“Celebrating Our Past, Creating Our Future.”

Fred W. Besley: Forestry Pioneer - Maryland’s First State Forester 1906-1942

Part 2 of a 3-part series

Address by Francis “Champ” Zumbrun for the Maryland Forests Association Conference

Besley’s Noteworthy Achievements as a Forestry Pioneer

Map depicting Forest Survey of Allegany County, 1915
  • Besley pioneered statewide forest inventories. He inventoried every stand of trees five acres and larger in size in Maryland with a staff numbering fewer than the fingers on his hand. Besley said: “I tramped every cow-path in Maryland making it.” This was a magnificent accomplishment!

    Book Cover, The Forests of MarylandIn 1916, he published the book, The Forests of Maryland. This was the first statewide forest survey published in the country. On the cover of the hardbound edition, the name of W. Bullock Clark, Maryland’s most respected scientist of that time is inscribed in gold letters. Just left of Clark’s name is the name of Fred Besley, also gilded in gold. Clark’s name in addition to Besley’s gave the forest survey additional importance and respect.

    The quality and details of Besley’s county forest type maps are incredible. It is more remarkable when one considers this was done almost a century before GPS and ARC VIEW mapping technology existed.  Besley overlaid forest types over Bullock Clark’s county maps developed by the Maryland Geological Survey.

    McCoy Hall served as the location for the first office for the State Board of Forestry (1906-1923) located at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, thus Besley’s first forestry office.  On November 27, 1919, according to the Baltimore Sun newspaper archives, a fire destroyed McCoy Hall. 

    More than 2,000 photographs and 600 lantern slides were destroyed that couldn’t be replaced or restored. Fortunately for us, Besley’s forestry inventory with its beautiful photographs and detailed maps was published three years before the fire, preserving for posterity in book form his initial pioneering field work as State Forester.

    In 1923 the Board of Forestry was reorganized to the Maryland State Department of Forestry. This administration change lasted from 1923 to 1941. Besley now reported to a board of Regents at the University of Maryland in College Park. Besley’s forestry office was eventually relocated by 1925 to the Fidelity Building in Baltimore, a building still standing today. The Fidelity Building served as Besley’s administrative office for the remaining time of his career

  • Besley pioneered landscape photography. Besley learned photography in Kentucky while doing forestry work under Gifford Pinchot. More than 1,000 images, including glass lanternslides and photographs taken after 1920, are preserved and archived at the Hall of Records in Annapolis, Maryland.
    Loch Raven, looking downriver from the new dam to the old dam, 1920s, photo by Fred W. Besley

    Besley left a meticulous photographic record of Maryland’s early conservation efforts to restore the land. Some of his images are of national geographic magazine quality. Besley was the king of documentation.  Almost all his photographs are dated, and include a subject category, a location, and the name of the photographer.

  • Besley pioneered “parketecture” in Maryland. He oversaw the development of facilities on public lands within the State Forest and State Park Service, especially during the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) period (1933-1942). The CCC built cabins and trails using native material of stone and wood to blend in with the natural landscape. The idea was to embrace nature, not conquer it.

    Caretaker's House, Gambrill State Park, 1930s

    By 1933, Maryland’s State Forest reserves had grown to about 50,000 acres. Thirteen CCC camps were constructed on state lands between 1933-1942.  As State Forester, Besley oversaw the development of facilities on State public lands.

    The CCC put young unemployed men to work on forestry conservation projects. Just think of it – More than 2,600 young men were engaged in conservation work at any one time in Maryland on forestry and park related projects. What would we do for a work force like that now? During this time, the young men built roads, erected fire towers, fought forest fires, and planted millions of trees. Without a doubt, The CCC was the greatest conservation and park development effort in history.

  • Besley pioneered the Cooperative Forestry Management Program in Maryland. The Timber Marking Plan of 1913 marked the beginning of Cooperative Forestry management in Maryland.  Because of this program, landowners of woodlots could benefit from the services and advice of professional foresters. Besley’s program was years ahead of its time, many years before federal assistance programs. Besley’s program was adopted across the Country.

  • Besley pioneered the implementation of the Maryland Roadside Tree Law in 1914, the most progressive law of its kind in the United States. This law was the first to protect trees along roadways and address problems of commercial signs along state roadways. This law was adopted across the Country.

    Besley was concerned with forest aesthetics and roadside aesthetics.  This is evident from the many photographs of roadside tree care techniques, as well as photographs of redbud and dogwood in bloom along roadsides adjacent to woodlands. Photographs along roadways show that Besley worked hard to save big trees along roadways, even if it meant leaving one in the middle of the road.

    Large tree left in middle of the road, with cars passing. Easton, Maryland, 1920s

    Helen Besley Overington noted, “Governor Ritchie was great on helping Father. He was very proud of Maryland’s roads and he thought they ought to be beautified.”

