Posts Tagged ‘Theodore Roosevelt’

(First published in 2008, this blog posted was updated in 2012 and, after finding the letters to his sisters on the Theodore Roosevelt Center’s website, again in 2016.)

There’s a good deal of misinformation about how Theodore Roosevelt refused to allow a Christmas tree in the White House because of “environmental concerns.” A bit of research kept turning up variations on the story about the ban and how his son Archie smuggled one in against his father’s wishes, which provoked an angry reaction. Some versions of the story include dialogue between father and son, and some have the children involving Gifford Pinchot, the federal chief of forestry, to defend their actions. The incident is even the subject of a children’s book by Gary Hines which, though historical fiction, is no farther from (or closer to) the truth than the historical record as it now exists.

While the Roosevelts’ lack of a tree was not a complete break in tradition—a holiday tree in the White House did not become established annual practice until the 1920s—it was still a notable exclusion. Prior to Roosevelt, Christmas trees were a fairly rare occurrence in the White House. Legend has it that the fifteenth president, James Buchanan, had the first tree, but even that is disputed, with some sources saying Franklin Pierce had the first one in 1853. (Keep in mind that as late as the 1840s, most Americans viewed Christmas trees as pagan symbols; the day itself was treated with great solemnity.)

Nevertheless, nineteenth-century American households typically didn’t put one up unless there were young children in the house; they placed the presents under or even on the tree for the tykes. Presidents Grant and Cleveland both had Christmas trees in the White House only because they had young children, while presidents without young children had no tree. Interestingly, on their website, the White House Historical Association claims Benjamin Harrison had the first recorded Christmas tree in 1889 but makes no mention of any before then, and that electric lights were first used on a Christmas tree in 1894.

Regardless of its origins, by Roosevelt’s presidency, a growing opposition to Christmas trees was reaching its peak. Many among the general public opposed cutting trees for the holiday because of the injurious impact on forests, the destructive methods used to harvest them, or the overall perceived wastefulness of the practice. The U.S. Forest Service Newsclipping Files in the FHS Archives contain numerous newspaper editorials from around the turn of the century strongly challenging the practice. The Hartford Courant in 1902 commented that “the green has become a nuisance, there is so much of it.  Everything from a church to a saloon has to be decorated. The result is that the woods are being stripped and an altogether endless sacrifice is going on, not in obedience to any real need but just to meet the calls of an absurd fad.” In what sounds like the debates over natural vs. artificial trees today, others called for artificial substitutes such as wire Christmas trees:

1899 newspaper editorial

(from Minneapolis Times, January 6, 1899)

President Roosevelt himself was on record as opposing destructive lumbering practices, though he doesn’t appear to have singled out the practice of harvesting Christmas trees. (It is worth noting that Chief Forester Pinchot actually saw nothing wrong with the practice, and by 1907 was even urging the creation of businesses specifically for growing them.) A few contemporary newspaper articles note how family tradition held that the Roosevelts never had one. Unphased, each year the press enjoyed speculating about whether the family would have a tree. It was expected that Roosevelt—the father of six children—would have a tree in the White House despite this. What happened in 1902 made the news, however, and soon passed into legend.

Archie Roosevelt -- The Child, The Myth, The Legend!

Archie Roosevelt – The Child, The Myth, The Legend!

This much we know for certain: in 1901, having moved into the White House only a few months before, the Roosevelt children enjoyed a tree at their cousin’s house but not in their own home. In 1902, Roosevelt’s eight-year-old son Archie “had a little birthday tree of his own which he had rigged up” in a big closet with help from “one of the carpenters.” There’s no mention of lights—that’s only implied when saying the tree was “rigged up.” Archie decorated it with gifts for each family member and even the family pets. Afterward, they adjourned to another room where everyone opened their presents. Roosevelt, in a letter written the next day to a friend of the children’s, discussed the tree but did not offer a reaction to it.

Yet, with that tree, it seems that Archie may have begun a family tradition. In a letter to his sister Corrine Robinson penned on December 26, 1906, the president writes:

Archie and Quentin have gradually worked up a variant on what is otherwise a strictly inherited form of our celebration, for they fix up (or at least Archie fixes up) a special Christmas tree in Archie’s room, which is the play-room; and the first thing we had to do was to go in and to admire that. Meanwhile, two of the children had slipt [sic] out, and when we got back to our room there was a small lighted Christmas tree with two huge stockings for Edith and myself, the children’s stockings (which included one for [son-in-law] Nick) reposing, swollen and bulging, on the sofa.

