Commentary on Excerpt from The Fight for Conservation
In this selection from a 1910 book, Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946), head of the U.S. Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture, explains his views on conservation. Trained in the relatively new field of scientific forestry, Pinchot argued for a conservation ethic founded on the principles of economic development, prevention of waste, public benefit, modern business practices, and morality.
Although many late-20th-century Americans considered conservation to be a unified social and political movement, this document represents the developmental wing of the Progressive conservation movement, which Pinchot led. Its emphasis on the managed use of such resources as coal and water power differed from that of preservationists, who sought to conserve the pristine wilderness qualities of rivers, forest, and other public lands. Note that Pinchot did not see any conflict between conservation of public resources and economic development. He did see the ideal of public service as being above the economic profits of particular interests, in a classic example of Progressive values pitting "the public" versus "the interests." Pinchot's involvement in the politics of conservation as a key adviser and confidant of President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) reflected the moderate reform values of conservationists, compared with the more fundamental challenge posed by preservationists such as John Muir (1838-1914).
Excerpt of The Fight for Conservation, by Gifford Pinchot
The principles which the word conservation has come to embody are not many, and they are exceedingly simple. I have had occasion to say a good many times that no other great movement has ever achieved such progress in so short a time, or made itself felt in so many directions with such vigor and effectiveness, as the movement for the conservation of natural resources.
Forestry made good its position in the United States before the conservation movement was born. As a forester I am glad to believe that conservation began with forestry, and that the principles which govern the Forest Service in particular and forestry in general are also the ideas that control conservation.
The first idea of real foresight in connection with natural resources arose in connection with the forest. From it sprang the movement which gathered impetus until it culminated in the great convention of governors at Washington in May, 1908. Then came the second official meeting of the National Conservation movement, December 1908, in Washington. Afterward came the various gatherings of citizens in convention, come together to express their judgment on what ought to be done, and to contribute, as only such meetings can, to the formation of effective public opinion.
The movement so begun and so prosecuted has gathered immense swing and impetus. In 1907 few knew what conservation meant. Now it has become a household word. While at first conservation was supposed to apply only to forests, we see now that its sweep extends even beyond the natural resources.
The principles which govern the conservation movement, like all great and effective things, are simple and easily understood. Yet it is often hard to make the simple, easy, and direct facts about a movement of this kind known to the people generally.
The first great fact about conservation is that it stands for development. There has been a fundamental misconception that conservation means nothing but the husbanding of resources for future generations. There could be no more serious mistake. Conservation does mean provision for the future, but it means also and first of all the recognition of the right of the present generation to the fullest necessary use of all the resources with which this country is so abundantly blessed. Conservation demands the welfare of this generation first, and afterward the welfare of the generations to follow.
The first principle of conservation is development, the use of the natural resources now existing on this continent for the benefit of the people who live here now. There may be just as much waste in neglecting the development and use of certain natural resources as there is in their destruction. We have a limited supply of coal, and only a limited supply. Whether it is to last for a hundred or a hundred and fifty or a thousand years, the coal is limited in amount, unless through geological changes which we shall not live to see, there will never be any more of it than there is now. But coal is in a sense the vital essence of our civilization. If it can be preserved, if the life of the mines can be extended, if by preventing waste there can be more coal left in this country after we of this generation have made every needed use of this source of power, then we shall have deserved well of our descendants.
Conservation stands emphatically for the development and use of water-power now, without delay. It stands for the immediate construction of navigable waterways under a broad and comprehensive plan as assistants to the railroads. More coal and more iron are required to move a ton of freight by rail than by water, three to one. In every case and in every direction the conservation movement has development for its first principle, and at the very beginning of its work. The development of our natural resources and the fullest use of them for the present generation is the first duty of this generation. So much for development.
In the second place conservation stands for the prevention of waste. There has come gradually in this country an understanding that waste is not a good thing and that the attack on waste is an industrial necessity. I recall very well indeed how, in the early days of forest fires, they were considered simply and solely as acts of God, against which any opposition was hopeless and any attempt to control them not merely hopeless but childish. It was assumed that they came in the natural order of things, as inevitably as the seasons or the rising and setting of the sun. Today we understand that forest fires are wholly within the control of men. So we are coming in like manner to understand that the prevention of waste in all other directions is a simple matter of good business. The first duty of the human race is to control the earth it lives upon.