    After the law was passed, for recreation on some Sunday afternoons, Fred took his family out, armed with handsaws, to cut down commercial signs along roadways that violated the law. The children fondly remembered these activities.

    Burroughs, Edison, Ford and Firestone

    John Burroughs, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone

    Besley’s career coincided with the growth of the automobile industry, of which Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone are closely associated. When time permitted, inventor Thomas Edison, along with Industrialist Ford and Firestone liked to travel around the country together and camp with their friend John Burroughs, a famous naturalist and nature writer.

    On one of these vacations, they decided to visit Maryland. Besley arranged for Abraham Lincoln “Link” Sines, a well-known Garrett County Forest  Warden, to act as their tour guide on their visit to Garrett County.

    Their trip included a visit to Swallow Falls State Park. A story was recently told to me that during their visit to Garrett County,  they dropped by Naylor’s Hardware Store in Oakland for supplies.

    Link introduced the men to Mr. Naylor, the storeowner. The encounter went something like this:

    Link said: “Mr. Naylor, I’d like to introduce you to Thomas Edison; he invented that light bulb on your ceiling. This is Henry Ford; he manufactured your car parked outside your store. This is Mr. Firestone; he made the tires on your car.”

    Mr. Naylor, a little skeptical by now, said to Link: “And I suppose you’re going to tell me that this man with the beard is Santa Claus!”

  • Besley pioneered scientific forestry in Maryland.  Besley and his foresters took pride in their professional appearance.  This is evident by their “go-to-church Sunday dress” in most of their photographs.  Very seldom are the foresters working in the woods without a hat, coat, dress shirt, and tie.
    Fred W. Besley and his foresters posing in the field

    Besley established a variety of silviculture practices and methods--shelterwood harvests, reforestation, thinning, plantings, retaining seed trees, prescribed burns, streamside buffer management, crown management, land erosion, and eliminating “pastured woodlots.” In Besley’s words, “overgrazing …[fatal] for reproduction…caused thin soil cover and almost total absence of old growth [advanced seedling/sapling establishment].”  Besley’s image of an ideal healthy forest was one protected from wildfires, where grazing was eliminated - a forest where “healthy young growth, good ground cover, and thrifty growing condition[s]” occurred.

    Besley established responsible forest management practices on both public and privately owned woodlands.  He proved by example and practice over his long productive career that conservation and preservation concepts, properly applied in the right place at the right time, were necessary for managing and maintaining healthy forested landscapes.

  • Besley pioneered procedures and ways to gain public support to acquire lands for State Forests and State Parks in Maryland. It is incredible accomplishment considering that Maryland went from zero-acres of state public land before 1905 to nearly a half-a-million acres of state public land in 2006. When Besley retired in 1942, there were about 100,000 acres of state public land. The groundwork was established and in place for acquisition of additional lands for state public use.

  • Besley pioneered state rights for management of state public lands. Besley believed State government could better manage public lands and public parks than the federal government. Helen Besley Overington sated, “Governor Ritchie was very much for State rights, as was my father; Ritchie thought the closer to the people you got, the better it was, an so did my father.”

    In 1927, Besley helped gain public support for legislation, giving the state primary rights to manage public lands over the federal government. This may be one of the reasons there are no national forests in Maryland today.

  • Besley pioneered the concept of linking scientific forestry with outdoor recreation. He was always looking for ways to gain public support and funding for forestry conservation and acquisition of additional lands. He believed that promoting outdoor recreation on public lands was one way to gain this support; that the public might be more likely to support the State in their efforts to purchase additional lands to practice scientific forestry.

    Camping at the Patapsco Forest Reserve.

    Helen Besley Overington stated, “Father believed that forest should not only be conserved, but that they should be used. Father was very interested in getting the public to use the land. Father thought this would bring more public support for conservation.”

    In the early 1900’s, camping in the outdoors for fun was a rater new concept to urban residents from Baltimore.  Many thought that the only people who camped in tents were either in the Army or were suffering hard times.

    Besley and his family camped sometimes a month at a time along Cascade Falls at Patapsco State Park. The public read in Baltimore Sun newspaper advertisements inviting them to visit the State Park and learn about camping. When they showed up, there would be the Besley family, giving public demonstrations how to set up camp and cook.

  • Besley pioneered outdoor recreation in Maryland. In 1940, Besley brought the sport of skiing into Maryland at New Germany State Park. Many skeptics thought that a ski slope constructed south of the Mason-Dixon Line was not commercially viable; they thought the snow would melt too quickly. Besley proved them wrong!

    Getting ready for a day on the slope at New Germany State Park

    Besley handpicked Joe Davis, a forester and Eagle Scout, to build this slope. Since Davis had never built a Ski slope before, to do the job, he used a Boy Scout skiing merit badge book for a guide and CCC enrollees that were former Boy Scouts. It was a great success!

