Postmodern Forestry: Olmsted and Pinchot Began a Circular Century of U.S. Forestry

Alan G. McQuillan
School of Forestry
University of Montana

[Published in Inner Voice, Nov. 1992 by AFSEEE (Association of Forest Service Employees for Ethics and Environment, Eugene, OR.)]

Gifford Pinchot, the first U.S.-born forester and Forest Service founder, continues to hold a rightfully-respected and revered position within the American forestry profession. By now, almost everyone knows him for his political fervor, his skill in promoting an agricultural ideal of forestry, and for his humanitarian concern for the little guy. We know how, at his father's behest, young Pinchot returned to his ancestral homeland of France and brought back a knowledge of European forestry methods (already expounded in the U.S. by the Prussian-born Fernow).

And we know too, that Gifford adopted as his maxim "the greatest good of the greatest number in the long-run." This phrase originated with the early Enlightenment philosopher Francis Hutcheson, and was canonized by the humanitarian and founder of utilitarian philosophy, Jeremy Bentham.

Most foresters have heard how Pinchot's fame and success began with his introduction of modern forestry practice on Vanderbilt's Biltmore estate in North Carolina. Fewer might know just how Pinchot came to be at Biltmore. The answer turns out to be enlightening to the evolving nature of public-lands forestry as we near the end of the twentieth century.

Bentham's utilitarianism had been designed to address the social blight that spread across England with the industrial revolution. In the U.S., industrialization did not begin in earnest until after the Civil War, so Pinchot's adoption of utilitarian precepts in the 1890s was timely. Bentham had pioneered many of the social reforms that we now take for granted, which eased the pain of everyday life for ordinary people in industrial society. As is apparent in the very word utilitarianism, it is not much concerned with the "finer" things of life, with beauty, harmony, or the sublime, and Pinchot's policies were true to his utilitarian philosophy.

When humanitarian concern is with entire cities of slums without sanitation, children working in coal mines or factory workers being maimed by unsafe Victorian machinery, a lack of concern with anything other than simple utilities is certainly understandable.

Today, if city slums persist it is obviously not because of the collective poverty of the nation, but because of the way in which society has chosen to allocate its energies. Accordingly, it is not the role of the Forest Service to address an urban problem that larger society chooses to ignore, but to manage the public forest lands in accordance with their owner's (society's) collective wishes. The agency's recent adoption of new forestry practices, new perspectives initiatives, and ecosystems management are clearly an appropriate move.

Forestry, as it developed during this century, was an expression of modernism. The modernist movement believed that people were best served by simplified systems; the maxim was that form should be functional, and the belief was that efficient functioning required simplification of design--an optimistic belief in the boundless power of mechanistic technology. We have seen this in the rectangular austerity of modern architecture and furniture, and in the geometric forms of modern art. We saw it expressed also in forestry, in its emphasis on even-aged monocultures and in the "efficient" geometry of logging blocks.

For about two decades now, architecture, artistic criticism, and philosophy have been moving beyond modernism into the postmodern era. Some of the buzz words of postmodernism are diversity, complexity, eclecticism, pluralism, multiculturalism, and multi-valency (connectivity). It is no accident that these expressions are so similar to forestry's emerging concerns with biodiversity, ecosystem complexity, the interrelatedness or interdependence of ecosystem components (connectivity), and with beauty, the aesthetic of relationships between people and nature. Forestry, too, has moved into the postmodern era.

Gifford Pinchot had set the stage for modernist forestry in 1910 when he wrote: "Today we understand that forest fires are wholly within the control of men.... The first duty of the human race is to control the earth it lives upon." Pinchot instituted a very effective program of fire suppression in U.S. forests and, today, forest ecologists spend considerable time explaining how this preoccupation with fire suppression has led to dangerous fuel buildups, stagnated trees, and associated problems with insects and disease. Reinstituting the natural role of fire in U.S. forests is a prime focus of postmodern forestry. That this role must nonetheless be managed (as opposed to running wild) is perfectly congruent with postmodernist precepts.

Another focus is on the role of aesthetics, on managing for an integrated landscape that is not only ecologically healthy but also beautiful to behold. There is an awakening realization that, as Edward Wilson has noted and as Aldo Leopold inferred, there is often a coalescence of advanced science with beauty.

So, back to Biltmore. While it is true that Pinchot began forestry at Biltmore in 1891, the major work of laying out the Biltmore estate was in fact being performed by the aging Frederick Law Olmsted, Senior. Olmsted is the renowned originator and grand master of American landscape architecture. His first achievement was the creation of Central Park in New York City, around the time of Pinchot's birth.

After a distinguished career, Olmsted found himself with three major projects during his last ten years of professional life: Stanford University, the Chicago World Exposition, and the design of the Biltmore estate. Olmsted recommended to Vanderbilt that, since the soils were poor and the trees had been mostly logged off "until nothing remained but runts and ruins and saplings," the best disposition of the property would be as a European-style forest, this being "a hunting preserve for game, mainly, with a view to crops of timber."

Nine months later, in October 1891, young Pinchot, whose school friend was a cousin of the renowned landscape architect, was seeking his first job and went to see Olmsted. Encouraged again by his father, the enthusiastic Gifford tried to sell Olmsted on the idea of forestry at Biltmore. Olmsted needed little convincing since that was precisely what he had in mind, but was unimpressed by Gifford's initial approach: "What exactly do you have in mind that would warrant the introduction of forestry to the timberlands of the Vanderbilt estate?" Olmsted asked. "Oh, I hadn't thought that far ahead," Gifford replied. At which Olmsted sent him packing, with instructions not to return unless he had a properly-formulated plan.

