Named head of the Forest Service in 1898, Gifford Pinchot was instrumental in defining and implementing conservation policies under Roosevelt, which included the scientific management of the nations forests as well as developing the commercial value of public lands. To realize his visions, Pinchot relied on a network of cooperative government agencies. He enjoyed a close relationship with Roosevelt and the President's support for scientific forestry. However, the election of Taft in 1908 threatened to undermine Pinchot’s work under Roosevelt. Pinchot no longer enjoyed a close personal relationship with the incumbent President. Worse, for Pinchot's viewpoint, in 1909, Taft convinced former Commissioner of the General Land Office, Richard Ballinger, to become Secretary of the Department of the Interior. Ballinger, unsympathetic to Pinchot’s views, deemed some of Pinchot’s cooperative agreements illegal and favored private development of lands over withdrawing sites for public programs.
Source: Philadelphia North American, reprinted in Colliers, Dec. 4, 1909
The strained tensions between the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior exploded when in the early fall of 1909, an agent of the Department of the Interior, Louis Glavis charged Ballinger with improperly pushing through a potentially fraudulent Alaskan coal claim without thorough investigation. Glavis turned to Pinchot for help; Pinchot in turn eagerly seized the opportunity to discredit his antagonist, Ballinger. The news of the charges quickly became public and the conflict became known as the Ballinger-Pinchot controversy.
In January of the following year, Pinchot had a congressional ally, Senator Dolliver of Iowa, read to Congress a defense of the Forest Service that contained thinly veiled attacks on Ballinger and the President. Pinchot was promptly fired by Taft for his insubordination. In the ensuing public relations battled, initiated by Pinchot, Pinchot skillfully manipulated public opinion to taint Ballinger with suspicions of corruption. Meanwhile, Pinchot was heralded as the defender of the public good. Ballinger was exone-rated by the President and a Congressional investigation but in the public's eye Ballinger's credibility remained suspect. Ballinger quit his position in March 1911, citing health problems, and he never recovered from the damage done to his reputation.
The controversy blurred and over- simplified complex conservation issues by leading people to see them in terms of conflicting personalities and ideological stereotypes of "the public" versus "the interests. Nevertheless, the controversy had serious political implications for the eventual split between Taft and Roosevelt.
Source: St. Paul Dispatch, reprinted in Collier's, Dec. 4, 1909
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Source: Chicago Tribune, Dec. 8, 1910
This cartoonist clearly thought the investigation of Ballinger was a whitewash.