Why the U.S. Forest Service's First Chief Deserves a Cool T-Shirt

Image: Courtesy Center of the American West
Image: Courtesy Center of the American West

If during this super-heated summer you have traveled to any of the electoral battleground states, you'll know that the sun-baked temperatures outside are more than matched by the ultra-hot campaign ads saturating the airwaves.

And you'll understand why Patricia Limerick and her students decided to counter the pounding partisanship with a time-honored device in American popular culture -- a T-shirt.

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Emblazoned across its chest is a sentence that Limerick, a brilliant historian who directs Colorado University - Boulder's Center of the American West, clipped from Gifford Pinchot's book, The Fight for Conservation (1910). "It is a greater thing to be a good citizen than to be a good Republican or a good Democrat."

What Pinchot meant by this claim is revealed in part by the context in which he crafted this compelling declaration.

Gifford Pinchot camping in woods in Adirondacks. | Photo: Courtesy Grey Towers National Historic Site
Gifford Pinchot camping in woods in Adirondacks. | Photo: Courtesy Grey Towers National Historic Site

For starters, Pinchot, a life-long Republican, had just been fired from his post as chief of the U.S. Forest Service. President William Howard Taft had removed him for insubordination, a charge Pinchot did not dispute. He had been insubordinate when he challenged the chief executive's decision to lease coal lands in Alaska, beforehand had let Taft know privately that he would contest his actions in public, and that he expected the president would have to dismiss him. (Pinchot's most-supportive mother was thrilled her son read the 1910 White House letter announcing his termination, shouting "hurrah!").

As he had hoped, Pinchot's dismissal rallied a beleaguered conservation movement then reeling from Taft's reversal of Theodore Roosevelt's staunch support of environmental regulations; it shook off its lethargy, reengaging with the body politic.

Gifford Pinchoe with arm raised and Theodore Roosevelt, Inland Waterways Commission 1907. | Photo: Courtesy Grey Towers National Historic Site
Gifford Pinchoe with arm raised and Theodore Roosevelt, Inland Waterways Commission 1907. | Photo: Courtesy Grey Towers National Historic Site

Conservationists' reengagement had disastrous consequences for Taft, who failed to secure a second term after a perturbed TR entered the 1912 presidential race against his one-time protégé. (They split the GOP vote, allowing Wilson to become President).

Yet Pinchot hoped to make a larger point with the republic's electorate -- that it had an obligation over and above that to its partisan beliefs. Its central allegiance must be to a government of, by, and for the people; and this pledge must supersede any narrow, particular, or peculiar interest.

This was the only way for the United States to protect its natural resources across the generations, the forester vowed. The nation would not long endure if the privileged elite, those with inordinate power, the one-percenters of his day, continued to dominate the public lands, and their grass, minerals, water, and forests.

Their domination, not incidentally, also gave them control of the civic arena, infecting Democrats and Republicans alike.

"Differences of purpose and belief between political parties to-day are vastly less than the differences within the parties," Pinchot asserted in The Fight for Conservation. "The great gulf of division which strikes across our whole people pays little heed to fading party lines, or any distinction in name only. The vital separation is between the partisans of government by money for profit and the believers in government by men for human welfare."

No wonder Taft was happy to be rid of Pinchot and his "Socialist tendency."

But that Pinchot, who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, made these bold, even radical, claims; that some of his well-off contemporaries accused him of being a traitor to his class -- an accusation he took as a compliment -- requires some explanation. (I need to explain as well that the following is an extended version of a quick introduction to Pinchot that I wrote for the Pinchot T-shirt project; who could resist the chance to make history wearable?).

Pinchot spoke so movingly of the high calling of citizenship because he knew partisan politics inside out and was intimately familiar with how plutocrats worked the system to their decided advantage.

Born into considerable wealth, Pinchot's family's financial success came coupled with distinguished political activism at the local, state, and national levels -- his parents raised him to embrace his progenitors' intense engagement with public affairs.

An adept administrator and able negotiator, Pinchot wheedled Congress into expanding the Forest Service's annual budgets, boosting its personnel, and toughening its ability to protect, regulate, and steward the national forests and grasslands.

He also had a biting way with words. After President Taft fired him, Pinchot became a driving force behind Theodore Roosevelt's insurgent Bull Moose presidential campaign in 1912, writing some of the candidate's most blistering speeches.

Gifford Pinchot campaigning in Pennsylvania, 1922. | Photo: Courtesy Forest History Society, Durham NC.
Gifford Pinchot campaigning in Pennsylvania, 1922. | Photo: Courtesy Forest History Society, Durham NC.

Pinchot's zealousness then later haunted his electoral ambitions: to win two terms as Pennsylvania's governor proved a herculean task, given that state's take-no-prisoners political environment.

Being tough went with the territory, Pinchot assured his nephew Harcourt Johnstone in 1927, then standing for Parliament in his native England. Losing did too: "I've been licked so many times in so many ways that I've sort of become immune to it."

Yet for all Pinchot's love of the political rough-and-tumble, he repeatedly argued that democracy functions best when the citizenry and their representatives pursue the collective good; when they negotiated their differences, not exaggerated them; when they worked together, across the street and aisle.

This was especially critical for public servants: "Learn tact simply by being absolutely honest and sincere," he told Forest Service employees, "and by learning to recognize the point of view of the other man and meet him with arguments he will understand." After all, "a public official is there to serve the public and not run them."

In no other way could the Forest Service achieve the mission Pinchot had set for the land-management organization at its establishment in 1905: "the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run."

This maxim became the mantra for Pinchot's gubernatorial campaigns in the mid-1920s and early 1930s. Because conservative Republicans despised his progressivism and Democrats controlled the state's large bloc of urban voters, Pinchot had to construct an odd (yet winning) coalition outside the usual party apparatus. Feminists, minorities, miners and mill workers, the dispossessed and impoverished, prohibitionists and small farmers turned out in force for this well-heeled man of the people.

Cornelia Bryce Pinchot, marching with sweatshop workers, 1930s. | Photo: Courtesy Grey Towers National Historic Site.<br />
Cornelia Bryce Pinchot, marching with sweatshop workers, 1930s. | Photo: Courtesy Grey Towers National Historic Site.

Once in office, his supporters cheered as he tapped the first woman and African American to serve in the state's cabinet; intervened on behalf of striking workers in sweatshops, foundries, and factories (a principle his activist wife, Cornelia, underscored when she inserted herself into picket lines to protect demonstrators from goon-squad attacks); the Governor also secured passage of an impressive array of social-service initiatives and environmental protections. Still, this landmark legislation only became law because Pinchot dealt squarely with his opponents (and they with him). His was a conscientious pragmatism.

More than anything else, he believed deeply in a binding, reciprocal, and life-affirming relationship between the governed and their government. At the 1889 constitutional-centennial celebrations in his hometown of Milford, Pennsylvania, 24-year-old Gifford Pinchot assured his friends, neighbors, and relatives that while "we have a share in the commonwealth, ... the commonwealth has a share in us." As such, it has first claim "to our service, our thought, and action," a credo that citizen Pinchot lived to the fullest.

We might want to slip on a certain T-shirt -- and follow his lead.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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