Fred W. Besley: Forestry Pioneer
Can you imagine Maryland without a state forest or state park? Well, a little less than one hundred years ago, in 1905, there was such a time. That all changed in 1906, when two brothers, John and Robert Garrett, made a generous donation of 1,917 acres of forest land in Garrett County to the State of Maryland. This tract of land is known today as Garrett State Forest, Maryland’s first state forest. This donation, along with the passing of the 1906 Forestry Conservation Act, marks the beginning of the forestry conservation movement in Maryland (note: the legislature passed the law on March 31, 1906 and Governor Edwin Warfield signed it on April 5, 1906).
Just consider one accomplishment of many resulting from the Garrett Brother’s initial benevolence: There were zero acres of state public land in Maryland before their donation in 1906; today, as we celebrate the Centennial of the Maryland Forest Service and the Maryland State Park Service, there is a little less than 500,000 acres of state public land, making up about 10% of Maryland’s land base. At the same time the forest land base throughout the state increased from a little less than 30% 100 years ago to 41% today.
That’s incredible, especially when you recognize that during the same time the population of Maryland tripled in size in 100 years, from about 1.8 million in 1906 to about 5.6 million people in 2006. The Forest conservation leaders of the past proved that it is possible to have economic growth while at the same time improving the forest resource base and quality of life issues. Somehow, they figured out that delicate balance.
With the donation of forestland, the Garrett brothers imposed several conditions that were soon legislated into the law in the 1906 Forestry Conservation Act. The State of Maryland was to make “adequate condition for its [forests] care.” Maryland was required to establish a “State Board of Forestry” for the purpose of overseeing management of this land. The law stated that any additional gifts of land should be administered “as State Forest Reserves…to be used …to demonstrate the practical utility of timber culture and as a breeding place for game.”
The 1906 Forestry Conservation Act addressed a variety of additional environmental concerns of that time: over-cutting of timber, livestock grazing in woodlots, and wildfires. All of the above activities had a negative impact on forest regeneration.
The Law also provided guidelines for purchasing additional public lands. For example, the State could spend no more than five dollars per acre when purchasing additional public lands.
The 1906 Forestry Conservation Act mentions “parks” along with “forest reserves”- the two coincide right from the very beginning. That fact that no state parks existed in 1906 show that this document was indeed progressive, forward-looking, and optimistic. In 1912, Patapsco Forest Reserve near Baltimore became the first state park in Maryland.
The Law stated that the State Board of Forestry was charged with appointing the State Forester. This person was not to be paid more than $2,000 annually. More importantly, the State Forester was required to “have practical knowledge of forestry.” The person holding this position would not be just another political appointee, but would be required to have professional forest management expertise.
The law in essence declared war on the Age of Forest Exploitation. The law made it clear that the science of forestry would be the tool to heal Maryland’s devastated landscape. The 1906 Forestry Conservation Act was so progressive and pioneering, that it quickly put Maryland in the forefront of the national forestry conservation movement at the State level. The law called for State Forester to be in charge of carrying out its mandates in Maryland.
Besley’s arrival in 1906 as Maryland’s first State Forester marks the beginning of a new forestry conservation era called the “Custodial” period, lasting generally between the years 1906-1942. During this time, management placed its emphasis on protecting, nurturing, and restoring the forest back to health. Foresters surveyed and mapped the forests for the first time. Foresters established tree nurseries in Maryland to aid in ecological restoration and acquired land for state public use. The custodial period coincided with the entire span of Fred W. Besley’s career as State Forester. During this time Besley described his mission as reversing "destructive agencies, which for 150 years have been operating in the forests. Chief among them are forests fires, destructive cutting practices, excessive grazing, and the ravages of insects and fungus diseases."
Gifford Pinchot, the Founding Father of forestry in America and advisor to President Theodore Roosevelt, personally handpicked and oversaw Fred Besley’s career with the U.S. Forest Service. Pinchot also had a hand and influence in selecting Besley as Maryland’s first State Forester.
Besley wrote about this in his unpublished autobiography. Besley mentions giving a talk at the Annual meeting of the Colorado Forestry Association in Denver where he was the principal speaker. Besley writes, “I did not know until after the meeting that Gifford Pinchot, the Chief Forester, was in the audience. He had come in unexpectedly. I had a short talk with him at the close of the program and suspect this chance meeting with him had something to do with my selection for the Maryland job, although it was not even intimated then.”
