John Muir Trail: Pinchot Pass

November 2nd, 2012 → 3:14 am @ // 2 Comments

john muir trail pinchot

Photo by Pirie MacDonald

Imagine for a moment that you had the opportunity to walk the John Muir Trail with the great man himself. What conversations you might have, although it’s hard to predict what his reaction to the trail might be—after all, he is a man of the nineteenth, not the twenty-first, century. He had a different set of sensibilities. My own personal opinion is that he would find the ease of navigation—the fact that you can hike almost the whole 211 miles without a map—to be a bit off-putting. He wanted the common man to get out into the woods, but come on.

Generally, though, I’d like to think he would be pretty happy walking through his beloved Range of Light and the way we’ve conserved it. He might even get a kick out of seeing a hut (named for him) at the top of a pass (named for him) along a trail (named for him). Or perhaps he’d think we went a bit overboard.

I can even imagine the two of you hiking over Mather Pass.

“Great choice for a pass name,” he might say. “Steve Mather was a real friend and a true supporter of my philosophies.”

Then you would get to Pinchot Pass, and a puzzled look would appear.

“You named a pass after Pinchot? Whose crazy idea was that?!”

Gifford Pinchot was the first Director of the United States Forest Service. His family had grown rich through the timber and lumber business, and he brought a businessman’s sensibility to the running of the USFS. That might make you assume that he was in the pocket of the timber companies of the time. In fact, the opposite was true: he spent most of his time fighting their short-sightedness.

Pinchot was Yale educated and a former Dean of the New York State College of Forestry at Cornell University. He knew his trees, and he knew that the best way to assure the future of timber harvesting was through conservation and proper management. He was a member of the Progressive Party, and was considered a rabid environmentalist in his time, if they had used that term.

But he still fell short of John Muir’s philosophy. You’ll find no poetic reference to the forests in Pinchot’s writing, nor any appeal to the spiritual rewards of watching alpenglow filter through the branches of a stand of pines. Pinchot saw wilderness as a commodity—one that required careful stewardship—but a commodity nonetheless.

Muir’s opposition to using wild lands in pursuit of commercial gain made Pinchot an enemy. When Pinchot came out in support of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, in the middle of Yosemite National Park, that was the final straw. What made matters worse was Pinchot’s deft handling of the media. He was a master at getting favorable articles into the magazines and newspapers of the time. When it came to Hetch Hetchy, Pinchot won the argument (at least so far; there is a move afoot to drain and restore that valley). Muir would never forgive him.

The name of the pass was probably transferred from the nearby Pinchot Peak, named by J. N. LeConte in July of 1902. Climbing the pass, if you are hiking southbound, is a breeze, because you will have camped not that far below it the night before (at least if you went over Muir Pass the day before). You’ll probably only have to climb around 2,000 feet. The descent isn’t as steep as some and you should be able to make good time. My recommendation is to get as far as you can, comfortably, because the next day is Glen Pass, the toughest on the trail.

One final point regarding Pinchot: you could argue that he had a major role in getting elected one of the worst presidents of the United States ever inflicted upon the country (at least in my opinion). When Howard Taft was elected, in 1908, to replace Teddy Roosevelt, Pinchot stayed on as the Director of the US Forest Service. Not long after he found himself embroiled in what the newspapers called the “Pinchot–Ballinger Controversy.”

Pinchot believed that Ballinger was using his position as Secretary of the Interior to further his own personal financial interests, and to grind the conservation movement to a halt. (The consensus is that the first accusation was false, the second, true.) Pinchot accused Ballinger of as much, publicly, and demanded that Taft investigate. Taft did just that, through his attorney general, and cleared Ballinger of any wrongdoing.

That displeased Pinchot, who sent an open letter to a congressional ally who read it into the record. Part of the letter cast aspersions on the integrity of Taft.

Pinchot was fired, and the firing was the first shot fired in a battle that would eventually split the Republican Party between Taft and Teddy Roosevelt (running as the “Bull Moose” candidate). Combined, they got over 50% of the vote, but neither got enough votes to prevent Wilson from backing into the presidency.

Wilson, a Klu Klux Klan apologist who thought that the movie “The Birth of a Nation” was a great choice to be the first movie ever shown at The White House, went on to such “achievements” as the Sedition Act of 1918 (which could get you tossed in jail for criticizing the government) and a constitutional amendment to allow an income tax.

Poor Pinchot; all he wanted to do was save the forests.

Good hiking, Ray

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2 Comments → “John Muir Trail: Pinchot Pass”

  1. […] We ate our breakfast and headed downhill to our Kings River crossing. This was a pretty big crossing, but we were able to get across without removing our boots. And then we began our climb leading us to today’s pass — 12,130ft Pinchot Pass. […]

  2. […] most unusual of them all: the sighting of two bighorn sheep as I was hiking down the south side of Pinchot Pass. The encounter was doubly unlikely. First, hikers don’t often get this close to one (or, in […]


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