President William Howard Taft disappointed many conservationists by the appointment of Richard Ballinger, a lawyer and former mayor of Seattle, to head the Department of the Interior in 1909. Ballinger was convinced that Theodore Roosevelt had improperly used his power to move large tracts of public lands into reserve status; the new secretary of the interior began the process of opening some tracts to commercial users.
This issue became a national controversy when Louis Glavis, an Interior employee, charged that Ballinger had acted improperly by opening Alaskan coal fields to private mining interests. Glavis turned for support to Gifford Pinchot, the Chief Forester and longtime friend of Roosevelt. In the public eye, the matter became a struggle between Pinchot and Ballinger over the future of conservation; Glavis was soon forgotten.
Both Congress and the president conducted investigations and concluded that Ballinger had acted properly in the Alaskan coal matter. Pinchot was dismissed for insubordination, having criticized Ballinger openly and Taft indirectly. Pinchot had clearly violated administration rules by corresponding directly with a member of Congress, rather than going through his superior. The savvy forester realized that he would lose his job, but was pleased to have the opportunity to bring the conservation issue front and center.
The Ballinger-Pinchot revealed deep fault lines in the Republican Party and finally ended the strained friendship between Taft and Roosevelt.
Despite his exoneration, Ballinger lived out his life under a cloud of suspicion of wrongdoing.
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