Conservation's Conversation: JFK's Grey Towers Speech

Conservation's Conversation: JFK's Grey Towers Speech

Sixty years ago today - March 1, 1961 – less than two months after his presidency began, John Fitzgerald Kennedy signed Executive Order 10924, creating the Peace Corps. In the ensuing years, more than 235,000 American volunteers have served in 141 countries around the world.

Maniacal social media run amok makes it almost impossible to say anything today about our Presidents without inviting “outrage” from someone on the far Left or the far Right, but I’m going to try with a simple statement about our thirty-fifth President.

I think JFK was one of the most remarkable leaders our country has ever had. And before the hyperventilating far Right cancels me, I also hold Ronald Reagan in high regard.

But this essay is about JFK, not the Gipper. And what prompts it is not the Peace Corps but Kennedy’s remarks at the dedication of Grey Towers, site of the Pinchot Institute and the home of Gifford Pinchot, first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service.

Grey Towers

Pinchot’s son, Dr. Gifford Bryce Pinchot, donated the home and 102 surrounding acres to the Forest Service following his mother’s 1960 death. Kennedy spoke at Grey Towers dedication ceremonies on September 24, l963, less than two months before he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

The subjects in President Kennedy’s Grey Towers speech were forestry and conservation. Two words that should always be spoken in the same breath and never separated from one another because forestry is conservation and conservation is not possible without forestry.

I implore you to read what JFK said here. I mean really read it. Whoever wrote his Grey Towers speech must have been a student of Pinchot’s writings because in the second to the last paragraph, JFK quotes this from GP’s 1910 Fight for Conservation:

“A Nation deprived of liberty may win it; a Nation divided may reunite; but a Nation whose national resources are destroyed must inevitable pay the penalty of poverty, degradation and decay. Conservation is the key to the future.”

A closer look

But it is the President’s reference to Pinchot’s Fight for Conservation quote in the last paragraph of his Grey Towers speech that fascinates me.

“Those words are more true today than when they were first uttered by the man whose memory we salute. Conversation [my italics] is key to the future, and I believe our future can be bright.”

Did Kennedy’s speechwriter mean to say conversation or conservation? A simple and perhaps brilliant inversion of “serv” and “vers”? The whole idea of it is stunning because there is no conversation about conservation occurring in our country today. The only voices that get heard or read today are the shrill voices of outrage and deceit.

Conservation's Conversation

These are the people who are leading conservation’s conversation 24/7 on countless social media platforms. They get away with it because the forestry world has allowed history’s revisionists to redefine the word “forestry” in ways that insinuate corruption, greed, waste, degradation and an impoverished planet – exactly the opposite of what Pinchot and Kennedy meant. Exactly the opposite of what forestry has connoted since it arrived on American shores in 1898.

There is no vision, inspiration, hope or leadership in today’s very divisive conversation about conservation. For these qualities I take you to Rice Stadium and JFK’s Moon Speech, September 12, 1962.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, not one we are willing to postpone, and one which we intend to win.” Here

The same energy and determination to win must be applied to the West’s wildfire pandemic and its roots in our failure to care for our national forests. Yes, it’s hard but the goal serves to organize and measure the best of our nation’s forestry energies and skills.

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