Op-Ed: Gov. Gifford Pinchot Left His Mark On Our Natural Heritage
By Char Miller and Kevin C. Brown
Gifford Pinchot, who served two terms as Pennsylvania’s governor and led the U.S. Forest Service as its first chief, and whose 150th birthday we celebrate Tuesday, had a face contemporaries loved. Most of all, they adored his moustache.
Cartoonists exaggerated its shape and size during Mr. Pinchot’s controversial tenure at the Forest Service. It caught the fancy of Pennsylvania newspapers while he occupied the governor’s mansion in the 1920s and 1930s.
He loved being the center of attention and knew full well, right up to his death in 1946, that his moustache helped keep him in the spotlight.
Despite Mr. Pinchot’s widely recognizable face—and political influence—his is no longer a household name. To the extent that Pennsylvanians remember Mr. Pinchot, many likely curse him. A staunch teetotaler, in 1933 he signed the legislation creating the state’s Liquor Control Board.
And yet, on the sesquicentennial of Mr. Pinchot’s birth, it is worth looking past his lamentable lack of appreciation for fine whiskey. In the Progressive Era, Mr. Pinchot, along with close friend Theodore Roosevelt, argued that the federal government was essential to the efficient and effective management of society’s affairs.
Like his presidential pal, he also believed deeply that only the nation state could guarantee a more just and equitable society.
Gifford Pinchot put his vision into action in 1905 in the national forests, asserting that they must be managed for “the greatest good, for the greatest number, in the long run.”
Sustainable management of what is now a 193-million-acre system was essential, he believed, so that each succeeding generation would receive an undiminished economic and social value from these vital public lands.
Only the federal government could balance the cross-generational claims on the Allegheny National Forest and its many peers nationwide.
Seeking the “greatest good” was no cure-all, however. In fact, what constitutes the greatest good has been debated ever since. That prospect actually cheered Mr. Pinchot, for it meant democracy was alive. But it would flourish only so long as these disagreements occurred in an open, public arena and were not manipulated (or ignored) by corporate interests.
“The rights of people to govern themselves,” Mr. Pinchot wrote in his book, “The Fight for Conservation” (1910), should not be infringed on by “great monopolies through their power over natural resources.”
Mr. Pinchot happily fought against entrenched monopolies while serving as Pennsylvania’s governor (1923-1927 and 1931-1935). That’s why the state’s power elite — Republicans and Democrats — despised him.
To secure office, he had to subvert the prevailing party system by building a successful coalition of the dismissed, the disaffected and the marginalized. His fervent supporters included women, miners, farmers and (yes) prohibitionists.
With their backing, he challenged the swelling clout of the utility industry, battled against Big Coal and Big Iron, and dispatched the state police to protect striking workers from company-financed goon squads. For good measure his wife, Cornelia Bryce Pinchot, stood on picket lines.
Putting the unemployed to work constructing 20,000 miles of “Pinchot Roads” that pulled farmers out of the mud, the energetic chief executive sent others to regenerate clearcut forests across the state. A healthy landscape and a salubrious body politic were the cornerstones of what Mr. Pinchot called “human conservation.”
His principled approach is little evident in today’s debates in Pennsylvania over fracking. Given his lifelong distrust of natural-resource companies, with their impact on the environment and political machinations in Washington, D.C., and Harrisburg, he probably would have prohibited fracking in the Keystone State, much as New York State has done.
In his first gubernatorial term, and many decades before federal clean-water legislation, Mr. Pinchot advocated for and signed legislation to stop industry from dumping pollutants in Pennsylvania rivers.
He could not have missed the parallels to fracking wastewater infiltrating streams and groundwater and would not have been silent about the serious threat this effluent posed to public and environmental health — that is, to the “greatest good.”
Even if Mr. Pinchot decided that fracking — like logging and mining back in his day — was essential to the state’s economy and its citizens’ economic well-being, he would have put strict limits on its operations.
Protecting the people, the communities they inhabited and the water resources they and future generations rely on would have been his first order of business.
And he would have fought hard for his convictions. Mr. Pinchot loved the thrust-and-parry of Pennsylvania politics. He relished mixing it up with opponents, knowing this was the only way to change the state’s political culture and expand the opportunities available to its least powerful citizens.
This, then, is a man well worth celebrating — along with his signature moustache.
Pinchot Institute For Conservation, Pike County
Grey Towers National Historic Site, Pike County
Char Miller is W.K. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College and author of “Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism.” Kevin C. Brown earned his doctorate at Carnegie Mellon University and is a postdoctoral researcher for the American Society for Environmental History. He lives in Friendship, Allegheny County.
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