Gifford Pinchot: The First Chief of the United States Forest Service


Gifford Pinchot was born in August of the year 1865, to a wealthy family in Connecticut. Gifford Pinchot’s life was centered on religion before he decided to join the field of conservation. He used to engage in widespread evangelism and read widely on religious classics in Protestantism.

He taught Sunday school, and was the class deacon at Yale who was trusted with conducting activities related to religion. From the readings in religion, Pinchot would later combine this moral perspective to institute the development of the greatest conservation movement in America. Gifford Pinchot rallied America to the heights of modern capitalism and democracy through political patronage. As a young man, he loved the woods which would later become his passion and career.

In the history of the United States, he stands out as the first man to be trained in forest management and conservation. After completing his studies at Yale, he went to engage in selective use of forests study in France. Later, he would join politics and ascend to the governorship in Pennsylvania where he acted to bring many changes that are still effective today[1].

This paper will look at Gifford’s impact on modern capitalism and his major contributions that have affected America in one way or the other. As a progressive individual, he persuaded America into the path of conservation and management of resources through scientific means that he strongly believed were profitable in the long run.

In his tactics, he used the market economy ideas to illustrate that the government had a role in determining how resources could be used for the benefit of the nation. He also sought for the delicate balance between use of resources and management. This was in contradiction to people like John Muir who advocated for whole conservation. This is best illustrated in his support for the Hetch Hecthy dam where he supported its construction.

American Capitalism

The years between 1865 and 1920 characterized the height of American dominance in the capitalistic world. These years were characterized by large extensions of industrial prowess, military might, and advanced science. The American profits at this time grew by leaps and bounds, and the government and business almost became one.

Businessmen and managers who owned large shares in industries were often elected as mayors and chairmen of government committees. As a result, the business world went unregulated since the private hands used the political power to their own advantage. This was because there were no checks.

This would catapult American economy to the highest heights of capitalism beating the United Kingdom in industrial progress. The era was characterized by heavy monopolistic ventures that arose to curb the serious price-cutting tactics embraced by competing industries. The effect of the 1873-1879 depression had fizzled out leaving the competitive economy booming[2].

The investment bankers exercised enormous control on the economy, as well life insurance industry characterized by political interventions. The economy was essentially macro economic where heavy mechanization and the monopolistic measures led to earnings that were triple of the invested capital.

The capitalistic ventures at all levels of government, as a domination of the whole economy, could not present any advantage to the environment physically and in all aspects. The lumber mining industries consumed forests as a source of fuel and reinforcement to the mining developments. The capitalistic economy led to air pollution from smelting and mining[3].

The contamination of water occurred as a result of massive dumping of industrial effluents. This led to destruction of vegetation and occurrence of wide spread erosion. The environment was littered with debris that accumulated from mining machineries and thus the need for conservation could not have come at a better time than this period.

This environmental degradation had serious effects on some counties like California. Thus, the rise of Gifford Pinchot was a relief to the environment since his efforts and focus was directed to management. His other works in the public domain were through active political activities and engagement. It has to be noted that he also was the first individual to envision environmental conservation.

Therefore, these roles will be analyzed effectively in this paper. What stands out is his influence to capitalism and government. This is well characterized in the historical and economic aspects[4].

Pinchot as Forest Service man

Pinchot was a great friend of President Roosevelt and thus his ascension to politics and major impact to American economy and thinking cannot be under-emphasized. In 1898, Pinchot rose to become the Chief of the Forestry Division of US Department of Agriculture.

This department later became to be known as the Bureau and much later, it changed to “Forest Service”. Under his leadership and due to his close connection to the President in the Republican politics, the Bureau gained national control of the forest reserves, and this led to the name Forest Service.

In his work as a leader, he taught the value of diligence and a sense of mission, and thus he laid grounds for his political career at this early period. Pinchot and Roosevelt saw the same great need to use resources wisely in the environment. Therefore, they were both concerned with advancing strategies that would see that the resources helped the future generations of the American people[5].

