Mayville: Recognizing Gifford Pinchot, steward of forests (column)
This month, we mark the 152nd birthday of Gifford Pinchot — a man who invented a profession, advocated for the scientific management of forests and oversaw the creation (and served as the first chief) of the U.S. Forest Service. In communities like ours — surrounded by public land — his is a name we should all recognize and celebrate.
Often, when I tell people I work for the U.S. Forest Service, they answer with something like, “I just love Yosemite,” or, “We saw wolves last year in Yellowstone.” And while it always pleases me to know that people enjoy and appreciate their public lands in this country, and the National Park Service never fails to offer a world-class experience, I often find myself in the position of trying to respectfully explain the difference between the two agencies.
I don’t blame people for confusing the two: The boundaries that delineate federally managed public lands aren’t always clear, we both employ “rangers” and Smokey Bear wears a Park Service uniform hat — of course we do the same thing, right? Interestingly, while the ownership of the land that each agency manages happens to be the same — the American public — the underlying management philosophies are actually quite different.
Conservation vs. Preservation
The remarkable growth and expansion seen during the 1800s brought with it the notion that there existed an endless supply of timber and resources in the American West. Vast expanses of trees, roaring rivers and open spaces dominated the landscape for centuries prior to and during the settlement years.
However, by the late 1800s, it became apparent that localized resource depletion — through mining or clear-cutting of timber — was significantly affecting watersheds, wildlife habitat and soil stability across the Western United States. To those paying attention, this unmanaged use of resources was unsustainable, both ecologically and financially.
The federal response to this environmental crisis was the 1891 creation of “forest reserves” across the nation, which withdrew land from sale or development and became the precursor for national forests as we know them today.
Enter Gifford Pinchot. As a man whose family wealth was derived from land development, lumbering and, of all things, wallpaper sales, Pinchot was interested in the natural world from a young age. This grew into a desire to study forestry — a profession which did not yet exist in the United States.
With wealth and connections behind him, Pinchot travelled to Europe to learn the new science and returned to the United States with an aim toward putting it to use, promoting scientific forestry and, with it, the profitable use of the nation’s natural resources. Later in his life, he would coin the term “conservation ethic,” whereby resources are used to sustainably benefit human needs while also maintaining the health of the natural world.
Pinchot’s philosophy of conservationism was countered in the early 20th century by people like John Muir, who advocated for the preservation of natural places for the cultural and natural heritage values that they embody.
Today, the terms “conservation” and “preservation” are often interchanged, but 100 years ago, they represented very different ideas and were debated openly and often on the national stage. Of course, today we know that these two ideals are not mutually exclusive, but they do represent a significant philosophical difference in how public land is thought to be managed.
Pinchot and Muir became the figureheads for this debate, centered on the future of our public lands and it’s a testament to the American ideals of representative democracy and public discourse that both philosophies would be brought forward and made successful. In 1905, Gifford Pinchot’s idea of responsible and productive use of public lands would be brought to fruition with the creation of the U.S. Forest Service.
1916 saw the birth of the National Park Service, which was a direct response to John Muir’s idea of preserving public land from development and exploitation. Today, across the United States, 84 million acres are managed by the National Park Service, and 193 million acres of forests and grasslands are managed by the U.S. Forest Service — an incredible testament to the legacies of Muir and Pinchot.
Greatest good for greatest number
With the formation of the Forest Service, Pinchot (as the first head of the agency) was able to implement his ideas of conservationism at a national scale. He adopted the utilitarian idea of the “greatest good for the greatest number” and added an important addendum: “in the long run.” By doing so, Pinchot effectively put into policy the idea of sustainability as we know it today. And, as current land managers, we find ourselves regularly falling back to his words for guidance.
By 1960, public land management became more refined and understood, and the American public was using its lands in new ways not envisioned by its founders. The passage of the Multiple-Use Sustained Yield Act directed the Forest Service to manage public lands for timber, range, water, recreation and wildlife — marking the first time that all of those uses were equal under the law. (Multiple-use management is also the mission of the Bureau of Land Management, founded in 1946 and not to be forgotten as manager of more than 247 million acres across the country.)
And while I’m quite certain that Gifford Pinchot couldn’t have foreseen the complexities of administering a permit for a world-class ski area such as Vail or Beaver Creek, the value today of water on the Western Slope of Colorado or the challenges of managing Hanging Lake, I’m impressed and inspired by the vision that he had in creating a system of public lands that has remained relevant and valued for more than 110 years.
So, the next time you venture onto your favorite mountain bike trail, see cattle or sheep grazing on public land or drive past a log truck on a forest road, remember the amazing legacy that Gifford Pinchot set in motion and principles that still guide the U.S. Forest Service today.
Aaron Mayville is district ranger of the Eagle-Holy Cross District of the White River National Forest.
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