On a recent hike through the Foothills Trail in South Carolina, I realized that conflict is beautiful. We departed from Burrell’s Ford Road heading south along the Chattooga River. It was Friday evening, and what was left of the fading light was dampened further by a storm front. Undeterred by dark clouds, however, my hiking-mates and I charged into the woods, resolute on reaching our campsite at mile two as quickly as possible.
The trail dove down to the river, bending with the current to the left and right, over exposed roots and large rocks, across two-log bridges and small side streams. The path was well-made but certainly not a tourist trail. Branches full of summer green brushed against us as we went, the leaves thick with water from a three-day spell of showers.
Half-a-mile in, though, the trail changed. The sides widened a few inches, the ground became flat and level, the stretches between turns long and straight. A bit skeptical, I looked at the map. We were on the right path, however, at
one point in time, this particular section had been a logging road.
This discovery thrilled me. A hiking trail that had once served as a road for timber trucks. The paradox was delicious like a morsel of dark chocolate: Within the timber and land management industry is constant controversy between those who wish to preserve nature by not harming it and those who wish to conserve nature by managing it–between those who hike and those who cut. It’s an age old conflict. But there I was, walking on a trail they had both carved, feeling so much like I had unburied their secret reconciliation.
My friend who had studied our nation’s parks and recreation history in college just happened to be walking behind me. With a surge of good instincts, I began drilling
him with questions. I had to know how this trail had served both the logger and the naturalist.
Right away he saw what I was going after.
“You’re asking me to condense a lot of history, you know? I can shed light on only the basic facts,” he warned.
“Yes, yes, of course. So what happened?”
“Well, a guy named John Muir backpacked through the U.S. in the late 19th century before there were any national parks and forests. He was enamored by the beauty of the land but appalled that our nation was not doing enough to protect it. He feared that without government protection we would lose many of our nation’s best natural resources due to logging, mineral mining, and other economic developments.”
“I suppose that makes sense. But why do some national forests allow logging and mineral mining?”
“Well, there was another guy named Gifford Pinchot…”
But before he could finish his answer, the rain began falling. It was no light drizzle, but a sudden burst of cloud above us. Our clothes were soaked by the time we dropped our packs and threw on rain gear. But despite the downpour, our spirits were up.
“I love the way the pores of the plants open in the rain! The forest is full of wonderful smells!” My friend shouted a little louder than before so I could hear him over the small roar.
“Yeah, it’s great!” I said. “But you were about to say something, about Griffith Pancho…”
“Gifford, Gifford Pinchot, pronounced like ‘pin’ and ‘show.’ Pinchot.”
“Right. Pinchot. Yes, you were about to explain why some national forests allow logging and mineral mining.” I looked back at my friend through the rain. He had his eyes closed and was taking in huge waffs of forest aromas through his nose. He opened his eyes and flashed a massive smile at me.
“Ah! I love it! Okay–Basically, Gifford Pinchot loved the outdoors too, like Muir–oh yeah, he was a contemporary of Muir, but was a few decades younger–he loved the woods, but he saw the practical side of using our nations natural resources to benefit the growing country. He too saw that it was important to have certain protections on the natural resources, but in contrast to Muir, who didn’t want any trees to be cut or any minerals to be mined, Pinchot wanted to protect the woods for the benefit of the natural landscapes and the people. In fact, that was his motto: ‘The greatest good of the greatest number in the long run.’”
“Ah, I think I understand. Muir wanted minimalist hiking trails only, but Pinchot wanted responsibly managed logging roads?”
“That’s an oversimplified way to put it, but yes. This is how the great debate began between preservationists–what they call Muir–and conservationists–what they call Pinchot. Both men influenced President Teddy Roosevelt in the early 20th century, and with his help they strengthened two separate national services: the National Park Service and the United States Forest Service. Muir championed the National Parks, which were meant for preservation, and Pinchot served as the first Chief of the United States Forest Service, which was meant for conservation.”
“This is making sense. These conflicting philosophies still exist today, even though many people have no idea who Muir and Pinchot were.”
The trail narrowed and turned slightly to the right. We were off the old logging road. A few feet into the new path, the rain stopped, and we flipped off our hoods.
“It’s a bit ironic,” I said, “how old logging roads are used as trails.”
My friend laughed. “Yeah, many U.S. Forest service rangers are big-time fans of Muir. If Muir found out that his passion for preserving the land has had a great influence on Pinchot’s descendants, he would probably do the macarena in his grave.”
“Ha! And I suppose Pinchot wouldn’t be that upset either. His plan is working out. Our country works hard to do both things with excellence–preserve and conserve.”
Night was pressing in on us as the trail dipped toward the river. We were out of breath, wet, and hungry. We could hardly see ten feet in front of us. We couldn’t tell how much further we had to walk before we reached the campsite, so the group decided to take a short break to put on our headlamps.
But as soon as we started walking again, just fifteen yards from where we had paused, the trail opened wide to small clearing along the riverbank: We had reached our campsite. Three lone tall eastern white pines shot up in the middle of the clearing, and stone-hedged firepit sat neatly between them.
The six campers in our crew spread out, each to his or her own duty. Half of us began setting up tents, and the other half began searching for firewood.
“You know,” my friend nudged me on his way to find wood as I was pulling out my tent, “this site might have been clear-cut a long time ago.”
“Hm,” I responded. Not because I had disregarded his comment, but because the thought of men hauling large bow saws and axes where we now stood was taking on new meaning to me.
In the shrill brightness of my LED headlamp, I watched my hands unroll a nylon tent, and I thought of men rolling large pines and tulip poplars into the river, their harvest ready to float downstream to the mill. Then I thought of a man named Muir and a man named Pinchot writing scathing articles about the other to major newspapers in New York City; I thought of each man standing with Roosevelt, at riverbanks just like the one before me, at separate times, discussing the future of American forests.
I turned off my headlamp and looked through the mist of after-rain to catch vague glimpses of my friends moving about the campsite. Everyone was working hard to establish this small piece of landscape as our temporary home. And then, understanding a little more, I smiled.