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The Pinchot State Forest is named in recognition of Gifford Pinchot's monumental contributions to forestry and his legacy of forest land conservation. Gifford Pinchot turned a childhood interest in nature into a distinguished career protecting forests and a founding role in America’s emerging conservation movement. President Theodore Roosevelt chose Pinchot as the first chief of the then-U. S. Division of Forestry, a role in which he served from 1898 to 1910. With the guidance of Roosevelt and Pinchot, over 200 million acres of national forest came under scientific land management. Policies developed by Pinchot still help guide most national and state forests. Pinchot served as commissioner of the original Pennsylvania Department of Forestry and later, 1920-1922, as secretary of the former Department of Forest and Waters. He also served two terms as Pennsylvania governor, 1923-27 and 1931-35. While serving as governor, Pinchot set up work camps throughout the state that became the models for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

The Pinchot State Forest began in 1902 with the purchase of 2,854 acres of land in Lehigh Township, Lackawanna County, from William and Catherine McMurtry for $3,567.40. Several other acquisitions between 1902 and the present day have increased land holdings on the Thornhurst tract to the present day acreage of 10,722 acres. In addition, approximately 1,404 acres of land near West Nanticoke in Luzerne County was purchased in 1957 from the C. Arch Smith estate and heirs, adding an additional county and state forest land to the Pinchot. In 2005, significant acreage in Lackawanna and Luzerne Counties was added to this State Forest through transactions with Theta Corporation, Earth Conservancy, and several private landowners. Subsequent acquisitions have increased the state forest from 7,735 acres to the present day acreage of 44,743 acres.

Much of the early land acquisitions were areas that had been cut over by loggers in the late 1800’s seeking lumber for the rapidly developing industrial revolution. In addition, a high demand was placed on timber resources in Northeast PA through the 1940’s for supplying forest products for the active anthracite mining industry in the region. Large scale forest fires were a common threat to forest health and productivity until suppression efforts took hold in the 1930’s. Adding insult to injury, the American Chestnut Blight all but eliminated American Chestnut from Pennsylvania Forests by 1940, including present day areas of the Pinchot State Forest. Gypsy Moth was first discovered in Pittston, Pennsylvania in 1975, and periodically continues to cause forest health problems on the Pinchot State Forest.

Combating many of the forest fire problems in the Thornhurst area, as well as contributing many long hours of forest road building, tree planting, and facility construction, was the formation of a Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) camp (Bear Lake Camp #140) near Thornhurst in 1933. A sign recognizing the crucial importance of the CCC to the early years of the Pinchot State Forest stands near a pine plantation at the Manny Gordon Picnic Area across Bear Lake Road from the Thornhurst Forest Headquarters. These pine trees were originally planted on the site of the CCC camp sometime between 1933 and 1937, the latter year being when the CCC camp officially closed. Since the closing of the CCC camp, other youth oriented development programs such as Youth Conservation Corps (YCC), Young Adult Conservation Corps (YACC), and the still active Pennsylvania Conservation Corps (PCC) have worked with several projects on the Lackawanna including facility construction, tree planting, gate installation, road maintenance, boundary line maintenance, and trail construction. The Pinchot State Forest truly would not be resting on as solid ground as it is today without the hard work of these dedicated groups.