We are in a position more and more completely to say how far the waste and destruction of natural resources are to be allowed to go on and where they are to stop. It is curious that the effort to stop waste, like the effort to stop forest fires, has often been considered as a matter controlled wholly by economic law. I think there could be no greater mistake. Forest fires were allowed to burn long after the people had means to stop them. The idea that men were helpless in the face of them held long after the time had passed when the means of control were fully within our reach. It was the old story that "as a man thinketh, so is he"; we came to see that we could stop forest fires, and we found that the means had long been at hand. When at length we came to see that the control of logging in certain directions was profitable, we found it had long been possible. In all these matters of waste of natural resources, the education of the people to understand that they can stop the leakage comes before the actual stopping and after the means of stopping it have long been ready at our hands.
In addition to the principles of development and preservation of our resources there is a third principle. It is this: The natural resources must be developed and preserved for the benefit of the many, and not merely for the profit of a few. We are coming to understand in this country that public action for public benefit has a very much wider field to cover and a much larger part to play than was the case when there were resources enough for every one, and before certain constitutional provisions had given so tremendously strong a position to vested rights and property in general.
. . . The National Forest Service, one of the chief agencies of the conservation movement, is trying to be useful to the people of this nation. The service recognizes, and recognizes it more and more strongly all the time, that whatever it has done or is doing has just one object, and that object is the welfare of the plain American citizen. Unless the Forest Service has served the people, and is able to contribute to their welfare it has failed in its work and should be abolished. But just so far as by cooperation, by intelligence, by attention to the work laid upon it, it contributes to the welfare of our citizens, it is a good thing and should be allowed to go on with its work.
The Natural Forests are in the west. Headquarters of the service have been established throughout the western country, because its work cannot be done effectively and properly without the closest contact and the most hearty cooperation with the western people. It is the duty of the Forest Service to see to it that the timber, water-powers, mines, and every other resource of the forests is used for the benefit of the people who live in the neighborhood or who may have a share in the welfare of each locality. It is equally its duty to cooperate with all our people in every section of our land to conserve a fundamental resource, without which this nation cannot prosper. . . .
The business of the people of the United States, performed by the government of the United States, is a vast and a most important one; it is the house-keeping of the American nation. As a business proposition it does not attract anything like the attention that it ought. Unfortunately we have come into the habit of considering the government of the United States as a political organization rather than as a business organization.
Now this question, which the governors of the states and the representatives of great interests were called to Washington to consider in 1908, is fundamentally a business question, and it is along business lines that it must be considered and solved, if the problem is to be solved at all. Manufacturers are dealing with the necessity for producing a definite output as a result of definite expenditure and definite effort. The government of the United States is doing exactly the same thing. The manufacturer's product can be measured in dollars and cents. The product of the government of the United States can be measured partly in dollars and cents, but far more importantly in the welfare and contentment and happiness of the people over which it is called upon to preside.
. . . The conservation movement is calling the attention of the American people to the fact that they are trustees. The fact seems to me so plain as to require only a statement of it, to carry conviction. Can we reasonably fail to recognize the obligation which rests upon us in this matter? And, if we do fail to recognize it, can we reasonably expect even a fairly good reputation at the hands of our descendants?
Business prudence and business common-sense indicate as strongly as anything can the absolute necessity of a change in point of view on the part of the people of the United States regarding their natural resources. The way we have been handling them is not good business. Purely on the side of dollars and cents, it is not good business to kill the goose that lays the golden egg, to burn up half our forests, to waste our coal, and to remove from under the feet of those who are coming after us the opportunity for equal happiness with ourselves. The thing we ought to leave to them is not merely an opportunity for equal happiness and equal prosperity, but for a vastly increased fund of both.
Conservation is not merely a question of business, but a question of a vastly higher duty. In dealing with our natural resources we have come to a place at last where every consideration of patriotism, every consideration of love of country, of gratitude for things that the land and the institutions of this nation have given us, call upon us for a return. If we owe anything to the United States, if this country has been good to us, if it has given us our prosperity, our education, and our chance of happiness, then there is a duty resting upon us. That duty is to see, so far as in us lies, that those who are coming after us shall have the same opportunity for happiness we have had ourselves. Apart from any business consideration, apart from the question of the immediate dollar, this problem of the future wealth and happiness and prosperity of the people of the United States has a right to our attention. It rises far above all matters of temporary individual business advantage, and becomes a great question of national preservation. We all have the unquestionable right to a reasonable use of natural resources during our lifetime, we all may use, and should use, the good things that were put here for our use, for in the last analysis this question of conservation is the question of national preservation and national efficiency. . .
