinchot was fired by President Taft in 1910.
A political progressive, Pinchot next plunged into politics. No matter what office he ran for—governor, senator, representative—he advocated for human rights and sustainably managed natural resources. In the 1930s, he watched as Europe and Asia waged wars in large part over access to natural resources. His 1940 observation that “international co-operation in conserving, utilizing, and distributing natural resources to the mutual advantage of all nations might well remove one of the most dangerous of all obstacles to a just and permanent world peace” rings louder even today and is a premise of the just-released UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Although planting a tree or visiting the Cradle of Forestry are good ways to commemorate Gifford Pinchot’s 150th birthday on Aug. 11, the best way to honor America’s first forester is to continue working for conservation and, by extension, world peace.
James Lewis is the staff historian at the Forest History Society in Durham and an executive producer of “First in Forestry: Carl Schenck and the Biltmore Forest School.” The film will have its world premiere at Brevard College on Aug. 30 and its television premiere on UNC-TV in 2016.