On page two of a letter written to his sister Anna Cowles, whom he called “Bye,” on Christmas Day 1907, he mentions in passing that on that afternoon, following a full day of horseback riding and visiting friends, “there was a Christmas tree of Archie’s.” The comment was offered so casually that it appears that Archie having a tree was not only not a surprise, but that it was expected. This might explain why the children had provided a tree especially for their parents the year before—to surprise them once again as they had in 1902.

Incidentally, newspaper articles from 1903 to 1908 mention that there will be no tree that year but speculate about what will happen and if Archie will pull a fast one. Some articles from 1903, 1904, and 1905 claim Archie had a secret tree each of those years, with the writers essentially repeating the events of 1902 as if it just happened for the first time. Oddly, the articles are dated December 24th or even the 25th. But, as previously stated, we know for certain that Archie did have a tree in 1906 and 1907, and that from President Roosevelt’s letter in 1906 we can infer that Archie had one in the years between 1903 and 1905.

The first lengthy account of Archie’s first tree may have been in a Ladies Home Journal article from December 1903 written by Robert Lincoln O’Brien, former executive clerk at the White House. In his account of the events of Christmas 1902, O’Brien claims that Quentin’s nurse suggested enlisting the household electrician to rig up lights. He also recounts the unveiling of the tree, which was the top of an evergreen no more than two feet high and purchased for twenty cents. He quotes Archie as saying at the time of the unveiling, “Just look here for a minute. I want you to glance into this old closet,” before pressing a button to turn on the lights and opening the closet door. O’Brien wrote, “All the family were there, as was Quentin’s nurse, but none appeared more astonished than Mr. Roosevelt himself at the sight of this diminutive Christmas tree.”

Illustration from the 1903 article in Ladies Home Journal.

From Robert Lincoln O’Brien’s article in Ladies Home Journal.

O’Brien also addresses the rumors as to why the Roosevelt family didn’t have a tree in previous years. He says some speculated that “the President’s love for the living things of the forest in their own natural setting” was so great “that he prefers not to encourage the wanton slaughter of small trees.” O’Brien summarizes the debate over “the Christmas-tree practice” as being between those who believe “that trees are made for the use and enjoyment of man” and “man might as well pick out what he wants,” versus those who believe that “best-shaped trees” are the ones selected for holiday harvest and “are the very ones that the world can least afford to lose.” Instead, he writes, it’s a matter of personal preference. The family was so large, and with nearly every room in the White House “overloaded with things” during the holiday season, displaying trees “would only add so much more.” Rather, Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt desired to enjoy Christmas as simply as possible.

The environmental arguments circulating in 1902 soon became the reason for the ban, despite such explanations to the contrary. In a December 1909 article in the Oregonian about the history of Christmas in the White House, the motive for banning the Christmas tree, in language that closely echoes O’Brien, is linked to “the wanton destruction of small evergreen trees at Christmas time.” But then, the reader is told, “Mr. [Gifford] Pinchot, the Government’s chief forester, sided with Santa Claus and showed how Christmas tree cutting did the forests good in many places. So the second [w]inter the Roosevelts spent in the White House Old Kris conspired with roguish Archie to give the family a real Christmas tree, whether the nature-loving President liked it or not.” Here, for the first time, Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot is drawn into the drama—and sides with the children by discussing the benefits of selection cutting. This author is vague about who Pinchot lectures on the topic, but the message gets through to the President and he relents in the face of science.

Fast-forward 80 years, and the story is twisted even further and becomes almost fantasy. In a December 1988 article in The Northern Logger and Timber Processor, Dick O’Donnell introduces several errors (for starters, the story occurs in 1905, and he claims that this incident started the White House Christmas tree tradition) and veers so close to historical fiction that I won’t even bother further deconstructing and critiquing his account. But O’Donnell does spin a great yarn. He tells us with a straight face that, in 1905, Archie has the idea for the tree but Quentin is worried by their father’s ban. Archie’s solution is to pay Forester Pinchot a visit and enlist their father’s friend and adviser for help. He not only sides with them, but then Pinchot proceeds to teach President Roosevelt about selection cutting. The president then calls a press conference to announce a change in forest management policy on federal lands. But perhaps the conversations O’Donnell conjures up between Archie and Quentin, and between Roosevelt and Pinchot, gave Gary Hines the basis for his wonderful children’s book. So it can’t be all bad.