In this effort, they coined the term “conservation” to mean the use and the movement advocating for management of the resources. In his tenure, America gained knowledge in non-exploitative use of forests, and as a fact, the acreage rose to millions in favor of national forest that were controlled and their use regulated by the government. However, this was a success under Roosevelt’s Presidency because things changed course when Roosevelt was defeated in the elections. This heralded a new era in Pinchot’s life, that of politics[6].

Pinchot as a politician

As mentioned above, Gifford was a friend of Roosevelt, and a supporter of the Republican Party. Roosevelt struggled with Taft on the issue of the government owning land meant for forest reserves of which he was a supporter. This led to his breaking away to form the Progressive Party that Pinchot became a staunch supporter.

The party advocated for land reforms among other changes in the American society that were considered radical at the time. These issues included the regulation of child labor, the presence of a minimum wage for women, and the introduction of employment insurance in America. This led to Roosevelt’s defeat and thus Pinchot remained as the man who strived to keep the party moving.

As a mature politician, Pinchot ran for the seat of Senator in 1914 against Boies Penrose of the Republican Party. In his campaign, he advocated for radical changes such as the right of women to participate in a political process; a graduated income tax; and prohibition of alcoholic beverages, and other radical ideas that had been unheard of. However, he was not successful in the end as the progressive members returned to their old party[7]. Although Pinchot joined the Republicans reluctantly, he was in severe opposition to the President.

Despite his loss, it is worth to note that he got married to Cornelia Bryce, a lady who equaled her husband in energy and spirit. She supported him in his campaigns and elections to Congress three times, and once as governor; all which he failed. After this period of loss in his life, Pinchot turned his attention to state politics away from national limelight. This was largely due to his opposition to President Wilson’s neutrality to the European in 1916.

Therefore, when Wilson was re-elected, Pinchot became a state politics sensation. Pinchot was thus one of early supporters of America entering into war. Gifford, a man of much knowledge and experience, gained a position a Commissioner of Forestry after being appointed by Governor Sproul.

In this position, he had gained an effective strategy to be elected as Governor and thus his administrative genius could not rest. Therefore, he believed that by promoting new administrative changes and by refusing to give political patronage, he would achieve his goal[8].

As a result, in his 1922 campaigns, he concentrated on reforms that stirred the greatest support from voters. These reforms would later lead to reorganization of the government and the economy. Also, these reforms prompted the implementation of injunctions and guidelines on public utilities. In his political experience, he toned down his earlier proposals on reform in order to win the support of the President of Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association who had political power in the State.

He won this election closely partly due to the internal succession wrangles of Republican Party after the death of Boies Penrose. After attaining this position, Pinchot dropped his campaign strategy and went full throttle to implement his radical reform agendas. This set him apart from his superiors and supporters since they considered him as having betrayed them[9].

Pinchot as Governor

Gifford started his reign with some notable changes in the administration just as he had done during his tenure in the Forestry Service offices. He changed this by putting measures that saw that the spending budget of the state was completely controlled. He used his political persuasion tactics to bring the assembly to pass an administrative code that sought to standardize salaries. These codes also gave the Governor power to reorganize the executive branch of the government.

This process oversaw the establishment of fifteen departments and only three commissions in order to address the problem presented by the close to forty agencies that had duplicated functions. Pinchot ensured the introduction of a pension system that was run by funds from the state, as well as employees[10].

By now, Gifford had garnered enough public support and thus he was ready to push for increased reforms just as he had promised in the campaign for Senate position. He advanced another proposal seeking to prohibit alcohol consumption. In the reforms, only one bill passed, and it had to get funding from Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

This was because the Legislature was not in a position to give the required funding. In his macro-economic target plans to reduce the cost of electricity for the user and prohibit monopolies, he urged the government to pass a Bill that would achieve this. However, his bills were unsuccessful after a big defeat blow came from the utility lobbyists. He sought for a situation where the State would take a firm grip of connected electric companies with combined facilities.

As a man who had enough experience in diplomacy, he managed to solve strike situations in 1923 and 1925. The workers who mined anthracite coal had gone on strike in 1923. Pinchot used decisive arbitration to calm down the workers. The strike lasted only one week as compared to the second strike that lasted for six months. In the second strike, he forcefully mediated between the passive Coolidge government and the striking workers to gain an effective solution that ended the stalemate amicably.

