Gifford Pinchot: A Legacy of Conservation

More than 70 years after his death, Gifford Pinchot remains an extremely powerful voice in America’s conservation movement -- influencing presidents, departments and even shaping the definition of conservation. In honor of Pinchot’s birthday on August 11, check out some fascinating stories and inspiring quotes from this pivotal figure in American history.

“Conservation means the wise use of the earth and its resources for the lasting good of men.” 

Gifford Pinchot established the modern definition of conservation as a “wise use” approach to public land. Conservationists believe in using land sustainably to preserve it for future generations, rather than allowing it to be exploited and lost forever. Pinchot’s conservation theory has often been conflated with John Muir’s idea of preservation. Muir believed that human actions could harm our nation’s landscapes and therefore should be avoided, sharply restricting access to these lands. 

Pinchot’s ideas paralleled those of President Theodore Roosevelt and together the two led a national conservation movement. Today, Pinchot’s philosophy of multiple use continues to influence the mission of federal agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and Interior’s Bureau of Land Management

A trail on the side of Mt. St. Helens flanked on either side by red and yellow flowers. In the background we see the distant peak of another mountain.
Mount St. Helen’s National Volcanic Monument in Gifford Pinchot National Forest -- one of two public lands named after Gifford Pinchot. Photo by Tom Hamilton (www.sharetheexperience.com)

A Conservation Friendship for the Ages: Gifford Pinchot & Theodore Roosevelt

The friendship that bloomed between Pinchot and Roosevelt was based on their shared love of the outdoors. Their combined work sparked federal action to conserve areas of cultural significance and great beauty. Pinchot also collaborated with Roosevelt’s administration on the National Forest Commission and as Chairman of the National Conservation Committee

President Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot stand talking in a black and white photo from 1907.
This 1907 photo shows close friends President Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot conversing. Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

“The Father of American Forestry.” 

Pinchot led American forestry services for over a decade. He served as 1st Chief of the United States Forest Service and 4th chief of the Division of Forestry -- the  predecessor to USFS. The USFS is part of the Department of Agriculture, a frequent partner of the Department of Interior. 

Pinchot led a 12 year long conservation charge at these organizations. American conservation efforts strengthened after Pinchot’s decision to increase his staff almost tenfold and used the press to raise conservation awareness, even establishing his own in-house press bureau. In 1900, Pinchot solidified his forestry legacy by establishing the Society of American Foresters, which still exists as a nonprofit representing the forestry profession. 

Gifford Pinchot smiles in a black and white photo close up of his face.
Gifford Pinchot with his iconic bushy moustache and hat. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

“Unless we practice conservation, those who come after us will have to pay the price of misery, degradation and failure for the progress and prosperity of our day.” 

Pinchot was the first American to receive formal instruction in forestry. At the time, no academic institution in the United States offered forestry courses, but Pinchot wouldn’t let that stop his dream of becoming a true American conservationist. He studied at the National School of Waters and Forests in Nancy, France, in 1900. Later in life he decided to promote conservation in future generations. Gifford and his brother James founded the Yale School of Forestry, which still exists as a professional school to train environmental leaders for the future.

Water streams over the green mossy rocks of Lewis River falls.
Lewis River’s beautiful lower falls are part of Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Photo by Pat Di Geronimo (www.sharetheexperience.com).

Gifford Pinchot’s Land Legacy

Under Pinchot’s control, national forests increased from 32 to 149, totalling 193 million acres by 1910. Pinchot’s tremendous impacts in American forestry earned him a forester’s commemoration: public lands named after him to honor his legacy. The Gifford Pinchot National Forest was renamed in 1949 to bear Pinchot’s name after his death. Gifford Pinchot State Park in Pennsylvania was also named to honor his contributions to the nation’s public lands. Both parks commemorate a pillar in the American conservation movement whose legacy can still be felt today. 

Mt. Adams looms on the background over a lake that reflects back the purple sky.
Mt. Adams Wilderness in Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Photo by Scott Scheel (www.sharetheexperience.com).

“I have been governor every now and then, but I am a forester all the time.”

-- Gifford Pinchot

Although Pinchot served two terms as governor of Pennsylvania and spent over a decade working for the federal government, he always thought of himself as a forester more than anything. 

Are you moved by Gifford Pinchot’s lifelong fight to conserve the outdoors? Learn more about his legacy or take time to experience the same outdoor wonders that Pinchot dedicated his life to.