We are trying to answer the following questions: What were the real reasons behind why Roosevelt did not allow a tree in the White House?  And how and when did the crux of the current legend—that Roosevelt banned trees from the White house due to environmental concerns—come about? Did Roosevelt ever oppose the Christmas tree due to concern for America’s forests, or is this all just a case of when the legend becomes fact, print the legend?

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The following is an op-ed piece by FHS staff historian James G. Lewis that appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times on August 9, 2015, in honor of Gifford Pinchot’s 150th birthday on August 11. 

Born just after the guns of the Civil War fell silent, he died the year after the first atomic bomb was dropped. He was, in his own words, a “governor every now and then” but a forester all the time. Indeed, Gifford Pinchot, born 150 years ago on Aug. 11, served two terms as Pennsylvania governor but is best known as the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service (established 1905), which today manages 192 million acres. He also created the Society of American Foresters (1900), the organization that oversees his chosen profession, and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (1900), the oldest forestry school in America. And just south of Asheville, in the Pisgah National Forest, is the Cradle of Forestry in America, both of which exist in part because of him.

But perhaps his greatest legacy is his prescient call, made 75 years ago, for conservation as the foundation for permanent peace.

GP portrait

Gifford Pinchot during his tenure as Forest Service chief.

When Pinchot enrolled at Yale College in 1885, his father encouraged him to pursue forestry. It was a radical idea. The United States had no forestry school, no working foresters, no land being managed on scientific principles. To become a forester, in 1889 Pinchot traveled to Europe. There he met Sir Dietrich Brandis, who was leading British forestry students on tours of sustainably managed forests in Germany. The best way to introduce forestry to the United States, Brandis told him, was to demonstrate that scientific forest management could earn a private landowner a steady income.

Pinchot came home in 1890 full of ideas but few job prospects. Through family connections, he learned of George Vanderbilt’s great undertaking in Asheville. Vanderbilt hired him to be his estate’s—and thus the nation’s—first working forester. When some of Pinchot’s employees began asking why he did things a certain way, like selecting only some trees to cut instead of cutting them all, he decided to teach them in the evenings.

Pinchot didn’t have the temperament to be a teacher, and the classes, such as they were, didn’t last. But fortunately for America, his forestry exhibit at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 and accompanying booklet, Biltmore Forest, attracted wider attention, and he left Biltmore in 1895. On his recommendation, Vanderbilt hired Carl Alwin Schenck, another Brandis protégé, who in 1898 established the Biltmore Forest School, the first forestry school in America.

In 1898, Pinchot was appointed chief of what would become the U.S. Forest Service. He and his friend President Theodore Roosevelt made forestry the focus of a national conservation movement. The two held national and North American conservation conferences before Roosevelt left office in 1909. An international one was scuttled after Pinchot was fired by President Taft in 1910.

A political progressive, Pinchot next plunged into politics. No matter what office he ran for—governor, senator, representative—he advocated for human rights and sustainably managed natural resources. In the 1930s, he watched as Europe and Asia waged wars in large part over access to natural resources. His 1940 observation that “international co-operation in conserving, utilizing, and distributing natural resources to the mutual advantage of all nations might well remove one of the most dangerous of all obstacles to a just and permanent world peace” rings louder even today and is a premise of the just-released UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Although planting a tree or visiting the Cradle of Forestry are good ways to commemorate Gifford Pinchot’s 150th birthday on Aug. 11, the best way to honor America’s first forester is to continue working for conservation and, by extension, world peace.

James Lewis is the staff historian at the Forest History Society in Durham and an executive producer of “First in Forestry: Carl Schenck and the Biltmore Forest School.” The film will have its world premiere at Brevard College on Aug. 30 and its television premiere on UNC-TV in 2016.