This characterized the culmination of his first term tenure as a Governor. Pinchot’s efforts to rally him as the leader of Republican Party of the US failed. Therefore, he was to stay out of public office until 1930 when he got re-elected. There was an improvement in the effectiveness and economic conditions of the state while he was serving his first term as Governor.

In his second term, he revived his old battles for the bills of public utilities in the Assembly. He envisioned the need of relief for the unemployed, as well as the construction of paved roads that would help the farmers get access to basic necessities. In these endeavors, he fought for two years, backed by the Assembly, to achieve only three Bills passed.

The rest were defeated since the Senate supported the utilities. In this success, the Governor had sought wide support from the people through radio, mail, and newspaper. This can be attributed to the fact that he held that those serving in public positions were to put the public interest first in everything they did unless doing so was against the established law.[11]

As an administrator, statesman, and politician, he became one of the first Governors to push for the relief package in the United States. This was especially exhibited in his personal efforts to help people who had badly been affected by the Great Depression in 1931 at Pennsylvania. He had already formed a committee on unemployment before he had taken office to cater for such needs. However, this was not enough; and since he could help everybody, he realized that State aid was not enough for the unemployed who were suffering.

Therefore, he used his political power and other measures to urge the State and the Federal Government to increase and improve the aids that would see the needy get enough help possible. Through his efforts, President Hoover and the Congress established the Reconstruction Finance Corporation.

This corporation formed to provide assistance to various business firms and provide direct assistance to states. The State and the Federal funds were distributed on the non-partisan basis in his state. This was done through the Pennsylvania State Emergency Relief Board. In his state, he did not tolerate discrimination and various categories of individuals served in his administration[12].

In his famous quest for the public good, he is remembered vividly in the construction of ‘Pinchot Roads.’ According to him, the need for good roads was supported by the elimination of the barrier between the farmers and consumers.

In this process, he designed plans that would see the construction of 20,000 miles of road without the necessary need of heavy machinery in order to create employment for the many who had been employed. In 1933, Pinchot, supported by President Franklin Roosevelt, forced the U.S Steel Company to recognize the striking workers of United Mine Workers union[13].

As part of his achievements, Pinchot approved a session of assembly that facilitated the repealing of the prohibition amendment. This led to the formation of the Liquor Control Board that acted as a monopoly for selling liquor. In his political role, he supported the President F.D. Roosevelt who had chosen to execute economic recovery programs as a Democrat.

This was a good effort in the eyes of the public. However, to his fellow Republicans, he gained contempt and hate from the annoyed members. This affected his third time campaign for election into US Republican Senate. His attempt for re-election to Governorship in 1938 received a severe blow from Republican voters who had been angered by his support of the Democrats[14].

Pinchot’s Legacy

The years of Pinchot as political heavy weight and a pioneer in forestry management were also characterized by scientific observations and recommendations. Gifford was much influenced by his studies in Europe on conservation and democracy. He took the spirit of equality and advocated that everybody should be treated equally.

He observed that those with the capability to use the forests were few when compared to the many that did not benefit from the forest. According to Pinchot, there was no need for a few to benefit at the expense of the many. This formed his future basis on reforms that were mirrored in “new conservationism” efforts[15].

He believed that the only way a nation would become strong was through the provision of equal opportunity for all, as well as protection and preservation of human life. This would mean development of a strong and stable nation. By combining his scientific orientation and political progression, Gifford remained strongly anti-capitalistic.

This led to many of his battles with leaders in the Senate, President Howard Taft, Muir, and Ballinger. At one time, he paid for his views dearly when he was dismissed by President Howard from his position. However, he is greatly remembered for shaping the direction of capitalism in terms of public equality and management of resources[16].


Pinchot was one of the greatest visionary Americans who helped the modern America to stand on its ground through environmental conservation. Through his efforts and determination, the concept of sustainability in the management of resources continues to characterize America ahead of many other nations. His ideas on the public good were introduced in years when the world knew nothing except exploitation at all fronts in search of personal gain and profits.

