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How the Gifford Pinchot National Forest got its name — and lost its soul

New book: National forest’s namesake was all about conservation, but he’s viewed as someone who facilitated exploitation

By Chuck Thompson, Columbia Insight
Published: June 8, 2024, 6:05am
4 Photos
Tearing up: Progress on display near Trout Lake in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
Tearing up: Progress on display near Trout Lake in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. (jurgenhessphotography) Photo Gallery

Imagine your favorite Cascades hike. Now imagine, instead of that special pocket or two of old growth you always visit along the way, every mile of that hike is lined with massive, untouched old-growth trees.

That’s what foresters such as Gifford Pinchot — to say nothing of people from Indigenous tribes — experienced each time they ventured into the woods of the Pacific Northwest at the time the U.S. Forest Service was established in 1905.

In his fascinating new book “Forest Under Siege: The Story of Old Growth after Gifford Pinchot,” veteran conservationist Rand Schenck delivers a robust biography of the Forest Service’s first director, and a history of his namesake forest that’s as satisfying — and charged — as a campfire.

One of Schenck’s aims is to raise Pinchot from relative obscurity.

“Gifford Pinchot was one of the primary originators of the conservation movement in the United States. John Muir was one of the primary originators of the preservation movement in the United States,” Schenck writes. “Both men left this country invaluable, inestimable legacies, yet Muir is held up, especially by the environmental community, as the true champion for how we should manage our public lands, while Pinchot is viewed as one who primarily championed ‘use.’ A corrective is needed. Pinchot is equally deserving of our respect and admiration.”

Along with rehabbing Pinchot’s reputation, Schenck delivers a wake-up call for those who take the future vitality of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest for granted.

Following is an edited excerpt from “Forest Under Siege: The Story of Old Growth after Gifford Pinchot,” by Rand Schenck, published in May by Washington State University Press. The book is available at bookstores nationwide or directly from the publisher.

• • •

Gifford Pinchot, first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, died in October 1946.

After his death, many within the Service felt that he should be honored by naming a national forest after him. The most logical choice was Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. Pinchot was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and he had served as the nation’s first forester in the 1890s on what was then land owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt; much of this land later became part of what is now the Pisgah National Forest.

According to the 1947 annual inspection report, when local residents in western North Carolina were approached about changing the name of their forest from the Pisgah to the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, “They were mostly violently opposed, and their Congressman sided with them. Pisgah is, of course, a biblical name so this probably was a large factor.”

While the account of this opposition from an outsider’s perspective is believable, a more likely reason for the strong opposition is that the Pisgah National Forest is located entirely in western North Carolina, in the southern Appalachian Mountains, which were originally settled by highly independent minded Scotch-Irish, many of whom had migrated to these mountains from Pennsylvania or from the United Kingdom. They viewed outsiders with a wary eye and were even known to refer to people from eastern North Carolina visiting their region in the early 1900s as “furreneers.”

A much more likely explanation is that they were highly conservative, significantly isolated, resistant to change, extremely independent, and not at all inclined for someone from outside their region telling them that Gifford Pinchot was a better name for their forest. As a native of southern Appalachia might have replied, “the hell with that.”

The Forest Service was forced to find another forest to rename and after much consideration settled on the Columbia National Forest. Pinchot had spent some time exploring and hiking in what became his namesake forest during the inspection trip conducted by the National Forest Commission in 1896. Little opposition was expressed locally when the proposal was made, and so the change was made official. Gifford Pinchot’s grandson, Gifford Pinchot III, described to me in an interview one of his earliest memories being that of sitting on President Truman’s lap when he signed the legislation changing the name of Columbia National Forest to Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

What is unstated in this account about the name change is that other forests that Pinchot visited could just as easily be chosen but were not. One reason may have been that other logical choices such as Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington had much larger constituencies that cared about those forests and may well have opposed any name changes. Portlanders prized Mount Hood, and Seattleites prized Mount Rainier and Mount Baker. In each case, people from Portland and Seattle acted as guardians for what occurred on those forests they most cared about.

The Columbia National Forest, because it was on the other side of the Columbia River from Portland and infrequently visited by Portlanders, and because it was a far drive from Seattle, was mostly ignored. A characterization that evolved over time was that the Columbia was the “forgotten forest.”

At the dedication ceremony for the renamed Gifford Pinchot National Forest in 1949, Pinchot’s widow, Cornelia Pinchot, spoke eloquently about her husband and his conservation legacy. “He insisted that conservation be reinvigorated, revived, re-manned, revitalized by each successive generation, its implications, its urgencies, its logistics translated in terms of the present of each of them.”

She knew her husband better than anyone else and had witnessed his evolution as a conservationist. Cornelia Pinchot was a lifelong Progressive, and, throughout the years of their marriage, she strongly encouraged her husband to champion Progressive initiatives.