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One hundred years ago today, on October 8, 1910, former president Theodore Roosevelt addressed the Southern Conservation Congress in Atlanta, Georgia. Roosevelt was just one of many speakers during the two-day meeting called to “discuss the problems of utilizing to the best permanent advantage the resources of the South as a whole.” The meeting itself evolved out of an effort to form a Georgia conservation association, but then it quickly grew into a region-wide meeting.

Initially Roosevelt was coming to Atlanta for a completely different and unlikely reason. He was to be the featured speaker at a fundraiser on October 8 to establish a memorial for John Chandler Harris, the man who had gathered together and published the immensely popular “Uncle Remus” stories about Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and other characters. Roosevelt had befriended Harris, who was known as “Uncle Remus,” and had hosted him at the White House prior to the latter’s death in 1908—one of the few times Harris left his home towards the end of his life. Ever the politician, Roosevelt had declared on a visit to Atlanta in 1905: “Presidents come and go, but Uncle Remus stays put. Georgia has done a great many things for the Union, but she has never done more than when she gave Mr. Joel Chandler Harris to American literature.” When word reached the organizers of the Southern Conservation Congress that Roosevelt would be in town in October of 1910, they invited him to address the congress.

As with elsewhere, interest in conserving natural resources in the South had blossomed during Roosevelt’s term in office. Timber and naval stores were critical industries in the South during Reconstruction, and also critical to the economic development of the region. Timber went into housing and construction not only in the South but in the new Midwestern cities; railroads around the country were huge consumers of logs for railroad ties. Lumbermen were quickly cutting their way through southern forests, with harvests reaching a peak of nearly 140 billion board-feet in 1909. The South, including the Carolinas and Virginia, were producing 47% of all timber in the U.S. Nearly 50% of the South’s original woodland area was gone by then. (For more on this, see the first chapter of Mountaineers and Rangers: A History of Federal Forest Management in the Southern Appalachians, 1900-81.)

Joining Roosevelt on the dais was none other than Gifford Pinchot, the former Forest Service chief and a close friend and conservation adviser of Roosevelt’s. Pinchot spoke first on the “Principles of Conservation” in which he emphasized that “far-sighted” southern leaders had been working for twenty years toward the creation of the Appalachian Forest Preserve and now had the opportunity to achieve victory if only the Senate would pass the bill before them. Not surprisingly, Roosevelt and others echoed that sentiment. That bill was the Weeks Bill, which called in part for granting the federal government the power to purchase private lands in the East to protect watersheds.


Southern Conservation Congress

Members of the Southern Conservation Congress. Gifford Pinchot is fifth from the right. (From "American Lumberman")


In its “Statement of Principles and Policies,” the Southern Conservation Congress explicitly backed passage of the Weeks Bill, declaring that “the federal government has the constitutional right amounting to a national duty to acquire lands for forest purposes in the interest of a future timber supply, watershed protection, navigation, power, and the general welfare of the people.” The following March, President William Howard Taft signed the Weeks Act into law. Three years later the federal government purchased about 100,000 acres from George Vanderbilt’s widow in North Carolina to establish the Pisgah National Forest—the first national forest in the South created under the Weeks Act.

Theodore Roosevelt’s remarks to the Southern Conservation Congress neatly encapsulate the conservationists’ rationale for supporting government intervention in natural resource management. His discussion of the South’s changing economic prosperity is particularly interesting.


Theodore Roosevelt's address to the Southern Conservation Congress. Click on the image to open the address in PDF format.


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On September 10, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt established the Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska. This month, the Forest History Society is publishing a history of the region, Tongass Timber: A History of Logging and Timber Utilization in Southeast Alaska, by James Mackovjak (you may remember Jim from his cross-country bike trip documented on this blog). Tongass Timber, now available in our online store, traces the history of the decades-long attempts by commercial interests and the U.S. Forest Service to develop the region’s forests, examining their motivations and resulting impacts. This historical background reveals the forces that influence present choices about forest management in Southeast Alaska.

The Tongass National Forest originated with the Alexander Archipelago Forest Reserve, which Roosevelt established in 1902 under the old forest reserve system. The Alexander’s creation was controversial because Alaskans feared that the forest would no longer be available for development, a general misconception about the purpose of the forest reserves. Forester Gifford Pinchot sought to assure the territorial governor, John Brady, that the opposite was the case, declaring at the time: “[T]he permanent success of the industries of Alaska can best be secured through the establishment of forest reserves.” It was the first of many controversies over economic policy and the Tongass.

