See biographies by M. N. McGeary (1960) and M. L. Fausold (1961, repr. 1973); studies by J. L. Penick (1968) and H. T. Pinkett (1970).
In March 1909, President William Howard Taft began his administration by replacing Theodore Roosevelt's appointed Secretary of the Interior James Rudolph Garfield (son of the assassinated Republican president, James Garfield) with Richard Ballinger, a former Mayor of Seattle who had served as Commissioner of the General Land Office (GLO) under Secretary Garfield. Ballinger's appointment was a disappointment to conservationists, who interpreted the replacement of Garfield as a break with Roosevelt administration policies on conservationism. Within weeks of taking office, Ballinger reversed some of Garfield's policies, restoring 3 million acres (12,000 km²) to private use.
By July 1909, Gifford Pinchot, who had been appointed by President William McKinley to head the USDA Division of Forestry in 1898, and who had run the U.S. Forest Service since it had taken over management of forest reserves from the General Land Office in 1905, became convinced that Ballinger intended to "stop the conservation movement". In August, speaking at the annual meeting of the National Irrigation Congress in Spokane, Washington, he accused Ballinger of siding with private trusts in his handling of water power issues. At the same time, he helped to arrange a meeting between President Taft and Louis Glavis, chief of the Portland, Oregon Field Division of the GLO. Glavis met with the president at Taft's summer retreat in Beverly, Massachusetts and presented him with a 50-page report accusing Ballinger of an improper interest in his handling of coal field claims in Alaska.
Glavis claimed that Ballinger, first as Commissioner of the General Land Office, and then as Secretary of the Interior, had interfered with investigations of coal claim purchases made by Clarence Cunningham of Idaho. In 1907, Cunningham had partnered with the Morgan-Guggenheim "Alaska Syndicate" to develop coal interests in Alaska. The GLO had launched an anti-trust investigation, headed by Glavis. Ballinger, then head of the GLO, rejected Glavis' findings and removed him from the investigation. In 1908, Ballinger stepped down from the GLO, and took up a private law practice in Seattle. Cunningham became a client.
Convinced that Ballinger, now head of the United States Department of Interior, had a personal interest in obstructing an investigation of the Cunningham case, Glavis had sought support from the U.S. Forest Service, whose jurisdiction over the Chugach National Forest included several of the Cunningham claims. He received a sympathetic response from Alexander Shaw, Overton Price and Pinchot, who helped him to prepare the presentation for Taft.
Taft consulted with Attorney General George Wickersham before issuing a public letter in September, exonerating Ballinger and authorizing the dismissal of Glavis on grounds of insubordination. At the same time, Taft tried to conciliate Pinchot and affirm his administration's pro-conservation stance.
Glavis took his case to the press. In November, Collier's Weekly published an article elaborating his allegations, entitled The Whitewashing of Ballinger: Are the Guggenheims in Charge of the Department of the Interior?
In January 1910, Pinchot sent an open letter to Senator Jonathan P. Dolliver, who read it into the Congressional Record. Pinchot praised Glavis as a "patriot", openly rebuked Taft, and asked for Congressional hearings into the propriety of Ballinger's dealings. Pinchot was promptly fired, but from January to May, the United States House of Representatives held hearings on Ballinger. Ballinger was cleared of any wrongdoing, but criticized from some quarters for favoring private enterprise and the exploitation of natural resources over conservationism.
The firing of Pinchot, a close friend of Teddy Roosevelt, alienated many progressives within the Republican party and drove a wedge between Taft and Roosevelt himself, leading to the split of the Republican Party in the 1912 presidential election.
Many historians have commented on the Constructionist view of the executive exemplified by Ballinger and Taft, and the stronger executive advanced with moral arguments by Pinchot and Roosevelt.