Gifford Pinchot (pronounced pin-sho) was born at his family’s summer home in Simsbury, Connecticut. He traveled abroad regularly with his parents and was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy and at Yale. Pinchot declined an opportunity to enter the family business and instead journeyed to France to pursue his passion — forestry. While studying in Europe, he became a convert to the practice of selective harvesting of forest resources. Pinchot returned to the United States in 1891, anxious to put his knowledge to practical use.
Working initially as a forest surveyor, Gifford Pinchot later managed to gain employment at George Vanderbilt’s mammoth Biltmore estate outside of Asheville, North Carolina. He became head of the Division of Forestry in 1898 and under President Theodore Roosevelt was named Chief Forester of the redefined U.S. Forest Service. He became a close friend and collaborator with TR and put into practice his guiding principle that forests could produce timber and yet be maintained for the enjoyment of future generations.
Gifford Pinchot remained at his post when William Howard Taft became president. The Taft administration was not deeply devoted to conservation programs, believing instead that public lands should be controlled by the states or private individuals. Pinchot became involved in a widely publicized controversy with Richard Ballinger, the Interior Department secretary, which resulted in the former's dismissal by Taft. Pinchot welcomed being fired because it focused tremendous public scrutiny on forest issues.
Beginning in 1910, and continuing for 15 years, Gifford Pinchot served as president of the National Conservation Association, an organization he personally funded to be a watchdog over the development of public lands and to oppose the transfer of public lands to the states.
Gifford Pinchot supported Roosevelt and the Progressive Party in 1912. He campaigned hard for some of the more radical planks in the Bull Moose platform—unemployment compensation and equal pay for women workers.
In 1914, Pinchot ran an unsuccessful campaign as a Progressive candidate for the governorship of Pennsylvania. During the contest he married Cornelia Bryce, the daughter of a distinguished and wealthy family, who was an ardent advocate of women’s suffrage, birth control and child labor reform. She would later run three times for Congress and once for governor of Pennsylvania, all unsuccessfully.
Pinchot, like Roosevelt, was a critic of Woodrow Wilson’s neutrality efforts, but became a firm supporter of the American war effort in 1917.
In 1922, Gifford Pinchot was elected governor of Pennsylvania and established a distinguished, if controversial, record. He established a positive record in labor-management dealings, won widespread support for regulating public utilities and paying off the state debt, but offended many by enforcing prohibition. Barred from succeeding himself, Pinchot sought a Senate seat and lost.
Re-elected as governor in 1930, Gifford Pinchot faced challenges presented by the depression. He pushed hard for federal economic intervention and created state jobs programs. He was also noted for including women, blacks and Jews in his administration. Pinchot would later fail in bids for the Senate and the governor’s chair.
During World War II, Gifford Pinchot developed a fishing survival kit for naval personnel adrift at sea. His account of his forestry experiences, Breaking New Ground, was published posthumously in 1947.
Gifford Pinchot was the first professionally trained forester in the United States. His collaboration with Roosevelt was instrumental in establishing a conservation movement. Speaking of Pinchot’s contribution, TR said, "...among the many, many public officials who under my administration rendered literally invaluable service to the people of the United States, Gifford Pinchot on the whole, stood first."
Gifford Pinchot had a second career as a Progressive politician that was marked by varying degrees of success. In all of his endeavors Pinchot was a highly controversial figure. He died on October 4, 1946 at the age of 81.