Five years later, the Tongass National Forest was created on the recommendation of forest supervisor W. A. Langille and F. E. Olmsted, the forest inspector sent out from Washington, D.C. As Jim Mackovjak notes, Olmsted’s was “the first detailed examination of Southeast Alaska’s forests by a professionally trained forester.” The announcement of Tongass’s establishment in Forestry and Irrigation, the predecessor to the American Forests magazine, is here. If you want a history of the agency in Alaska, check out Lawrence Rakestraw’s A History of the United States Forest Service in Alaska. It is, however, nearly thirty years old.

Langille is regarded by many as the father of forestry in Alaska. A skilled outdoorsman and mountaineer who deeply impressed Pinchot when they met in 1896 in Oregon, Pinchot hired him first as a forest expert and eventually as forest supervisor of the Alexander. Langille projected what a colleague termed an “abrupt, outspoken and occasionally mildly terrifying manner.” You can learn more about this fascinating man from this article.

But that’s not all! For you, our dedicated blog readers, we have an exclusive excerpt from Tongass Timber, which gives the history of the establishment of the Tongass, including the origins of its name and how Alaska went from being designated as District 8 to becoming Region 10 on the National Forest System map. You’ll also find maps showing how the Tongass grew from 2 million to 16 million acres.

We’d like to thank the following for making Tongass Timber possible through their generous funding: the Kendall Foundation, Mike Blackwell, the SB Foundation, the Alaska Historical Society, the Alaska Humanities Forum, and the Lynn W. Day Endowment for Forest History Publications.

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In one of his last acts as president, Theodore Roosevelt convened the North American Conservation Conference on this date 101 years ago. This event might ring a bell for faithful followers of the blog. The conference and its legacy were discussed in a previous blog entry. That entry, which originally appeared as an opinion piece in the Raleigh News and Observer, focused on Gifford Pinchot’s quest for what he called “permanent peace.” There was a great deal of background that we couldn’t fit into the op-ed piece. So, given the clamoring from our fans, we’re marking the anniversary of the conference by telling, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story.

Representatives from the U.S., Canada, and Mexico — including Miguel de Quevedo, the father of Mexican conservation — attended the international conference. It was the last of three important conferences on conservation hosted by Roosevelt. The other two — the Conference of Governors, held in May 1908, and the National Conservation Commission, convened in January 1909 as a prelude to the North American conference — had for the first time focused both public and media attention on the need for conserving natural resources in the United States. The American Forestry Association chronicled the international conference in its magazine, then called Conservation, and makes mention of the ill-fated fourth one to be held in the Netherlands in September 1909. Thirty nations had already accepted invitations to attend when Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, canceled it.

Commissioners to the North American Conservation Conference. President Roosevelt sits at center, Gifford Pinchot is standing third from left, and Miguel Quevedo is seated at far right.

The catalyst behind all four meetings was Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service and an enormous influence on the thinking of Theodore Roosevelt. In the 1930s, he captured the attention of President Franklin Roosevelt about a world conference on conservation. Pinchot, by now governor of Pennsylvania, had been talking with FDR about the need for such an international conference when war broke out in Europe in 1939. As war clouds gathered off the shores of the United States, Pinchot began putting an emphasis on “permanent” peace.

In May 1940, Pinchot addressed the Eighth American Scientific Congress and published his paper, “Conservation as a Foundation of Permanent Peace,” in the August issue of Nature (which was reprinted in Forest History Today in 2001). Mindful of what was happening in Europe and Asia at that moment, as a path to peace he suggested that “international cooperation in conserving, utilizing, and distributing natural resources to the mutual advantage of all nations might well remove one of the most dangerous of all obstacles to a just and permanent world peace.”

U.S. entry into the war in December 1941 didn’t deter Pinchot. As can be seen in his diaries here, during the war he continued refining the ideas put forth in 1940 and presented them again to FDR in 1945 shortly before Roosevelt died. Pinchot found FDR’s successor Harry Truman equally receptive and ready to champion Pinchot’s cause. The rest, as they say, is history — or is found in a history blog.

