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The Cracker Barrel: Pinchot: 'The father of American forestry'

Trying to get Americans to agree on any given topic is like trying to form an orderly herd of cats or frogs or wood ticks. It's just not gonna happen - or if it does, it won't stay that way for long.

Given that fact, I think it's nearly miraculous that our citizenry and its leaders were once inspired to set aside a sizeable amount of land in public ownership with the thought of keeping it that way forever.

Most of us are familiar with such early conservationists as Henry Thoreau, who in 1860 delivered a speech urging farmers to plant trees around their fields and to try, when possible, to preserve nature undamaged. George Grinnell traveled out west and in 1870 added his observations of the way Indian tribes such as the Pawnee made careful use of every part of the animals they hunted. After hiking about in the Sierra Nevada mountains, John Muir wrote many articles to publicize the beauty of Yosemite and helped form the Sierra Club in 1892.

An expedition into Wyoming led by F. V. Hayden and William Henry Jackson led to the creation of Yellowstone National Park, the first in the nation, in 1872. And in 1887, Theodore Roosevelt, George Grinnell and other prominent sportsmen of the time formed the first true conservation organization, the Boone and Crockett Club, with the purpose of addressing the looming conservation crises of the day.

But it wasn't until 1898, on the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, that a German forester named Carl Shenck started a forestry school and introduced a young student named Gifford Pinchot (pronounced Pin-sho) to other German foresters. Pinchot, who soon became known as "the father of American forestry," credited these men with giving him the practical skills and legislative ideas he would later put to effective use in our country.

Unlike Muir and several others, who were primarily interested in protecting public parcels of land from any and all development, Pinchot defined conservation as allowing "the greatest good to the greatest number for the longest time." In this he agreed wholeheartedly with Teddy Roosevelt, and the two became good friends.

When Roosevelt, as president, helped create the United States Forest Service, he appointed Pinchot as the first head of the agency. Under their joint influence, American conservation (as distinguished from pure preservation) gained in popularity.

Beginning in 1910 and continuing on for 15 years, having been fired from his post by Roosevelt's successor, William Taft, Pinchot served as president of the National Conservation Association, an organization he personally funded to be a watchdog over the development of public lands and to oppose the transfer of such lands to state or private ownership.

"Unless we practice conservation, those who come after us will have to pay the price of misery, degradation and failure for the progress and prosperity of our day," he said.

In 1922, Pinchot was elected governor of Pennsylvania. He later ran for the U.S. Senate, lost, and in 1930, was elected for a second, nonsequential term as governor. Throughout his political career, however, he always considered himself first and foremost a forester.

He and his brother established the first college forestry program at Yale, and his influence on our country continues to be felt in countless ways.

Speaking of his contribution, Roosevelt later said, "... among the many, many public officials who under my administration rendered literally invaluable service to the people of the United States, Gifford Pinchot on the whole, stood first."