Besley mentioned that while he was working at Pike’s Peak National Forest he received an offer for the newly created Maryland State Forester position. Besley wrote: “The offer came in a telegram from Gifford Pinchot and was delivered on horseback at out our remote camp 10 miles from the nearest telegraph station and difficult to locate, - adding to our surprise. The offer came from Mr. Pinchot, Chief Forester, who had been asked to recommend a qualified man and who was guaranteeing a part of the salary. It appears I was selected because I had taken academic work at the Maryland State College and because of my good record at the Yale Forest School and later field work in Nebraska and Colorado known to Mr. Pinchot.”
Besley first was a teacher before he was a forester. He taught in a one-room schoolhouse for eight years in Virginia (1892 -1900). Than Besley worked for six years with The U.S. Forest Service as a “student assistant” under Gifford Pinchot (1900-1906). During this time, Besley attended Yale Forestry School and graduated with honors (1904). Indeed, in 1906, it would have been hard to find someone more qualified than Fred Besley to be State Forester. Besley’s first day at work as a State Forester began on June 20, 1906. His starting salary was $1,500, of which $300 was paid by the U.S. Forest Service.
In his role as a State Forester, Besley set a very high standard for those who followed after him, raising the bar high, pioneering and establishing many scientific forestry practices in Maryland. He was a trailblazing, forestry pioneer. His life was one that truly inspires. When one looks at Fred W. Besley’s career, one looks at the very beginnings and advancement of forest conservation in Maryland, for they both coincide.
The idea for the theme of this paper, “Fred Besley: Forestry Pioneer,” came from the first conservation I had over the telephone with Helen Besley Overington, the daughter of Fred W. Besley. Helen told me, “Being one of the first state foresters, Father had to pioneer everything.” In fact, Besley was the third State Forester in the Country. Pennsylvania was the first to have a State Forester, in 1896; Wisconsin the second, in 1904; and Maryland the third, in 1906. Fred Besley wrote in his unpublished autobiography: "Maryland was one of the first states to select a technically trained forester to head up and direct all forest work. I [t] was real pioneering in Maryland, with no precedents or guides to follow.”
When you think of a “pioneer” you also think of a “frontier.” One hundred years ago, forestry was the frontier of science. Besley was Maryland’s original trailblazer, bringing the science of forestry to Maryland.
When Besley began his career as State Forester, the condition of Maryland’s woodlands, in Besley’s words, were “devastated.” The seemingly “inexhaustible” timber resources were exhausted, consisting of cutover landscapes, and seedling/sapling sized forests. There was concern spreading around the country that America was running out of timber.
Besley called this period, the “Age of Forest Exploitation.” Timber volume greatly exceeded growth. Only 20% forest cover remained east of the Mississippi River (Note: Maryland fared just a little bit better with less than 30% of it’s original 95% forest cover remaining).
In the country, timber removal peaked in 1909 at 44 ½ billion board feet. Besley later used this benchmark number of 44 ½ billion board feet for a warning and red flag when annual harvests during World War II again began to approach 1909 peak harvesting levels.
Besley held traits in common with other contemporary conservation leaders like Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt - they were sportsmen; they were avid hunters who shared a passion for wildlife, forests, and wilderness. Besley especially enjoyed hunting waterfowl. Sportsmen like him, interacting closely with the land, would be among the first to notice any environmental problems.
In 1906, it would have been hard to find someone more qualified than Fred. W. Besley for the position of State Forester. He had quite an impressive resume.
Besley was a teacher first before he was a forester. In 1892, he graduated from the Maryland Department of Agriculture at the University of Maryland. Between 1892-1900, for eight years, he taught at a one-room schoolhouse in Fairfax County, Virginia.
In 1898, Besley met Gifford Pinchot at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. Besley met Pinchot through a member of the Sherman family. The Shermans were neighbors of the Besleys in Vienna, Virginia. Pinchot was only a couple of years older than Besley and they took to each other immediately.
The meeting changed Besley’s life. Pinchot told Besley he ought to go in forestry. Besley later recalled this defining moment of the time they first met: “Pinchot was so boiling over with enthusiasm about forestry that then and there I adopted forestry as my career.” Besley now wanted to be a forester!
However, it wouldn’t be until two years after their first meeting, in 1900, that Pinchot secured enough federal funds to hire “student assistants” to work for him. Besley was one of 61 applicants chosen from 232 applications received.
