August 11: First Forester and Founding Father of Conservation Gifford Pinchot


The next time you hear someone talking about the sustainable use of our environmental resources, you might want to give thanks to forester and founding father of the modern conservation movement Gifford Pinchot (pronounced “pin-show”), who was born in Simsbury today in 1865.

Son of a wealthy merchant family, Pinchot’s passionate early interest in the outdoors led his parents to guide his educational interests toward forestry and the emerging field of conservation. After graduating from Yale and studying forestry in France, Pinchot returned to apply his knowledge of forest management at the Biltmore estate in Asheville, North Carolina, before agreeing to head up the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forestry Division in 1898. He became the first Chief of the United States Forest Service when it was created in 1905, and held that position until being dismissed by President Taft for his criticism of the President’s policies in 1910.

In contrast to preservationists such as John Muir, who believed that wilderness areas should be preserved without human interference to retain their spiritual and environmental values, Pinchot championed what he named a “conservation ethic” – the idea that natural areas should be managed and resources extracted in ways that would allow “the greatest good for the greatest number of people for the longest time.” This put Pinchot at odds with both preservationists – who excoriated him for his support of damming the Hetch Hetchy Valley in California to provide water for San Francisco – and extractive industrialists, who wanted private interests to control natural resources for maximum profit. Pinchot’s conservation ethic is, however, very much in alignment with contemporary advocates for environmental sustainability.

Theodore Rossevelt and Gifford Pinchot
Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot in 1908. (Library of Congress)

Under Pinchot’s leadership, and through his friendship with President Theodore Roosevelt, who shared his conservation values, the number of national forests increased from 32 to 149 by 1910, sequestering 193 million acres of forest as usable public lands.  Pinchot dramatically increased and professionalized the Forest Service staff, too, in part by founding the Society of American Foresters, and endowing a new graduate school of Forestry at Yale in 1900. A firm believer in the power of the press, he developed an active program to promote the value of forestry management and conservation to the public.

After leaving the forest service, Pinchot founded the National Conservation Association, serving as its president from 1910 to 1925. He remained active in politics, and went on to serve two terms as Governor of Pennsylvania, before dying at age 81 in 1946.

Connecticut’s largest tree, the two-to-three-hundred year old Pinchot Sycamore (28 feet around and 100 feet tall) by the Farmington River in Simsbury, is named in Gifford Pinchot’s honor.

 Further Reading:

Steve Grant, “Gifford Pinchot: Bridging Two Eras of National Conservation,”

Char Miller, “First Forester: The Enduring Conservation Legacy of Gifford Pinchot,” Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

Gifford Pinchot: A Legacy of Conservation,” U.S. Department of the Interior

Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946),” Forest History Society