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The following is an op-ed piece that appeared in the Raleigh News and Observer on January 3, 2010. It was co-authored by FHS staff historian James G. Lewis and FHS member and professor of environmental history Char Miller.

Getting together for the environment

“In international relations, the great feature of the growth of the last century has been the gradual recognition of the fact that instead of its being normally to the interest of each nation to see another depressed, it is normally to the interest of each nation to see the others elevated.” So argued a Nobel Prize-winning president at an international meeting called to deal with a growing environmental crisis.

After calling upon those gathered to closely cooperate for the common good of all, he concluded: “I believe that the movement that you this day initiate is one of the utmost importance to this hemisphere and may become of the utmost importance to the world at large.”

These words were uttered 100 years before President Barack Obama went to Copenhagen to attend the climate-change meetings. Their source? Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt was the keynote speaker at the 1909 North American Conservation conference, the first international conference on conservation policy. From the dais, he challenged his audience to think about the global threat posed by the too-rapid consumption of natural resources.

President Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot on the Inland Waterways trip in 1907. The Inland Waterways trip was one of several efforts by the president and Pinchot to generate media attention for the cause of conservation.

This conference succeeded in focusing attention on the need for conserving timber, coal and water resources in North America, and the president was eager to expand this concept to the world, committing the U.S. to supporting a world conservation conference to be held in the Netherlands in September 1909. Thirty nations had already accepted invitations to attend when Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, canceled it.

The driving force behind the White House’s commitment to international cooperation was Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service and an enormous influence on the first Roosevelt’s conservation policies. After studying forestry in Europe in the early 1890s, Pinchot briefly served as George Vanderbilt’s forester at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, where he demonstrated how judicious logging could rehabilitate the land at a time when loggers (and tax laws) favored clear-cutting forests and moving on to the next patch of land.

At the same time, Roosevelt was a rising star in New York’s political scene who had witnessed the damage loggers and farmers had done in the Northeast as well as in the Dakota Territory and much of the West. He shared Pinchot’s concern for the future of America’s natural resources.

The two first began working to change the physical as well as the political landscape when Roosevelt became governor of New York in 1898. When Roosevelt took over the presidency in 1901, he immediately embraced Pinchot’s plans for saving the public lands, and together they introduced conservation to the nation.

After the cancellation of the world conference in 1909, for the next 30 years Pinchot carried the idea for a world conservation conference to every president until the second President Roosevelt – Franklin – backed the idea. Pinchot had been talking with FDR about the need for such an international conference when war broke out in Europe in 1939. That’s when Pinchot began arguing that conservation was the only route to a “permanent” peace.

Although war had long been “an instrument of national policy for the safeguarding of natural resources or for securing them from other nations,” Pinchot argued in Nature (1940), this need not be the inevitable fate of human society: “International cooperation in conserving, utilizing, and distributing natural resources to the mutual advantage of all nations might well remove one of the most dangerous of all obstacles to a just and permanent world peace.”

Five years later, when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Japan, Pinchot – nearly 80 years old – expanded his thinking to consider atomic energy as another natural resource to be included in his peace plan. If he was able to think beyond the immediate ravages of war, what is hindering us – in this much-more peaceful age – from acting to save the world?

Pinchot’s world conference plan eventually resulted in the 1949 U.N. Scientific Conference on the Conservation and Utilization of Resources. It was held at the dawn of the Cold War (and three years after Pinchot’s death). Conference attendees focused on how “the earth’s resources and the ingenuity of man can provide an almost unlimited potential for improved living standards for the world’s population” – the critical application of science to the pursuit of global peace. It was what Pinchot had envisioned and what should have been a goal for last month’s conference in Copenhagen – and afterward.

Obama apparently agrees. His acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize echoed Pinchot’s assertion of the pressing need to build a just and lasting peace. Obama declared: “[As a result of climate change], we will face more drought, more famine, more mass displacement – all of which will fuel more conflict for decades. For this reason, it is not merely scientists and environmental activists who call for swift and forceful action – it’s military leaders in my own country and others who understand our common security hangs in the balance.”

