Muir vs Pinchot

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(HOST) Listening to all the criticism of the new plan to add 27,000 acres to the Green Mountain National Forest, has thrown commentator Bill Shutkin into a time warp.

(SHUTKIN) The year is 1913. The warring parties are John Muir and Gifford Pinchot. They’re sparring over the fate of the Hetch Hetchy Valley in California’s Yosemite National Park.

Muir, the Scottish-born mountaineer and founder of the Sierra Club, was the prototypical romantic environmentalist. For him, wilderness was a tonic, a refuge from the depredations of industrial society. He denounced those he saw as exploiting nature for material gain, like the politicians and businessmen who wanted to build a reservoir for San Francisco in the Hetch Hetchy Valley. Decrying the proposal, Muir declared “everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.”

Pinchot was Muir’s perfect foil. A forester by training, he was the first head of the U.S. Forest Service and promoted the sustainable use of natural resources, what came to be known as progressive conservation. Ever the scientist, he ridiculed Muir’s romanticism as mere sentimentalism. “The object of our forest policy,” he wrote, “is not to preserve the forests because they are beautiful . . . but the making of prosperous homes. . . . . The first great fact about conservation is that it stands for development.” Pinchot adamantly supported the Hetch Hetchy project, which was built – after years of wrangling – in 1913.

And so it goes. Criticizing the Green Mountain forest plan for allowing too much logging and off-road vehicle use, one environmentalist reprieved Muir’s mantra. “Wilderness,” he said, “offers an opportunity to experience solitude and quiet recreation away from [our] busy lives.” Meanwhile, unhappy loggers, ATV riders and hunters claim that the plan effectively shuts them out of the forest, leaving them too little timber, road access and open habitat for their tax dollars.

Romanticism versus resource extraction. Muir versus Pinchot. A century later, the terms of the debate sound much the same.

But the debate itself begs a more fundamental question: Is there another way of looking at the forest, as something other than a pristine refuge on the one hand or millions of marketable board feet on the other?

Perhaps we should heed the advice of a group in Corinth who publish Northern Woodlands magazine. They encourage environmentalists and forest workers to speak to each other respectfully and with a shared appreciation for the forest’s many uses. They provide a forum where reverence for the woods meets the reality of making a living from them, where tree-huggers like me can find their inner chain-saw and where loggers can learn about woodlands ecology and sustainable forestry. It really is a new way of looking at the forest.

I like to think that if Muir and Pinchot were around today they’d both embrace this idea of a shared vision. But I wonder: will Vermonters do the same?

Bill Shutkin is president of the Orton Family Foundation and a Research Affiliate at MIT.

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