The tangled roots of America's forestry movement

Courtesy morguefile


By Dan Kamin

Unlike the sentimentalized “Old John” in the film The Enchanted Forest, John Muir was no hermit.  He was too busy fighting for the protection and preservation of our natural lands. As unofficial spokesman for America’s natural resources, his passionate advocacy led to the creation of Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and other national parks. It was to protect Yosemite and “make the mountains glad” that Muir and a group of friends founded the Sierra Club in 1892. He remained its president until 1914.

Muir became famous through his writings, which were congruent with the values of the Progressive Era in American politics (1890-1920). Although politically savvy, Muir was no politician, so he depended upon political allies to help him implement his vision. His most important ally was Theodore Roosevelt, who famously bonded with Muir on a four-day excursion in Yosemite in 1903, and made the preservation of Yosemite a personal mission. 

Less well-known than Roosevelt, but equally important to the early environmental movement, are two other politicians, both Pennsylvanians, who helped to shape the policies of government and change the attitudes of Americans towards the land. 

In the early 1900s the mayor of Harrisburg, J. Horace McFarland, came to national prominence by improving the Susquehanna River area and pioneering a state park system. McFarland enthusiastically promoted his ideas through the American Civic Association, which he helped to found, and before long the so-called “Harrisburg Plan” spread to cities across the nation.  

Gifford Pinchot became an even more celebrated, if more controversial, figure. A child of privilege, he became the nation’s first professionally trained forester by studying in France, there being no such program in the U.S. at the time. In 1898 Teddy Roosevelt appointed him Chief of the Division of Forestry, later renamed the Forest Service, and empowered him to protect the American forests. Pinchot subscribed to Roosevelt’s Progressive agenda, which included the then-radical ideas of unemployment insurance, a minimum wage for women, and the regulation of child labor. During this time, the term “conservation movement” was coined to describe the wise use of natural resources and millions of acres were added to the national forest lands. 

This governmental activism outraged many with commercial interest in land exploitation. However, Pinchot also outraged Muir and others on the preservationist side of the land use issue by advocating selective exploitation; he saw himself as a practitioner of what we would today call sustainable agriculture, a regulator of the forest resource rather than a preservationist. He and Muir first locked horns when Pinchot permitted sheep grazing on public lands, and their rift came to a head when San Francisco proposed damming a part of Yosemite, the Hetch Hetchy Valley, to provide water for the city. 

Muir and his Sierra Club led a bitter five-year battle, from 1909 to 1913, to prevent this from happening, and McFarland publicly came out on their side. In an argument over public land use that resonates to this day, Pinchot felt that immediate economic needs overrode the need for preservation, leading to his final break with both McFarland and Muir.

Ultimately the water project was approved, and John Muir, discouraged by the defeat, withdrew from further public campaigning until his death the following year, in 1914.

Two years after Muir’s death in 1916, McFarland was successful in his campaign to create the National Park Service. Ironically, Muir’s earlier defeat helped McFarland mobilize public support for the preservation of public lands, and he cannily enlisted the aid of several of the key figures who had sponsored the dam project. 

While some would demonize Pinchot because of his policy of commercial exploitation of public lands, he is not so easy to pigeonhole as a villain.  In addition to creating the great national forest system, he went on to become twice Governor of Pennsylvania, from 1922-26 and 1930-34 and his terms were marked by fiscal austerity and reform. He remained true to his Progressive ideals, and was often at odds with other Republicans over his anti-monopoly policies, attempts to regulate public utilities, and implementation of a pension system for public employees. He was also instrumental in arbitrating two major coal strikes.

Our country is a better place because these four men, each in his own way, heeded the voice of the forest.   

Dan Kamin is the author of The Comedy of Charlie Chaplin: Artistry in Motion and served as assistant editor of The Sylvanian from February 2005- February 2008.

Published August 2005