Sustaining the Legacy

Five years ago, as part of my Environmental Communications class, I wrote Sustaining the Legacy, a piece on Grey Towers National Historic Site. For some unknown reason, over the years, I have frequented the mansion, walked the grounds, visited sites in the town of Milford, PA that the Pinchot generations established. I also walked on New York City sites that had ties to the Pinchots and their in-laws. The family legacy is not only evident in the physical buildings and sites that they once had influence in, but in the way the forests in the United States are managed. Yet, the Pinchot name was never mentioned once during my environmental education. 

Grey Towers National Historic Site is far from being just a historic home perched on a hill. Its staff, partnering organizations, interns, and volunteers are continuing Gifford Pinchot’s work on forestry and conservation through various educational and community programs.

Below is my 2008 interview with Lori McKean, a prominent staff member at Grey Towers, with a few updates. It shows that even years later, the passion to educate youths and adults never subsided. Conservation in itself is a legacy that we all can give to future generations.


Sustaining the Legacy 

In the small town of Milford, in northeastern Pennsylvania, inhabitants talk about the impressive stone mansion up on the hill. Grey Towers is the town’s secret gem. For those who work at the mansion, however, they are doing their best to expose the “secret.”

To get out the word, they offer all sorts of temptations, including musical ones. Violins crescendo, cellos bellow, basses rumble. These are just some of the sounds a visitor can hear if they go to Grey Towers during the summer. Musical performances are held on the beautiful 120 acres, which is managed by the U.S. Forest Service as a National Historical Site. While attendees breathe in the fresh mountain air, feel the lush green grass beneath their feet, and are whisked away by the sultry notes, they are also learning.

“We suck them up here with a free concert. But they are going to learn about nature when they’re here or they’re gonna figure out who Gifford Pinchot is before they leave.” This is a joke that Lori McKean has with her colleagues at Grey Towers. “We’re not your typical historic home. We do a lot more than just maintain a historic museum.”

Sporting black shoes, green trousers, and a dark green sweater with “Forest Service” written on it, the only thing missing on Lori McKean is a “Smokey Bear” hat. However, her role at Grey Towers requires her to wear many hats. Her full title is a mouthful: Assistant Director of Programs, Communications, and Partnerships. She’s the one who takes care of the press releases, brochures, newsletters, and partnership projects. She’s the volunteer coordinator, a historian, a visitor services manager. She’s also the one who sometimes go around the mansion turning on and off lights, folding chairs, picking up dried leaves from the hardwood floors, and giving guided tours. For over a decade, she has worked hard towards an ambitious goal: to make the Pinchot family name a household name. By educating people about Pinchot’s legacy, she believes they will also learn about conservation and perhaps also be inspired to care more about the environment.

To Ms. McKean, it is disappointing to realize that the Pinchot name is not well known. Even people who work near the entrance of the estate don’t know who Gifford Pinchot was. “Pinchot is not a household name. And it really should be. It should be right up there with Teddy Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson.”

Gifford Pinchot founded the U.S. Forest Service and was Chief for five years and later served as governor of Pennsylvania (1923-1927, 1931-1935). Grey Towers was his childhood summer home and later his political home-base. Gifford Pinchot’s father, James Pinchot, once asked his son how he would like to be a forester. “That was the pivotal moment in the nation’s conservation history,” said Ms. Mckean. “It was James Pinchot and his son, Gifford, and Teddy Roosevelt [who] introduced the idea of forestry and formed the U.S. Forest Service, setting aside 193 million acres of forestland that will be managed sustainably.”

“I think one of the reasons why [Pinchot] is not a household name is because the things that they introduced at the time around the turn of the century, 1900 to 1905, [were] very controversial, very new, very groundbreaking, and [they] continue to be controversial. Conservation is different from preservation,” Ms. McKean continues, her voice rising with enthusiasm. “Gifford Pinchot introduced the idea of conservation to America by introducing the whole concept of forestry… expansion out West was unparalleled. We never [had] seen it before and never have seen it since then. And that kind of growth was being done without any regards for [protecting] natural resources. The forests were being clear-cut because the nation needed the wood. They needed the wood to build railroads; they needed the wood to build communities, to build towns, to heat homes. And there was no thought being put into ‘Well, what about the future generation?’ because they thought that the trees will always be here.”

The Pinchot family had seen that sustainable management of forests was being practiced successfully in Europe. Being visionaries and possessing ample funds, they embarked on a century-long mission to bring that sustainability to U.S. forests.  The family endowed the Yale School of Forestry. The 1200 acres surrounding Grey Towers were used as field research sites for the Yale students during summers. The first five chiefs of the U.S. Forest Service were graduates of the Yale School of Forestry and are familiar with the Pinchot estate. The area became an experimental forest where students would study plants, bugs, and anything that influences the forest. Today, that legacy is continued by Gifford Pinchot’s great-granddaughter, Leila Pinchot. Current projects include white-tail deer management and the reintroduction of the American Chestnut tree.

It is plain to see that Grey Towers holds much historical and educational significance. However, the Pinchot name is still elusive.

Lori McKean and her colleagues embarked on various projects to introduced Grey Towers’ presence in the tri-state region. Milford is only six miles away from New York State and four miles from New Jersey. Educational programs for school children in all three states are now in place. Probably, the best thing about those programs is that children are naturals at persuading parents about what’s “cool.”

“Thousands of school children pass through here and [then] they show up on the weekends with their parents,” she explains. “[It’s] because they go home and say they went to this really cool place, or we sent them home with something that the parents started to get excited about.”

“We learned very early on that we can be a beautiful house up on the hill run by the federal government. But if you don’t have the commitment of support and sense of ownership from the immediate local community, you could be one of thousands of beautiful historic homes. In order to make this place come alive we really need the local community. So we reach out into the local community and we make them feel welcomed here.” And that’s what Lori McKean does: relentless outreach.

Press releases are printed in local newspapers; even The Wall Street Journal. Upcoming events are announced on local television. There are plenty of programs on the schedule, including film screenings and an ice cream social. “Instead of doing things in competition with the community, we’re working very closely with the Chamber of Commerce, the Arts community, and the Business Council,” said McKean.

Through many partnerships and collaborations, the site has seen a tremendous growth in interest from the local communities. In 2005, Grey Towers welcomed 8,000 visitors. In 2008, around 16,000 visitors walked through the mansion and grounds. This year, it is estimated that around 25,000 visitors will learn about the Pinchot family and its legacy. That’s a lot of people who will learn about Gifford Pinchot and conservation.

On September 21st and 22nd, 2013, Grey Towers will be celebrating its 50th Anniversary since President John F. Kennedy dedicated the site to the U.S. Forest Service. This celebration will be marked with a rededication ceremony and a tree planting, family-friendly programs and picnic, and free mansion tours.

Lori McKean knows you can’t force people to conserve energy, to recycle or plant trees. “Commitment to the environment is a real personal commitment and you can’t really cram that down people’s throats,” she says. Hopefully, through Grey Towers’ various programs, they may create something long-lasting: “A real personal commitment” to the environment.

Programs run by U.S. Forest Service and The Pinchot Institute for Conservation are meant to educate youths on conservation, the history of conservation in the United States, and to instill environmental stewardship. For more information, please visit the following websites:

Information on Grey Towers National Historic Site

USDA Forest Service

Grey Towers Heritage Association

Continuing Gifford Pinchot’s legacy:

The Pinchot Institute for Conservation

Milford Experimental Forest


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