But few realize that faith has informed and inspired conservation leaders since the beginnings of the movement. August 11 is the 150th birthday anniversary of one such early leader: Gifford Pinchot. The first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Pinchot pioneered the science of forestry in America and presided over the protection of 2.3 million acres of national forests, parks, and monuments during the Theodore Roosevelt administration. As Pennsylvania's governor during the Great Depression, he developed back-to-work conservation programs that Franklin Roosevelt used as models for the federal Civilian Conservation Corps.
At Yale College, Gifford devoted himself to both faith and natural science, studying botany and geology while teaching Sunday School, serving as a deacon of the Class of ’89, and considering a career as a missionary. A wrestler and football player too, Pinchot adhered to a progressive evangelical protestanism and practiced what his biographer Char Miller calls a “muscular Christianity” of “gridiron-hardened men [who] could best shoulder the cross.”
A year in France and England after graduation, studying how Europeans managed their heavily-utilized forests, sealed Pinchot’s professional fate. Heading home in 1890, he became the first American-born trained forester in the country, helping to establish the first scientifically-managed forest on private land at Biltmore Estate. His unique skills—and progressive political connections—led to his appointment by William McKinley as the nation’s chief forester in 1898. Under Roosevelt, he established the U.S. Forest Service and built a vision of efficient, science-based natural resource management--of land and water--into a working federal policy.
Faith and values continued to shape and drive Pinchot’s thinking and actions. “We are trustees of a coming world,” he asserted as a young man, and as Chief Forester, he insisted that natural resource decisions be judged by an ethical standard—“the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run.” Caring for forests, rivers, and the humans and wildlife that depend upon them had become his life’s mission.
Pinchot’s conservation ethic helped shaped the thinking of Aldo Leopold, a student at the Yale Forest School founded by Pinchot’s family and an early employee of the Pinchot's U.S. Forest Service. Leopold would later point out that “nothing as important as an ethic is ever ‘written,’. . . it evolves in the minds of a thinking community.” And while neither Pinchot’s nor Leopold’s ethics speak directly about conservation of the oceans, their values can be felt in the ocean ethic crafted by Interfaith Ocean’s founders and in the ethics and faith statements of other leaders on our website and around the world.
As we celebrate the sesquicentennial of Gifford Pinchot’s birth, let us also rejoice in the faith that grounded his moral approach to conservation. Faith, we should never forget, has shaped and will shape our future as part of God’s creation.
Julie Dunlap is Interfaith Ocean's communications coordinator and writes often about environmental education and environmental history. For more on Pinchot's and Leopold's ethics, see her essay, "Educating for the Long Run: Pinchot and Leopold on Connecting with the Future."