Pinchot set to work immediately and produced a detailed plan. The goal, he wrote, was to "prove selective cutting of mature trees can improve timberland, and at the same time provide a long-range steady income from lumbering." Olmsted hired Pinchot in December as Forester for Biltmore, and Gifford adopted the silvicultural practices first tried out by Olmsted in California--tree thinning (back in 1886), and tree planting (in 1888). Gifford himself developed new techniques of forest inventory, and successfully launched his illustrious career.

Olmsted, in failing health, lost control of the Biltmore project in 1895, and Pinchot also departed, handing over control to a young recruit from Germany, Carl Schenck. A year or two later, Pinchot was able to reciprocate the Olmsted family favor by hiring his school friend, Fritz Olmsted, whom he convinced to take up a career in forestry.

Throughout his life, Olmsted had infused his work with an intense passion for cultivating the beautiful. As an educator, he valued those students who shared his passion for active participation with nature in protracted development of large-scale works of art, fashioning and composing the landscape:

"What artist so noble as he who, with far-reaching conception of beauty and designing power, sketches the outlines, writes the colors, and directs the shadows of a picture so great that Nature shall be employed upon it for generations, before the work he has arranged for her shall realize his intentions." (Olmsted)

Olmsted's approach was to thoroughly integrate artistic creativity with a grounding in natural science and engineering. His students were required to take courses in architecture, engineering, drawing, botany, and horticulture. He believed that inability to appreciate the value of artistic training was "the essence of vulgarity." Olmsted's interest in the aesthetics of landscape development was not elitist; his career had been devoted to improving the aesthetic lot of all people, Central Park having been his first such endeavor. He railed against the formalism of French and Italian gardens, preferring to find beauty "in commonplace and peasant conditions."

Olmsted has been called a "romantic engineer" and a "Utopian Socialist"--referring to a movement popular among some of New York's social and literary elite. This sympathy was shared by Pinchot, as expressed, for example, in his opinion of Biltmore House. Gifford described it as a "magnificent chateau.... But in the United States of the nineteenth century and among the one-room cabins of the Appalachian mountaineers, it did not belong. The contrast was a devastating commentary on the injustice of concentrated wealth."

With utilitarianism's displacement of romanticism, at the close of the Nineteenth Century, "popular interest in the role that landscape architecture might play in directing and civilizing America's physical development was lacking." From the 1890s on, the sympathetic congruency of aesthetics with forestry in the U.S. rapidly dissolved, as the romantic ideals of Olmsted gave way to the utilitarian pragmatism of Pinchot, Schenck, and the other founders of American forestry.

And aesthetics itself followed the same cold-steel path of modernism through the 1900s. It was annihilated by modernism (says Baudrillard), and became no longer amenable to concerns with nature. This remained so until the 1970s, when a postmodern transcendence of the over-simplification of modernism erupted in consort with popular revolt against the "mangy-dog" appearance of spasmodically clear-cut hillsides. Largescale social movements take time to develop, and it is only now that forestry is at last responding to the emergent concerns of twenty years ago.

Last January, at the "Defining Sustainable Forestry" workshop in Washington, DC, forester Bill Ticknor emphasized how architecture provides an appropriate role model for the new forestry. In Missoula the previous fall, preeminent silviculturalist David Smith remarked that "silviculturalists manipulating stands of vegetation are like artists painting pictures." Since at least 1971 the Society of American Foresters has defined forestry as both "art and science."

The practice of forestry presents society with a multitude of choices, a palette with which to create the desired future condition of the landscape and provide the flow of goods and amenities that society most wants. From a perspective of survival, people's needs are truly minimal; the vast majority of our wealth is spent satisfying wants. This is a point which forestry literature continues to ignore, dwelling as it still does on the notion of needs. Postmodern forestry's emphasis on ecosystem management is not a strait jacket confining practices to a niggardly narrow path, but a vast milieu within which to exercise choice.

Postmodernism is not a return to romanticism, nor an absolute repudiation of modernism, but rather a complex and evolving synthesis of past and future concerns, sophisticated yet uncertain, a non-prejudicial and eclectic pluralism. Similarly, evolving forestry cannot be a romantic deification of an untouched and untouchable nature, of an unreachable past; neither can it be a naive repudiation of modernist forest science. It can only be an engagement of people with nature. A forestry that accepts the complexity and diversity of forests must itself be complex and diverse.

Accordingly, forestry must transcend the notion that it is only a science. The fields of architecture, philosophy, literary and artistic criticism, among others, are every day concerned with the continually-evolving cultural discourse that defines the desirable. Recognizing that forestry is more than a science, that it deals with all relationships between people and forests, it is time for us to explicitly recognize forestry's postmodern tendencies and engage in a critical discourse on the aesthetic value we attribute to nature.

Principal Citations

Fabos, Julius, Milde, Gordon, & Weinmayr, M. (1968). Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr.: Founder of Landscape Architecture in America. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press.

Fein, Albert. (1972). Frederick Law Olmsted and the American Environmental Tradition. New York: George Braziller.

Harvey, David. (1989). The Condition of Postmodernity. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

McGeary, Nelson. (1960). Gifford Pinchot: Forester, Politician. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Pinchot, Gifford. (1967). The Fight for Conservation. Americana Library Edition. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Roper, Laura. (1973). FLO: A Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

White, Dale. (1957). Gifford Pinchot: The Man Who Saved The Forests. New York: Julian Messner.

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