National Forest Foundation

Gifford Pinchot, “The ABC of Conservation”

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by Char Miller

NFF friend and author, Char Miller, recently released a new book, Gifford Pinchot: Selected Writings (2017). Here he offers a sample of one of the essays featured in this newly released collection. Scroll to the bottom of the page for a discount code for purchase.

Conservationist Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946) was an avid contributor to the nation’s popular press. The U.S. Forest Service’s founding chief understood the power of the press to educate and persuade the public about the pressing need for conservation of America’s natural resources.

This article is an example of his conviction that the Forest Service’s mission, and conservation in general, could not succeed without significant support from the American people. Originally published in The Outlook, Pinchot’s essay reflects his dedication to cultivating that essential engagement so crucial to the maintenance of a democratic society and its core values. Its striking relevance to 21st Century political debates over environmental protections is also why I included the full article in my just-published Gifford Pinchot: Selected Writings (2017).

Gifford Pinchot, “The ABC of Conservation” (1909)* 

The central thing for which Conservation stands is to make this country the best possible place to live in, both for us and for our descendants. It stands against the waste of the natural resources which cannot be renewed, such as coal and iron; it stands for the perpetuation of the resources which can be renewed, like the food-producing soils and the forests; and, most of all, it stands for equal opportunity for every American citizen to get his fair share of benefit from these resources, both now and hereafter.

…Conservation stands for the same kind of practical common-sense management of this country by the people that every business man stands for in the handling of his own business. It believes in prudence and foresight instead of reckless blindness; it holds that resources now public property should not become the basis for oppressive private monopoly; and it demands the complete and orderly development of all our resources for the benefit of all the people, instead of the partial exploitation of them for the benefit of a few. It recognizes fully the right of the present generation to use what it needs and all it needs of the natural resources now available, but it recognizes equally our obligation so to use what we need that our descendants shall not be deprived of what they need. 

…Conservation has much to do with the welfare of the average man to-day. It proposes to secure a continuous and abundant supply of the necessaries of life, which means a reasonable cost of living and business stability. It advocates fairness in the distribution of the benefits which flow from the natural resources. It will matter very little to the average citizen when scarcity comes and prices rise, whether he cannot get what he needs because there is none left or because he cannot afford to pay for it. In both cases the essential fact is that he cannot get what he needs. 

Conservation holds that it is about as important to see that the people in general get the benefit of our natural resources as to see that there shall be natural resources left.

Conservation is the most democratic movement this country has known for a generation. It holds that the people have not only the right but the duty to control the use of the natural resources, which are the great sources of prosperity. And it regards the absorption of these resources by the special interests, unless their operations are under effective public control, as a moral wrong. Conservation is the application of common sense to the common problems for the common good, and I believe it stands nearer to the desires, aspirations, and purposes of the average man than any other policy now before the American people.

…The danger to the Conservation policies in the coming session of Congress is that the privileges of the few may continue to obstruct the rights of the many, especially in the matter of water power and coal. Congress must decide at this session whether the great coal-fields still in public ownership shall remain so, in order that their use may be controlled with due regard to the interest of the consumer, or whether they shall pass into private ownership and be controlled in the monopolistic interest of a few.

…Congress must decide also whether immensely valuable rights to the use of water power shall be given away to special interests in perpetuity and without compensation, instead of being held and controlled by the public. …This country has achieved political freedom; what our people are fighting for now is industrial freedom. And unless we win our industrial liberty we cannot keep our political liberty. I see no reason why we should deliberately keep on helping to fasten the handcuffs of corporate control upon ourselves for all time merely because the few men who would profit by it most have heretofore had the power to compel it.

Conservation is the application of common sense to the common problems for the common good.

…It must be clear to any man who has followed the development of the Conservation idea that no other policy now before the American people is so thoroughly democratic in its essence and in its tendencies as the Conservation policy. It asserts that the people have the right and the duty, and that it is their duty no less than their right, to protect themselves against the uncontrolled monopoly of the natural resources which yield the necessaries of life. We are beginning to realize that the Conservation question is a question of right and wrong, as any question must be which may involve the difference between prosperity and poverty, health and sickness, ignorance and education, well-being and misery, to hundreds of thousands of families. Seen from the point of view of human welfare and human progress, questions which begin as purely economic often end as moral issues. Conservation is a moral issue because it involves the rights and the duties of our people—their rights to prosperity and happiness, and their duties to themselves, to their descendants, and to the whole future progress and welfare of this Nation.

*This selection is reprinted with the kind permission of the Pennsylvania State University Press.

Gifford Pinchot: Selected Writings is now available from Penn State University Press. Take 30% off with code GPCM17: http://www.psupress.org/books/titles/978-0-271-07841-0.html 

About the Author

Char Miller is the W. M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College. Author of the Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism (2004) and Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy (2012), his latest books include America’s Great National Forests, Wilderness, and Grasslands (2016), Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream (2016), On the Edge: Water, Immigration, and Politics in the Southwest (2013) and Seeking the Greatest Good: The Conservation Legacy of Gifford Pinchot (2013). His collection, Gifford Pinchot: Selected Writings (Penn State University Press) has just been published.

Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington.


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