The American people have evidently made up their minds that our natural resources must be conserved. That is good. But it settles only half the question. For whose benefit shall they be conserved—for the benefit of the many, or for the use and profit of the few? The great conflict now being fought will decide. There is no other question before us that begins to be so important, or that will be so difficult to straddle, as the great question between special interest and equal opportunity, between the privileges of the few and the rights of the many, between government by men for human welfare and government by money for profit, between the men who stand for the Roosevelt policies and the men who stand against them. This is the heart of the conservation problem today.
The conservation issue is a moral issue. When a few men get possession of one of the necessaries of life, either through ownership of a natural resource or through unfair business methods, and use that control to extort undue profits, as in the recent cases of the sugar trust and the beef-packers, they injure the average man without good reason, and they are guilty of a moral wrong. It does not matter whether the undue profit comes through stifling competition by rebates or other crooked devices, through corruption of public officials, or through seizing and monopolizing resources which belong to the people. The result is always the same—a toll levied on the cost of living through special privilege.
The income of the average family in the United States is less than $600 a year. To increase the cost of living to such a family beyond the reasonable profits of legitimate business is wrong. It is not merely a question of a few cents more a day for the necessaries of life, or of a few cents less a day for wages. Far more is at stake—the health or sickness of little babies, the education or ignorance of children, virtue or vice in young daughters, honesty or criminality in young sons, the working power of bread-winners, the integrity of families, the provision for old age—in a word, the welfare and happiness or the misery and degradation of the plain people are involved in the costs of living.
To the special interest an unjust rise in the cost of living means simply higher profit, but to those who pay it, that profit is measured in schooling, warm clothing, a reserve to meet emergencies, a fair chance to make the fight for comfort, decency, and right living.
I believe in our form of government and I believe in the golden rule. But we must face the truth that monopoly of the sources of production makes it impossible for vast numbers of men and women to earn a fair living. Right here the conservation question touches the daily life of the great body of our people, who pay the cost of special privilege. And the price is heavy. That price may be the chance to save the boys from the saloons and the corner gang, and the girls from worse, and to make good citizens of them instead of bad; for an appalling proportion of the tragedies of life spring directly from the lack of a little money. Thousands of daughters of the poor fall into the hands of the white-slave traders because their poverty leaves them without protection. Thousands of families, as the Pittsburg survey has shown us, lead lives of brutalizing overwork in return for the barest living. Is it fair that these thousands of families should have less than they need in order that a few families should have swollen fortunes at their expense? Let him who dares deny that there is wickedness in grinding the faces of the poor, or assert that these are not moral questions which strike the very homes of our people. If these are not moral questions, there are no moral questions.
The people of this country have lost vastly more than they can ever regain by gifts of public property, forever and without charge, to men who gave nothing in return. It is true that we have made superb material progress under this system, but it is not well for us to rejoice too freely in the slices the special interests have given us from the great loaf of the property of all the people.
. . . A man is not bad because he is rich, nor good because he is poor. There is no monopoly of virtue. I hold no brief for the poor against the rich nor for the wage-earner against the capitalist. Exceptional capacity in business, as in any other line of life, should meet with exceptional reward. Rich men have served this country greatly. Washington was a rich man. But it is very clear that excessive profits from the control of natural resources, monopolized by a few, are not worth to this nation the tremendous price they cost us.
We have allowed the great corporations to occupy with their own men the strategic points in business, in social, and in political life. It is our fault more than theirs. We have allowed it when we could have stopped it. Too often we have seemed to forget that a man in public life can no more serve both the special interests and the people than he can serve God and mammon. There is no reason why the American people should not take into their hands again the full political power which is theirs by right, and which they exercised before the special interests began to nullify the will of the majority. There are many men who believe, and who will always believe, in the divine right of money to rule. With such men argument, compromise, or conciliation is useless or worse. The only thing to do with them is to fight them and beat them. It has been done, and it can be done again.
It is the honorable distinction of the Forest Service that it has been more constantly, more violently and more bitterly attacked by the representatives of the special interests in recent years than any other government bureau. These attacks have increased in violence and bitterness just in proportion as the service has offered effective opposition to predatory wealth. The more successful the Forest Service has been in preventing land-grabbing and the absorption of water power by the special interests, the more ingenious, the more devious, and the more dangerous these attacks have become.