Besley could put on his resume that he was personally hand-picked by Gifford Pinchot for federal employment as a forester; that he was one of Pinchot’s first field foresters; and, that he trained and worked under Pinchot’s direction for six years, between 1900-1906 with the U.S. Forest Service in nine different states.
Under Pinchot, Besley learned all aspects of forest resource management, both as a field forester, and academically as a student at the Yale School of Forestry, where in 1904 he graduated with honors. At this time, Besley was 32 years old, married, and the father of two children. During this time with the U. S. Forest Service, Besley supported himself and his family earning $25 per month as a field forester, and in the winter, $40 per month transforming the collected field data into statistical forestry reports.
Between 1901-1902, during winter months on Thursday nights, Pinchot invited his student assistants to his home in Washington D.C. to listen to inspiring talks about forest conservation from various leaders in the field. These meetings became known as the “Baked Apple Club,” for after a speaker finished their presentation, Mrs. Pinchot promptly served the students baked apples and gingerbread.
Can you imagine a President of the United States, one that is enthusiastic about forest conservation, attending one of your forestry meetings? Fred Besley had that experience! Helen Besley Overington told me: “They could have all the gingerbread and baked apples they wanted. One night Pinchot told them they were going to have a special guest…that special guest was President Theodore Roosevelt!”
There is only one known photograph with both Pinchot and Besley seen together, taken in 1920 at the First State Forester’s Association conference at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In this photograph Besley is 48 years old and stands with a group of state foresters from around the country. At this time, Besley was the senior state forester; he put Maryland at the forefront of the conservation movement. The other men looked up to Besley for guidance. The State Forester’s Association nominated and selected Besley for chair of the organization about three years after this photograph.
Many important individuals worked together during the early conservation movement. These men and women worked closely with Besley throughout his career, giving him much support and contributing greatly to his success. Because of space limitations, I’ll just mention a few of them: As mentioned before, there were John and Robert Garrett who in 1906, made a generous gift of 1, 917 acres of forest land to the State of Maryland. This tract of land is part of Garrett State Forest, Maryland’s first state forest. This donation of land, along with the passing of the 1906 Forestry Conservation Act into law, marks the beginning of the Forestry Conservation movement in Maryland.
The following associates of Besley’s were involved in the political world and can be considered the legislative champions for the 1906 Forestry Conservation Act:
Another important associate of Besley’s was William Bullock Clark (1860-1917). Clark was the Department Head of the Maryland Geological Survey at Johns Hopkins University. In 1906, Clark was one of Maryland’s best known and respected scientists. As the first executive officer of the Maryland Board of Forestry, Clark was Besley’s first boss as a State Forester. Although not a forester, Clark had a profound concern for the poor condition of Maryland’s forests that he observed traveling around the state while conducting geological fieldwork. As a note of interest, W. Bullock Clark was one of three officials whom Governor Warfield sent to attend President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1908 White House Conservation Conference. I wonder what stories he told Besley about the conference.
Bullock Clark oversaw Maryland’s first official forest survey. This survey occurred in Allegany County in the year 1900, six years before the Board of Forestry was created in 1906. George. B. Sudworth, a forester for the U.S. Forest Service, conducted the fieldwork under Bullock Clark’s direction.
I have found an old photograph taken in 1901 (above on the right) of George B. Sudworth conducting fieldwork in the western part of the U.S. Sudworth sits on a mule dressed like a cowboy with hat, holster and pistols, with a rifle mounted on the saddle. Indeed back then, foresters were much like cowboys. Pinchot required that his foresters know how to ride a horse/ and or mule, camp and take care of themselves for long periods of time in the great outdoors.
However, there was one big difference between cowboys and foresters back then: cowboys pushed cattle on the open plains, their primary interest…to get cattle to market; foresters pushed cattle out of the woodlands onto the open plains, their primary interest… to protect forest regeneration and restore the forest landscape.
Besley left behind a rich legacy of documentation in written form and photographic images, many preserved as lanternslides. They are archived at the Hall of Records in Annapolis, Maryland.
Next Week: Part 2
The author would especially like to thank Ross Kimmel, Robb Bailey, Offutt Johnson, Helen Besley Overington, Kirk Rodgers, Mary Rotz, Don and Peggy Weller, and Rob Schoeberlein of the Maryland State Archives, and Silas Sines, Jr. for graciously providing historical documents and photographs that greatly helped in the preparation of this article.
Photographs (top to bottom):
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