His ideals for the public utilities are issues that have concerned economists all over the world in search of balance between property and the human welfare. Pinchot’s legacy continues to live through the Grey Towers as a center for forest and environmental conservation in his home at Milford. His ideas in progressive politics and sustainability today guide the debate regarding the aspect of global warming. Therefore, Pinchot is a revolutionary hero of modern capitalistic world.


Atack, Jeremy. “Industrial Structure and the Emergence of the Modern Industrial Corporation,” Explorations in Economic History, 22 (1985): 29-52.

Gifford, Pinchot. Breaking new ground. New York: Island Press, 1998.

Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania magazine of history and biography. [Philadelphia]: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1877.

Hunter, Louis C. A history of industrial power in the United States, 1780 – 1930 2, Steam power / Louis C. Hunter. Charlottesville: Univ. Pr. of Virginia, 1985.

Koistinen, Paul, A., C. Mobilizing for Modern War: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1865-1919. Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1997.

Livingston, James. Origins of the Federal Reserve System. Money, Class, and Corporate Capitalism, 1890-1913. California: Cornell University Press, 1986.

Marc, Tool R. Evolutionary Economics: Foundations of institutional thought Volume 2 of Evolutionary Economics. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1988.

Miller, Char. Gifford Pinchot and the making of modern environmentalism: Pioneers of Conservation. New York: Island Press, 2001.

North, Douglass, C. “Life Insurance and Investment Banking at the Time of the Armstrong Investigation of 1905-1906.” Journal of Economic History, 14, (1954), 209-28

Penick, James Jr. Progressive Politics and Conservation: The Ballinger-Pinchot Affair. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.

Reich, Peter L. “Western Courts and the Privatization of Hispanic Mineral Rights Since 1850: An Alchemy of Title.” Columbia Journal of Environmental Law, 23 (1998), 57–87.

Richardson, Elmo, R. Dams, Parks, and Politics: Resource Development and Preservation in the Truman-Eisenhower Era. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1973.

Richardson, Elmo, R. The Politics of Conservation: Crusades and Controversies, 1897-1913. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962.

Robbins, Williams G. Colony and Empire: The Capitalist Transformation of the American West. Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1994.

Swain, Donald, C. Federal Conservation Policy, 1921-1933. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963.

Char Miller. Gifford Pinchot and the making of modern environmentalism: Pioneers of Conservation (New York: Island Press, 2001), 18.
Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania magazine of history and biography ([Philadelphia]: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1877), 16
Tool R. Marc. Evolutionary Economics: Foundations of institutional thought Volume 2 of Evolutionary Economics (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1988), 325.
Pinchot Gifford. Breaking new ground (New York: Island Press, 1998), 25
Pinchot Gifford. Breaking new ground (New York: Island Press, 1998), 27.
Paul, Koistinen, A. C. Mobilizing for Modern War: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1865-1919 (Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1997), 59.
Louis C. Hunter A history of industrial power in the United States, 1780 – 1930 2, Steam power / Louis C. Hunter (Charlottesville: Univ. Pr. of Virginia, 1985), 341
Elmo R. Richardson. The Politics of Conservation: Crusades and Controversies, 1897-1913 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962), 25
Donald C. Swain. Federal Conservation Policy, 1921-1933 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963), 27. ^
Peter L. Reich. “Western Courts and the Privatization of Hispanic Mineral Rights since 1850: An Alchemy of Title.” Columbia Journal of Environmental Law, 23 (1998): 59.
Williams G. Robbins. Colony and Empire: The Capitalist Transformation of the American West (Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1994), 89.
James Livingston. Origins of the Federal Reserve System. Money, Class, and Corporate Capitalism, 1890-1913 (California: Cornell University Press, 1986), 33.
Douglass, C. North. “Life Insurance and Investment Banking at the Time of the Armstrong Investigation of 1905-1906.” Journal of Economic History, 14, (1954): 211.
Jeremy Atack. “Industrial Structure and the Emergence of the Modern Industrial Corporation,” Explorations in Economic History, 22 (1985): 37.
Elmo, R. Richardson. Dams, Parks, and Politics: Resource Development and Preservation in the Truman-Eisenhower Era (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1973), 243.
James, Jr. Penick. Progressive Politics and Conservation: The Ballinger-Pinchot Affair (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), 411.