Pinchot was well aware of the precarious balance that conservationists must maintain as they fight to preserve natural resources and the human communities that depend on them. And he would remind us that any resolutions that come from the Copenhagen meetings are but first steps toward a long-delayed discussion about our global responsibilities. As Pinchot wrote in 1940, “The conservation of natural resources and fair access to needed raw materials are steps toward the common good to which all nations must in principle agree.”

Let’s hope that the president and other Copenhagen delegates remain as steadfast in their commitment to meet the common threat that potential climate changes pose for us all.

James G. Lewis is the staff historian at the Forest History Society in Durham. Char Miller is W.M. Keck professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.

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On this day in 1897, President Grover Cleveland signed an executive order creating the Washington Birthday Reserves.  He proclaimed 13 new or expanded forest reserves in the western United States, totaling some 21 million acres; it brought the total acreage in the forest reserve system (the predecessor to the National Forest System) to just under 40 million acres.  When Cleveland created the reserves, so named because the signing occurred on the birthday of the first U.S. president, he acted on the recommendation of the National Forest Commission.  Comprised of such leading conservationists as Gifford Pinchot, Charles S. Sargent, and Wolcott Gibbs, the commission had been formed in 1896 to advise the president and Congress on how to manage the federal forest reserves.

After spending several months out west examining existing reserves and potential new ones, and then spending many more months in rancorous debate over whether the forests should be placed under civilian or military control, in February 1897 the commission called for more land to be set aside before they even announced how to manage the forests.  Cleveland must have recognized that adding to the already-controversial forest reserves was not going to be popular in much of the west.

The Big Man himself, Grover Cleveland.  It was at the end of the second of his two non- consecutive terms in office that he created the Washington Birthday Forest Reserves.

The Big Man himself, Grover Cleveland. It was at the end of the second of his two non- consecutive terms in office that he created the Washington Birthday Forest Reserves. (Forest History Society Photo Collection)

Yet President Cleveland signed the papers.  It wasn’t the most courageous move on his part.  He signed it only days before leaving office and had nothing to lose politically.  He left the decision of who should manage the reserves for his successor to determine.  (It wasn’t settled until passage of the Forest Management [or Organic] Act in June 1897 — three months after Cleveland left office.)  On the other hand, it took vision and foresight to do it, to see the value in establishing those reserves.  Writing of Cleveland’s doubling of the national reserve, historian Geoffrey Blodgett said: “But for Theodore Roosevelt’s vastly more skillful flair for self-advertisement — Cleveland might be remembered as our presidential pioneer in imposing sanity on federal land use policy.”  And Richard E. Welch Jr. in his history of Cleveland’s presidencies declared that “Cleveland scored his most important success as a reformer” by signing the order.  It was, however, a curious move by a man who did not favor the expansion of federal government nor that of governmental paternalism.  The Washington Birthday Reserves were, in fact, the second time he had added to the reserves — he had added 5 million acres in 1893 before asking for guidance on how they should be managed.

What is not discussed in forest or political histories in any depth is why President Cleveland backed the commission’s work and was willing to create the reserves.  The decision should be looked at in the broader context of Cleveland’s lifelong interest in fishing and hunting.  A recent biographer simply characterizes the interest in those sports as a way to escape the pressures of the office.  It was more than that.  Cleveland so loved the outdoors that in 1906 he published Fishing and Shooting Sketches, in which he celebrated the virtues of both sports.  John Reiger, in his classic American Sportmen and the Origins of Conservation, barely mentions Cleveland but does acknowledge the president followed the sportsmen’s code while hunting and fishing, which included “possess[ing] an aesthetic appreciation of the whole environmental context of sport that included a commitment to its perpetuation.”  But we learn nothing of how Cleveland came to learn it and embrace it.  Reiger opens the door for Cleveland or conservation scholars and even offers a framework.  Scholars, are you listening?  Here’s an article or a master’s thesis waiting to be written.

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As President-elect Barack Obama’s cabinet nominees are being finalized with little controversy, we here at Peeling Back the Bark can’t help but think back one hundred years ago and wonder what might have happened if, as newspapers speculated, Gifford Pinchot had been appointed to a cabinet position in William Howard Taft’s administration. Here’s what the Southern Lumberman, an industry newspaper, had to say on November 14, 1908.

