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A Complicated Unity

The seeds of the TVA idea were sown long before Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the agency into existence. Many of them were planted by Gifford Pinchot, who advocated a unified approach to the complex task of resource management.


Early conservationists like Gifford Pinchot proposed managing forests and rivers as integrated systems rather than isolated resources. That idea was one of the founding principles of TVA.

When private power interests were trying to take over the federally owned hydroelectric plant in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, President Roosevelt stepped in and saved it for public use. Later his administration undertook a major effort to prevent erosion and to develop transportation on regional waterways with the help of government-planned engineering projects. All of it was based on a new idea: that the only way to approach any water issue—whether flood control, hydroelectric power, erosion, or the preservation of fish and game—was to look at a river system as a whole, from the sources to the mouth.

If that sounds like TVA, well, it’s no coincidence. But this President Roosevelt was a Republican, and his name wasn’t Franklin but Theodore. Teddy Roosevelt proposed these projects almost 100 years ago, largely because of the influence of his visionary chief forester, Gifford Pinchot. If Pinchot wasn’t the godfather of TVA (most historians would give that honor to George Norris), he’d have to be considered something like its prophet.

Pinchot spent much of his career fighting for conservation out West, and a national park in the state of Washington is named for him. Still, he had more than a passing acquaintance with the Tennessee Valley. In 1891, the tall, thin man with the luxuriant mustache was just 26 when Frederick Law Olmsted helped him get a job as a forester—some say America’s first—at a huge private woodland preserve called Biltmore, in western North Carolina. His boss was George Vanderbilt, whose home was the famous Biltmore Mansion near Asheville.


When Henry Ford tried to buy the government’s Wilson Dam site at Muscle Shoals, Gifford Pinchot was one of the chief supporters of the move to keep it and all of the nation’s waterways in public hands.

Pinchot spent weeks camping in the woodlands of the region, and he was astonished at what he found. He was, he said, “ in a state of continuous wonder and exclamation. . . . Here the Northern and Southern forests met and mingled. Nowhere else in America were there so many different kinds of trees, nowhere else in the East mountains so high, forests so gorgeous, trees so huge as this Southern Appalachian region.”

Pinchot wrote to his father, “Do you realize Biltmore will be the first timberland in the United States to come under forest management? It’s the beginning of forestry in America!”

His goal was to prove that the selective cutting of mature trees could preserve and even improve timberland. He found still greater diversity in the nearby Great Smoky Mountains, and persuaded Vanderbilt to buy large tracts of land to preserve the region’s forests. In those days, with few federal laws governing the exploitation of natural resources, deep-pocketed philanthropists like Vanderbilt were often the only recourse conservationists had.

But after a few years as a private forester, Pinchot thought he could do more in the public realm. When Teddy Roosevelt came into office, Pinchot became the nation’s first chief forester and head of the U.S. Forest Service. He brought an integrated approach to the problems of erosion, flood control, power production, and protection of fish and game. “Here were not isolated and separate problems,” he wrote. “There was a unity in this complication.”

Understanding the importance of the waterways, he took on several roles in TR’s administration. When Roosevelt vetoed a bill to turn the Muscle Shoals plant over to private power interests, many saw Pinchot’s influence. He would later recall that the president’s veto “kept the door open for the Tennessee Valley Authority.”

In 1906, Pinchot and a colleague, geologist W. J. McGee, began to develop what would become government policy on rivers. To illustrate and publicize their findings, Pinchot, Roosevelt, and other dignitaries took a boat trip down the Mississippi from Keokuk, Iowa, to Memphis in the fall of 1907. There, at the western edge of the future TVA service area, Roosevelt announced a national conference on the conservation of natural resources.

Pinchot and McGee released their policy report in early 1908, delineating some 50,000 miles of navigable or potentially navigable inland waterways and revealing the shocking fact that the U.S. was losing one billion tons of topsoil a year because of erosion. Any action taken, they wrote, should be based on two principles: “That every river system is a unit from its source to its mouth” and that “hereafter plans for the improvement of navigation in inland waterways . . . shall take account of the purification of the waters, the development of power, the control of floods, the reclamation of lands by irrigation and drainage, and all other uses of the waters.”

Roosevelt commended Pinchot and McGee’s work, which resulted in the creation of the National Waterways Commission to manage America’s rivers for the public benefit. It established a precedent for TVA’s work.

In 1909, TR turned the White House over to William Howard Taft, who didn’t share his predecessor’s passion for conservation issues. Not surprisingly, he and Pinchot didn’t see eye to eye. In 1910, Taft fired him.

Pinchot was popular and influential, especially among progressive conservationists. In 1913 he helped plan the first National Conservation Exposition, a two-month natural-resources extravaganza held in the future home of TVA’s headquarters, Knoxville, Tennessee.

After World War I, Pinchot was also the chief American critic of Henry Ford’s proposal that Muscle Shoals power be turned over to private interests. His fierce resistance to Ford helped keep the way clear for TVA’s stewardship.

When TVA was founded in 1933, Pinchot was 68 and serving his final term as governor of Pennsylvania. His job was done, and he was content to let his friend Senator George Norris carry forward the banner of public power in the South. Contemporary observers noted that TVA would have been impossible without Pinchot’s 27-year fight to keep the nation’s waterways in the public realm.

By the time he died in 1946, TVA’s success was well established. In his memoirs, Pinchot had proudly called TVA the “direct descendant” of his principles of river management. According to archivist and scholar Harold Pinkett, those principles, first enunciated in 1907, were the basis of “one of the greatest waterways developments of all times, the Tennessee Valley Authority.”


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