Gifford Pinchot was chief forester for William Howard Taft when a scandal over Alaska coal got him fired. It also angered Theodore Roosevelt and sent Woodrow Wilson to the White House.
Pinchot, like Roosevelt, was a committed conservationist. He was born Aug. 11, 1865 in Simsbury, Conn., into a family that had made a great fortune in lumbering and land speculation. His father, James Pinchot, was a wealthy wallpaper merchant. His mother, Mary Eno Pinchot, was the daughter of Amos Eno, one of New York’s most prominent real estate developers.
James Pinchot regretted the damage his family inflicted on the land. As a result, he influenced his son to become a forester.
Gifford Pinchot graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy and then Yale University before joining the forestry movement as a full-time occupation. In 1900, he and his father endowed the Yale School of Forestry.
He became a close friend of Roosevelt. They skinny dipped together in the Potomac, and Roosevelt called Pinchot his conscience on conservation. Then in 1905, Roosevelt named Pinchot chief of the U.S. Forest Service.
The Ballinger Affair
When William Howard Taft succeeded Roosevelt in 1909, he kept Pinchot on as chief forester. Nine months into the Taft administration, the Ballinger Affair erupted.
On Nov. 13, 1909, Collier’s Magazine accused Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger of using his office to allow powerful interests like the Guggenheim family to exploit coal on Alaska conservation land. Pinchot then openly criticized Taft for backsliding on the principles of conservation and democracy.
So Taft fired Pinchot.
The firing drove a wedge between Roosevelt and Taft, once political allies. Roosevelt decided to oust Taft because he had undermined his environmental accomplishments. But he failed to win the Republican nomination for president in 1912, so he then formed the Bull Moose party. That split the Republican vote and gave the presidency to Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat.
Ballinger was cleared of wrongdoing, and Gifford Pinchot went on to win election as governor of Pennsylvania. He died on Oct. 4, 1946.
Photo: ‘Portrait of Gifford Pinchot,’ by Benjamin Johnston. The World’s Work, 1901:. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. This story was updated in 2021.