Gifford Pinchot and Taft's Cabinet

(Click image to enlarge)

As chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Pinchot was frequently mentioned as suitable for either secretary of agriculture or secretary of the interior for two reasons. First, he was “the personal friend of President Roosevelt and one of his advisers.” Most reporters assumed that because Roosevelt had chosen Taft as his successor, Taft would want to continue Roosevelt’s policies and use many of his policymakers to do so. The second reason was his grasp of the issues faced by either department; there is little argument that from a knowledge standpoint, Pinchot was more than qualified for either post. “He is a keen student of the great problems of our national resources and their conservation,” observed the Providence (Rhode Island) Journal at the time.

The possibility of Pinchot’s nomination for either position raises several questions, but I’ll limit the discussion to two. (This assumes Taft, a conservative who disagreed with Roosevelt’s expansion of executive power, would have even nominated Pinchot.) First, would Pinchot have survived the nomination process? Western newspapers had been calling him “Czar Pinchot” for several years and probably would have demanded blocking his appointment. Western senators, resentful of Pinchot’s growing stature and Roosevelt’s usurping and circumventing of Congress’s power, had already succeeded in reining in Pinchot’s power in 1907 and might have tried to humble him before approving him. It would have been fun to watch those hearings!

One of several cartoons depicting Gifford Pinchot as a czar.

One of several cartoons depicting Gifford Pinchot as a czar bent on controlling all western natural resources. Another one called him "King of the Forest Reserve."

Assuming he was approved, the next question is: how long would Pinchot have lasted in Taft’s cabinet? Were the two men going to clash — and Pinchot dismissed — regardless of whether he was secretary or Forest Service chief? I suspect that even as a secretary, once Pinchot’s disillusion with Taft and his policies had set in, he would have sought some way to martyr himself for the cause of conservation. The end result would have been the same, with Pinchot and others trying to pull Roosevelt back into politics in order to challenge Taft in 1912.

"I'll tell Teddy on you!"

"I'll tell Teddy on you!"

What do you think? Would Pinchot have made a good Interior or Agriculture secretary under Taft? Would he have picked a fight and gotten fired for the cause, or stayed in the cabinet to fight for it? Would he even have been approved by Congress?

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What do you give a professional organization on its 108th birthday? Warm wishes, I suppose. But in the case of the Society of American Foresters, formally founded on November 30, 1900, in the cramped office of its first president, Gifford Pinchot, it seems appropriate to offer up something a bit more meaningful than an air-kiss or a genial hurrah.

A more significant memento might be to recall the charge that SAF members received from the president of the United States during the society’s third year: “I believe that there is no body of men who have it in their power today to do a greater service to the country,” Theodore Roosevelt asserted, “than those engaged in the scientific study of, and practical application of, approved methods of forestry for the preservation of the woods of the United States.” His confidence in their contributions as foresters and citizens surely warmed his listeners’ hearts. But they and he understood that this generous praise, while not misplaced, was a tad premature.


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With the forest fires still burning in southern California and some suggesting that fire season there is now a year-round event, the publication of the Fall 2008 issue of Forest History Today is rather timely, to say the least. The Forest History Society is proud to present in this special issue the papers delivered at the workshop on fire and the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) that preceded this spring’s American Society for Environmental History meeting in Boise. Articles by leading historians, journalists, and fire researchers look at the history of wildland-urban interface fires, the need to rethink the approach in the U.S. to fighting fire in the WUI, the role that historians can play in these discussions, and how news coverage of wildfires has changed over the years. Contributors include Steve Pyne, William Sommers, Jack Cohen, Mark Neuzil, Rocky Barker, and Patty Limerick. You can find the complete issue on the Forest History Today webpage.

In addition to articles on fire and WUI, you’ll find Steve Pyne’s fascinating history of an iconic fire painting (which graces the cover), a “Biographical Portrait” of Theodore Roosevelt in honor of his 150th birthday, and a “History on the Road” column that takes you on a tour of nineteenth-century charcoal kilns in Nevada.

The Spring 2008 issue of Forest History Today, with articles on the latest trends in nature-based outdoor recreation, the historic — and imperiled — ponderosa pine ecosystem, and an excerpt from Mike McCloskey’s memoir about his days in the Sierra Club, is also available online along with all previous issues.

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