Seeking the Greatest Good

Creative Treatment by director Kristin Doran




Gifford Pinchot was first American forester, and helped establish the National Forests and the US Forest Service, where he served as its first Chief under President Theodore Roosevelt.  Pinchot advocated for the sustainable management of natural resources for the continuing benefit of the nation as a whole, “the greatest good to the greatest number for the longest run.” These principles of “practical conservation,” have emerged as a highly effective way to address the kind of complex conservation issues we face today.

WVIA’s original documentary film Seeking the Greatest Good chronicles the legacy of Gifford Pinchot’s conservation philosophy, and celebrates its surpassing value for understanding and solving the conservation challenges of our own era.  The one-hour, high-definition presentation cinematically establishes Pinchot’s vision of conservation to affect social justice as a force that shaped our nation.  By exploring their efforts to find “environmentally sound, economically viable, and socially responsible” solutions to contemporary conservation challenges, Seeking the Greatest Good demonstrates how the Pinchot Institute for Conservation exemplifies Gifford Pinchot’s philosophy of “practical conservation.”


The Story

On September 24, 1963, President Kennedy addressed a crowd on the lawn of Grey Towers, the Pinchot home in Milford, Pennsylvania, hailing Gifford Pinchot as “a practical idealist.”  The President was there to recognize the Pinchot family for their gift of Grey Towers to the nation, and dedicate the Pinchot Institute for Conservation Studies.  Grey Towers would serve not only as a national landmark, but also as a metaphorical covenant to the conservationist values of Gifford Pinchot and a haven for the democratic ideals engrained in his legacy.  To ensure the continuation of these values, the Pinchot family, the Forest Service, and leading environmental thinkers of the time established the Pinchot Institute to do research, policy analysis, and conservation education.  Kennedy asserted that the Institute would be “committed to meeting the changing needs of a changing era.”  He felt, as did others in the conservation movement at the time, that increasing and divergent demands on natural resources, in addition to a rising tide of public discord, called for a refocusing of Gifford Pinchot’s principles of practical conservation.

Gifford Pinchot’s values and perspectives were largely shaped by his parents.  Members of the social elite of the late 19th century, Mary Eno Pinchot and James Pinchot believed that a few individuals amassing wealth on top of wealth was not in the nation’s  best interest, and was not the kind of value they wanted to instill in their firstborn son.  Profoundly impressed by George Perkins Marsh’s landmark study or environmental history, the 1865 book Man and Nature, they saw an opportunity to right the environmental wrongs of America’s wasteful exploitation of its natural resources.

On Gifford’s twenty-first birthday, coincidently the day chosen to celebrate the completion of Grey Towers, he received as a gift his own copy of Marsh’s influential text.  The concurrence of these two events forever linked Gifford Pinchot’s dedication to public service with the estate in Milford that inspired his youth and invigorated his professional fervor.  Understanding the value of Grey Towers as a restorative retreat far from the hustle-bustle of Washington D.C., he made use of the welcoming atmosphere by entertaining some of the most influential thinkers and leaders of the day.  The discussions and debates at these gatherings fostered progressive solutions to the issues at hand, a tradition proudly carried on at Grey Towers National Historic Site today.

Perhaps surprising for one born into wealth, Gifford Pinchot dedicated his life to the democratization of natural resources to ensure that a few powerful individuals could not monopolize these resources for their own financial gain.  He believed that this natural wealth belonged to the nation as whole and therefore should be managed for “the greatest good, for the greatest number, in the long run.”

At the turn of the 20th century, there were several different threads in what was then a powerful, passionate Conservation Movement represented by thinkers and activists like John Muir, George Bird Grinnell, Theodore Roosevelt, and Gifford Pinchot.  Out of this ferment came the National Parks, the National Fish and Wildlife Refuges, and the National Forests.  Whereas the first of these were focused only on landscape preservation, the National Forests reflected Gifford Pinchot’s distinctive philosophy of “practical conservation” through sustainable use and management of natural resources.

“Practical conservation” has emerged as the most adaptive and successful approach to the evolving and increasingly complex issues of environmental sustainability.  The search for “the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run” is a constant challenge that is central to the work of the Pinchot Institute for Conservation and the Forest Service at Grey Towers National Historic Site.  By bringing together a diversity of people and organizations to share ideas and perspectives, the Pinchot Institute helps develop better policies to advance conservation and sustainable natural resource management.

Fulfilling the mandates of its namesake, the Pinchot Institute for Conservation and Grey Towers National Historic Site serve to this day as incubators of innovation. They provide an environment in which people representing divergent interests convene to gain greater mutual understanding and work toward broadly supported solutions to complex conservation issues–literally Seeking the Greatest Good.

The Presentation

Seeking the Greatest Good is a documentary film that interweaves the historical events that shaped Gifford Pinchot’s principles of practical conservation with contemporary examples of the applicability and continuing relevance of that philosophy today.

Narration guides us through the story.  Interviews are conducted with preeminent historian Char Miller; New York Times contributing reporter and award-winning author, Tim Egan; Theodore Roosevelt IV; Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies Dean (retired), John Gordon; Forest Service Chief, Tom Tidwell; Pinchot Institute president Al Sample; Grey Towers director Allison Stewart; and Pinchot family representatives.   Participants in the Pinchot Institute’s research and outreach programs are interviewed to give personal accounts of the value of these programs to their communities and the sustainable management of local resources, from the waters of the Delaware River, to the forests of the Pacific Northwest and Ecuador.

Archival photographs, film, and documents illustrate Gifford’s life story and career achievements establishing historical context to the development of his principles and his connection to and the importance of Grey Towers National Historic Site.   Footage of current Pinchot Institute projects, in the field and in action, provides exciting and dramatic visuals while introducing the audience to relatable issues.  Existing Forest Service footage along with dynamic, awe-inspiring original nature photography cinematically reflects the narrative on both a representative and sub-textual level.  Filmed in segments well suited to educational outreach, Seeking the Greatest Good will be made available for streaming into classrooms worldwide.