Conservationist and forester Gifford Pinchot, born in 1865, reformed the way in which the early twentieth-century United States managed and developed its valuable natural resources, especially its forests. Pinchot became interested in forestry at an early age. With the support of his wealthy father, Pinchot graduated from Yale University in 1889 and then did graduate work at the French National Forestry School where he learned both French and German practices in the field, then the most advanced in the world. After only one year of school in France, he returned to the U.S. eager to gain practical experience.
Pinchot's government service began while he was still a young man. In 1896, President Grover Cleveland appointed Pinchot to the National Forest Commission, charged with developing a plan for the nation’s Western forest reserves. Soon after, in 1898, Pinchot became the head of the Division of Forestry, later renamed the U.S. Forest Service, an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture. In this post he advocated scientific conservation, the planned use and renewal of the nation's forest reserves. Significantly, in 1905 Pinchot gained the control of the national forest reserves, thereby dramatically increasing the authority of the Forest Service. As head of the Service, Pinchot exploited the commercial potential of these lands by developing a plan in which the lands could be developed by private interests, under terms set by the U.S. government, in exchange for modest fees. Pinchot saw forestry as "the art of producing from the forest whatever it can yield for the service of man."
Pinchot also drew the public’s attention to his conservationist causes through such conferences as the 1908 Governor’s Conference on Conservation and the 1909 North American Conservation Conference. He founded the Yale school of forestry and served as a professor there from 1903-1936. Pinchot had gained the respect, trust and friendship of President Theodore Roosevelt, which expedited his conservationist agenda.
Pinchot’s approaches to handling the forest reserves encountered opposition, however. Preservationists opposed Pinchot’s commercialization of the land, while Congress, responding to local commercial pressures for quick exploitation of the resources, became increasingly hostile to conservationist causes. In 1907, Congress forbade the President to create more forest reserves in Western states. Finally, Pinchot’s authority was substantially undermined by the election of President Taft in 1908. Taft later fired Pinchot for speaking out against the policies of Taft and Secretary of the Interior Richard A. Ballinger. Soon, in trying to discredit Ballinger and force him from office, Pinchot launched a series of public attacks that became known as the Ballinger-Pinchot controversy, and which helped split the Republican Party.
While Pinchot’s forestry career in the federal government ended, he remained active until his death in 1946. He made unsuccessful bids for a Senate seat and occasionally expressed interest in the Presidency. He founded the National Conservation Association and was its president from 1910-1925. He served two terms as Governor of Pennsylvania (1923-29, 1931-35) during which time he was most proud of initiating the paving of the state’s dirt roads. He even developed a lifeboat survival technique and instructed the navy on how to extract fresh water from fish.