Eco-Watch Dialogues

Gifford Pinchot's Use of the National Forests
Dave Iverson

   In 19051Gifford Pinchot wrote The Use of the National Forests (Use Book), at a time when resources were so abundant that they had been squandered in the United States since colonial times. It can be argued that President Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot were only successful in establishing the Forest Reserves and founding the U.S. Forest Service because wasteful use of "the public domain" was widely recognized at the time.

   The late 1800s and early 1900s were a time of great controversy over public lands, not dissimilar in scale to the controversy we face today. But unlike today, in the early 1900s only a few people inhabited the rural landscapes where most of the National Forests were located, prompting Pinchot to largely dismiss user conflicts saying simply that, "There are many great interests on the National Forests which sometimes conflict a little." Many historical accounts disagree with Pinchot's characterizing conflict in the West with words like "sometimes" and "a little." (For more see The Origins of the National Forests, edited by Harold K. Steen.)

   Pinchot's philosophy during this period was definately one of utilitarian conservation--things were valued for their use largely in carving out a human existence from Nature. Athough there is evidence that Pinchot modified his philosophy later as he became older, the Use Book emphasizes utilitarian conservation or "wise use" and says virtually nothing about preservation. The idea of saving Nature's legacy for its own sake -- the idea of intrinsic value -- was not a part of the public consciousness yet. Such a task would have to wait for the works and words of the John Muirs, the Bob Marshalls, and the Aldo Leopolds whose names were yet unknown to the American people.

   The Use Book became a Forest Service icon, staying with the Forest Servive long after the brash, young Pinchot was dismissed from the Forest Service by President Taft in 1910. Let's take a look at the Use Book by examining some of its passages. First let's look at what Pinchot titled "THE WHOLE RESULT."

Taking it altogether, then, it will be seen that a National Forest does not act like a wall built around the public domain, which locks up its lands and resources and stops settlement and industry. What it really does is to take the public domain, with all its resources and most of its laws, and make sure that the best possible use is made of every bit of it. And more than this, it makes these vast mountain regions a great deal more valuable, and keeps them a great deal more valuable, simply by using them in a careful way, with a little thought about the future. p15
Next let's look at Pinchot's management philosophy:
National Forests are made for and owned by the people. They should also be managed by the people. The are made, not to give the officers in charge of them a chance to work out theories, but to give the people who use them, and those affected by their use, a chance to work out their own best profit. p25

    Pinchot's early dream was not solely about use, though, and "profit" was not meant to be profit solely for individuals. He made it clear that some uses of the national forests would be provided free, while some uses would provide return to the national treasury. For example, regarding timber, Pinchot's Use Book said:

The timber is there to be used, now and in the future. It is given away, for domestic use, to the man with a home and to the prospector developing his claim. They get it for the asking, free of charge. When wanted for commercial purposes, timber is sold to the small man and to the big man--sold promptly and at a reasonable cost. The small man can buy a few thousand feet; the big man can buy many million feet, provided it is a good thing for all the people to let him purchase a large amount, but not otherwise. The local demand is always considered first. p11

    Pinchot's twin biases favoring use and use by small users are interwoven into the Use Book. Speaking again of timber Pinchot said:

Thus the timber is there, first of all, to be used. The more it is used, the better. Far from being locked up, it is, on the contrary, opened up, and opened up on fair terms to all alike. When it is on the open public domain it is often very hard and sometimes impossible for the small man to get it and hold it, because he is shoved aside by the big timber corporations with which he can not compete. On National Forests the Government holds the timber with a special view to its use by the small user. p12

   Complimenting Gifford Pinchot's notion of use, conservation of soil and water resources was at center stage in Pinchot's message. Use was meant to be "wise use"--use that could be maintained in perpetuity, without impairment to the productivity of the soil. Pinchot insisted on protecting the soil, but left no doubt that the protection was for future "use":

The permanent wealth of a country comes from the soil. To ensure permanent wealth the soil must be kept productive. Agricultural lands are managed so as to produce the most valuable crops, year after year, without a break. Forest lands also should be managed so as to produce the most valuable crops of timber and wood, year after year, without interruption. Without a plentiful, cheap, and continuous supply of wood, agriculture and all its dependent industries must suffer. And in regions of little rainfall, without a plentiful and steady flow of water for irrigation, agriculture is either impossible or unprofitable. p16

   In sum, Pinchot's Use Book stressed the importance of protecting watersheds as a basis for "wise use" of all resources, with primary emphasis on wood, water, forage,and minerals. Recreation "playgrounds" and "game" were mentioned in passing in the Use Book. In keeping with American sentiment of the time, utilitarion conservation formed the core of "public use" in the early 1900s.

1My copy of the Use Book is dated 1907 and contains an appendix titled "AGRICULTURAL SETTLEMENT. Act of June 11, 1906." It would be interesting to see whether or not the 1905 version had the same liberal view on agricultural settlement within the National Forests as does the 1907 version. It would also prove interesting to discover what forces were behind the "Agricultural Settlement Act."