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Char Miller New Book “Seeking the Greatest Good” Examines the Legacy of Gifford Pinchot

Char Miller, professor of environmental analysis, began studying Gifford Pinchot in graduate school. As he learned more about the founder of the U.S. Forest Service, he became fascinated by the complexities of that agency and the organization created to celebrate and continue Pinchot’s work.

Seeking the Greatest Good: The Conservation Legacy of Gifford Pinchot (2013), Miller’s tenth book, examines Pinchot’s pivotal role in shaping the Forest Service but focuses on the history of the Pinchot Institute for Conservation and the Pinchot family’s long connection to the Institute, the Forest Service and Grey Towers National Historic Site.

Pinchot was appointed to head the new service by Pres. Theodore Roosevelt in 1905. During his five-year term, he more than tripled the national forest reserved to 172 million acres and provided its guiding principals – “to provide the greatest good for the greatest amount of people in the long run” – which still guide its operations.

In 1963, Pres. John F. Kennedy officially dedicated the Pinchot Institute for Conservation Studies, a union of the U.S. Forest Service and the Conservation Foundation, a private New York-based think tank. Based at Grey Towers, the former family home, the Institute was to further the legacy and activism of Pinchot by formulating policy and developing conservation programs.

Miller traces the Institute’s evolution and three generations of involvement by the Pinchot family, from the initial conception of the Institute by Pinchot’s son, Gifford Bryce Pinchot, through decades of rapidly expanding development, changing politics and large-scale change in the environmental movement. An emphasis on resource protection and development and was quickly shifting as “conservationists became increasingly leery of an engineering ethos that led to damming of rivers to provide hydropower and irrigation downstream, but that did not account for the environmental costs associated with these massive reclamation projects.” notes Miller.

Over its first 50 years, the Pinchot Institute for Conservation had, at times, a rocky journey.  “The Institute suffered many of the difficulties faced by other environmental organizations in those decades,” notes Miller, “questions of clear-cutting the national forests, water management issues, how to be practical in an age of intense idealism, and particularly how to be engaged in environmental activism while still securing money for practical programs on the ground – for forest sustainability certification, working with tribal entities to help better manage their forest resources and struggles with mission, leadership and funding.”

“What’s heartening,” Miller adds, “is that beginning in the 1990s, the Institute resolved all of those issues and embarked on some of the most creative and innovative measures to resolve environmental and social issues.”

“In our environmental classes, we’re really good at depressing our students,” says Miller. “I try to remind them that we need to know how to respond to great pressures as well as enormous opportunities.”

“This book about the Pinchot Institute is a way to demonstrate that people can act on the environment to make it and human communities more resilient.” Among their really innovative projects is their involvement in Common Waters, a 40-member organization, which works to protect the Delaware River Basin, a drinking source for millions. Another is the Forest Health-Human Health Initiative, which offers health-care credits to rural American landowners who maintain their carbon-capturing forest lands.

Miller is the director of the environmental analysis program at Pomona and the author of 10 books, including Gifford Pinchot: The Evolution of an American Conservationist (1993) and the award-winning Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism (2001). He was also a consultant on the 2012 documentary “Seeking the Greatest Good: The Conservation Legacy of Gifford Pinchot” by PBS affiliate WIAA. In addition, he is a long-time advisor to the U.S. Forest Service, participating in new employee, mid-level and senior administration training and consulting with its research division.

He is a regular contributor of essays, commentary and reviews to professional journals, newspapers and online media, including his current blog, Golden Green, which explores environmental issues in the West for KCET.org.  Miller earned his BA from Pitzer College and his M.A. and Ph.D. at The Johns Hopkins University. He taught at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, before joining Pomona College in 2007. 

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