Near the end of his life, Gifford Pinchot longed to tell the origin story of forest conservation in America. His planned autobiography, Breaking New Ground, would recount his role alongside Theodore Roosevelt in founding the US Forest Service and protecting 150 million acres of national forests. But the aging former Forest Service chief realized that defending that vast domain—the daunting task of the agency’s first generation—had been as important as creating it. In 1937 Pinchot wrote to hundreds of men and a few women under his administration from 1898 to 1910, soliciting recollections of “what we did, what we faced, and why” (p. xii). Knowing the value of primary sources to the historical record, Pinchot affectionately assured his fellow Old Timers, “You cannot give me anything I will not be glad to have” (p. xii). Replies poured in: diaries, scrapbooks, photographs, songs, and letters up to 150 pages long. Meticulously filed away, the epistles languished in the Library of Congress Pinchot Collection until 2005, when chanced upon by Pinchot’s great-grandniece, landscape architect Bibi Gaston. Although researching a book at the time on her grandmother, actress Rosamond Pinchot, Gaston was captivated by the dusty tales of adventure, privation, resourcefulness, clashes with ranchers, loggers, and miners, and, especially, fealty to service. She resolved to curate selected narratives into what would become this book. Readers will be first struck, as Gaston was, “by the clarity and beauty of their prose” (p. 3). But the import of the forgotten collection, firsthand accounts of a turbulent struggle to establish the policy of scientific resource management, lies in the vigor and values expressed in the writers’ devotion to a more sustainable future. Gaston adeptly distills six brimming file boxes down to twenty-seven sometimes abridged selections. Each is prefaced with commentary, occasionally digressing into personal opinions, but mostly exploring the contributor’s background and years afield, and relevant issues ranging from Pinchot’s European training to shifting public attitudes toward nature. The writers reveal surprising diversity in geographic origin, education (only some are credentialed foresters), and attraction to the Forest Service. A sister’s suggestion, the lure of the West, a lack of other options, or, as Earle Frothingham told his old chief, “an early passion for the study of birds,” enticed the first generation to apply (p. 12). But it was their sense of shared mission, what Pinchot called “a great and necessary undertaking,” that unified them against threats from bears, stockmen, sore backs, and politicians (p. xiv). The romance of many narratives is undeniable as young men saddle up to cruise timber in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains or chase down fires on Mount Lassen. First Foresters is worth reading for the yarns alone as brash rangers map and measure unknown terrain, and their equally bold wives make do in the wilderness on $60 a month and take a turn in the lookout tower. The foresters’ pioneering verve, says Gaston, serves as a model for subsequent generations’ environmental leadership and, in our own time, public engagement in “a new era of Conservation” (p. 7). A wealth of books, notably Hal Rothman’s I’ll Never Fight Fire with My Bare Hands Again, can put these narratives into the context of Progressive Era politics, economics, and social history. Gaston’s could also have addressed why some Old Timers invited by Pinchot—including Aldo Leopold—failed to contribute. But First Foresters confirms Gifford Pinchot’s most enduring legacy: ethics-based conservation. Throughout the volume, Old Timers’ words reflect their chief’s values that imbued the early agency from the highest peak to the Washington, D.C., typing pool. Thanks to Gaston’s rediscovered trove of such remembrances, Pinchot’s conviction that conservation means fighting scientific, technical, practical, and, especially, moral battles is fortified, and, as he once hoped, “told straight” (p. 5). © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 1, 2018
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