His action helped lead to the founding of the Progressive Party.
Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the United States Forest Service (a post to which he was named by President McKinley), was a progressive who coined the term “conservation” as applied to natural resources. He rose to national prominence under the patronage of President Roosevelt, with whose concurrence he completely altered...
Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the United States Forest Service (a post to which he was named by President McKinley), was a progressive who coined the term “conservation” as applied to natural resources. He rose to national prominence under the patronage of President Roosevelt, with whose concurrence he completely altered public land policy from one that dispersed resources to private corporations to one that maintained federal ownership and management of public land for the public good. These moves were opposed by more conservative forces in the Republican Party, and in 1907, Congress forbade the creation of more forest reserves in the Western states. TR responded by designating millions of acres of new National Forests before the ban took effect.
Pinchot’s authority was undermined by the inauguration of President Taft in 1909. Taft’s newly-installed Secretary of the Interior, Richard Ballinger, was unsympathetic to Pinchot’s views and favored private development of lands over withdrawing sites for public use. Pinchot brought his concerns to Taft, accusing Ballinger of abandoning the nation's conservation policies. Taft supported Ballinger. Then Ballinger was alleged to have collaborated with coal interests to plunder federal reserves in Alaska. After a series of magazine exposes that roused the conservationists, and spurred by Pinchot’s demand, Congress launched an investigation. A committee dominated by conservative Republicans exonerated Ballinger, but the questioning of committee counsel Louis D. Brandeis made Ballinger's anti-conservationism clear. Pinchot now sought to pressure Taft to force Ballinger from office, and in the first week of January 1910 had a congressional ally, Senator Dolliver of Iowa, read to Congress (and thus make public) a defense of the Forest Service that contained thinly veiled attacks on Ballinger and the President. Instead of causing Ballinger’s exit, Pinchot caused his own, as Taft again stood by Ballinger, and on January 7 discharged Pinchot for insubordination.
Typed Letter Signed on White House letterhead, Washington, January 10, 1910, just three days after the fact, to Wall Street attorney and former judge Reuben D. Silliman, who had written him January 8 saying he found the feeling that Ballinger had been indiscrete was “a pretty persistent affirmative opinion,” and that he regretted the necessity of Taft having to fire Pinchot. The President, seeing a supporter express some ambivalence, responded by explaining that in removing Pinchot, he was defending the authority of the presidency rather than just making a partisan move. “I have your letter of January 8th. I share with you the regret that I had to remove Mr. Pinchot, but as he persisted in putting himself in a place where there was no alternative, consistent with the dignity of the office of President, the action had to come.” A copy of Silliman’s letter to Taft is included, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
In the ensuing public relations battle, Pinchot skillfully manipulated public opinion to taint Ballinger (and thus Taft) with suspicions of corruption. Meanwhile, Pinchot (and by implication his patron, Roosevelt) was heralded as the defender of the public good. By the end of the Ballinger-Pinchot controversy, Taft had removed almost all of Roosevelt's supporters from the Interior Department. The controversy finally ended the already-strained friendship between Taft and Roosevelt, and revealed the deep fault lines in the Republican Party between the conservatives and progressives. The furor that Pinchot raised about the conservation policies of Ballinger and Taft encouraged insurgent Republicans to oppose Taft's renomination as the Republican presidential standard-bearer in 1912. This split the GOP and led to the formation of the Progressive Party in 1912, with TR as its standard bearer.