One can well imagine Pinchot nodding approvingly were he standing nearby as his wife spoke about the necessity of reinvigorating conservation. In his later years, he expressed much greater appreciation for the forest not only as a refuge for wild animals and a landscape that should be appreciated for its aesthetic qualities, but also as a place that offered spiritual sustenance. Pinchot, however, would not have nodded approvingly at the cultural transformation of his cherished Forest Service, which accelerated, ironically, at the time of his death in 1946.

A press release at the time of the dedication ceremony renaming the forest spoke glowingly of the area’s scenic resources, wildlife, watershed, and recreation resources; at the same time the press release stated that “its greatest resource is some 16 billion board feet of commercial timber” and further noted that “managed for sustained yield, the timber growth is estimated to be sufficient to yield perpetually an annual cut of 200 million board feet.”

This statement reflected the already ambitious plans for timber in the Northwest, but with increased pressure and willingness on the part of the Forest Service, those numbers soon morphed into even higher numbers. The factors that drove these numbers skyward included massive levels of road construction, assumptions based on intensive forest management, and intense political pressures.

In twelve years, the changes that (Forest Supervisor) L.K. Mays had prophesied in 1947 had become a reality in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The “allowable cut” had increased from 190 million board feet in 1947 to 397 million board feet in 1959. This level of harvest represents almost doubling in ten years the allowable cut of 200 million board feet that was identified in 1949 as the level of cut that could be maintained perpetually.

The timber cut on the GPNF increased from 101 million board feet in 1947 to just over 332 million board feet in 1959, a greater than tripling increase. Road mileage in 1947 was 634 miles and by 1959 had reached 1,142 miles, almost a doubling. The number of permanent and seasonal employees went from about 170 in 1947 to over 400.

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The Forest Service as represented on the GPNF in 1959 had utterly transformed from what it looked like prior to WWII. Just as FDR ramped up production of military weaponry and sent millions of men to the United Kingdom in preparation for the D-Day Invasion and transformed a country from the poverty of the Great Depression to one that could fairly be characterized by its robustness, vitality, and strength, so too had Forest Service leaders transformed an agency that previously was small, quiet, and modest to one that was large and growing, active and dominant, bold and questing.

This transformation from one where stewardship prevailed to one where production dominated was propelled by the demands of WWII; the patriotic duty was clear, and foresters throughout the country responded. Just as automobile plants transformed into tank-producing manufacturers, foresters ramped up output to support the war effort.

Timber sales on national forests increased from just over 1 billion board feet in 1939 to over 3 billion board feet in 1945, an increase of over 200 percent. More significantly, the proportion of national forest contribution to the total national timber production economy in that same period doubled from 5 percent to 10 percent.

WWII set the stage for the Forest Service to transition from the custodian of forest resources to production of forest resources, from a largely passive, caretaking role to one of intensive management. The increases were quite extraordinary given how little wood had come out of the national forests in the preceding decades.

Cut levels in national forests more than doubled from the end of WWII in 1945 to 1955 when it reached 6.3 billion board feet. Five years later, in 1960, the cut level reached 9.4 billion board feet, and almost all of that was coming from the Pacific Northwest.

Pinchot, who early and consistently called for regulation of the private timber industry, was seen as a radical and viewed by that industry with loathing.

That was not the case with the leaders of the Forest Service who followed in his footsteps. They understood that prior to WWII, private timber interests did not want competition from logging on public lands, and they were quite willing to practice patience and act as stewards of this resource. The relationship with the timber industry slowly evolved from one of covert support to overt alliance.

Organizational cultures almost inevitably change over time, and the Forest Service culture changed radically over the two decades after WWII. At the time of its creation and during the succeeding several decades, the Forest Service culture that emerged from Pinchot’s agency was one that developed in opposition to cut-and-run loggers. Pinchot and his followers successfully challenged that paradigm beginning in the Pacific Northwest woods. Cut-and-run logging would not happen on national forests.

The culture established by Pinchot — who, no matter what role he took on over the years after he left the Forest Service, always identified himself first and foremost as a forester — had endured for forty years. One of the great ironies for Gifford Pinchot was that this legacy of conservation — of always keeping the long run in the forefront, about which he felt much pride, and which he pointed to as his most significant accomplishment during his long life, more important even than serving as governor of Pennsylvania for two terms — came unraveled after his death in 1946.

Prior to WWII, in what was known as the “Stetson Hat Period,” the Forest Service was seen as a reliable guardian, a respected steward, of the nation’s public lands. This public image slowly changed over the following three decades from that of an agency that protected the forest from rapacious cut-and-run loggers to one that was seen primarily as focused on getting the cut out.

Rand Schenck began his environmental activism focused on forestry in the late 1970s, with the Sierra Club in North Carolina. After moving to Oregon in 1996, he joined the Board of Oregon Natural Resources Council, now known as Oregon Wild. Over the past decade, he has focused his activism on the issue of climate change.