  • Besley pioneered and championed the development of the Maryland State tree nursery (1914). The first Tree Nursery was in operation at College Park by 1914. Besley brought to Maryland the experience and knowledge he gained working as Superintendent at the Tree Nursery in Halsey, Nebraska, in 1904. Halsey Tree Nursery was the first U.S. Forest Service Tree Nursery in the country. The establishment of the tree nurseries aided greatly to efforts regarding forest ecological restoration.

    Photo collage of Silas Sines, Sr., manager of Maryland's State Forest Tree Nurseries for almost 45 years

    Silas Sines Sr. was the superintendent of the Maryland State Tree Nursery for more than 40 years (1929-1974). Besley handpicked him for the job. Sines was a pioneer in his own right; he developed a root-pruner and pine cone seed extractor that the federal government studied to adopt for their use.

    During his tenure Besley established four state tree nurseries: three at College Park, and one at Beltsville. Fred W. Besley would say: “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago – the second best time is today.”

  • Besley pioneered environmental education. His presentations included topics about roadside tree care, forest pests and diseases, and dendrology (tree identification).
    Besley used a lanternslide projector with glass slides to enhance his presentations. His lanternslide programs didn’t occur just in a sterile, classroom environment; he often took his programs on the road, presenting them in an open field near woodland.

    Helen remembers being with her father at these lanternslide programs. “ She recalled, “Father would jack up the back end of the car, and to power up the lantern slide projector [for the light bulb], attach a belt from the axle to the projector [generator].” He hung a sheet on a tree, stood beside it in front of the audience while in the back, his children switched the slides back and forth on the projector. Helen remembered, “People were crazy [enthusiastic] to see them.”

    >br /> Judging by his accomplishments as a leader and speaker, Besley, like Pinchot, had a gift to inspire people and motivate them into positive action.  Helen said, “Father was a great story teller…he especially loved to tell “Paul Bunyan stories.”  A heading from a newspaper article state this about Besley: “His Stories are as Tall as the Trees He Protects.” 

    Fred W. Besley telling story at campfire, Maryland Mountain Club, 1941

    A photograph exists showing Besley conducting a campfire program at Green Ridge State Forest in 1941, one year before his retirement.  Besley is surrounded by campers in casual clothing while Besley stands in the middle of them looking like he’s just walked out of church wearing a white shirt and tie. The campers’ faces without exception are all turned on Besley; whatever story he is conveying has certainly captured the campers  complete attention.

  • Besley pioneered the Champion Big Tree Program. Indeed, the roots of the champion tree program are planted in Maryland! It all started right here! In 1925, Besley developed the program and standardized the method for measuring the large trees that were later adopted across the country. Besley was concerned with preserving Maryland’s last remnants of old growth, which he called “original growth.” Besley is indeed the “Father of the Big Tree Contest.”

    Besley stated that Maryland’s woodlands were “devastated” at the beginning of the twentieth century, consisting of cutover landscapes, and seedling/sapling-sized forests. In Besley’s words, “careless lumbering… culled the best, left much slash on the ground, with “the natural consequence of waste like this…forest fire.”

    Richards Oak near Rising Sun, with person at base of large tree for scale, 1920s

    Besley was concerned with preserving the last remnants of old growth in Maryland. Note: There are hundreds of pictures of large, old trees (“noted tree” is how he labeled many of these pictures), trees that were surviving remnants of Maryland’s original forests.  This concern led to the Champion Big Tree Program, now conducted across the country.  Apparently, to see a big tree back then was like seeing a bald eagle today; a picture of the tree with a person standing next to it had to be taken when you came across a titan tree.

    Many of his lanternslides are of large, old trees that he labeled “noted tree.” To Besley, titan trees like this represented remnants of the original pre-colonial forests. Apparently, to see a big tree back then was equivalent to the experience we feel when we see a bald eagle – it is special. Of course, with Besley’s special interest in photography, he would have to stop and take a picture of a tree with a person standing next to it.

    In some of the earlier photographs of the early 1900’s one could see why Besley was concerned. There were few large trees left in the landscape. Some of the farms in western Maryland were especially depleted of soil where forests once grew. It was tough scratching a living and growing anything on these farms. I heard it said that the soil was so poor in some of these areas, that you couldn’t even raise hell with a gallon of whiskey!

  • Besley practiced “sustainable” forest resource management before the word “sustainable” became a buzz-word. Because of World War II and efforts to supply the war effort, Besley was concerned timber removal was approaching levels of peak year (1909) when 44 ½ billion board ft. was cut at the end of the “Age of Forest Exploitation.” He wrote about the need to enforce the concept of forest regulation so that timber removal never again exceeded overall growth.

  • Besley pioneered methods to gain public support for forest conservation.
    Besley developed Maryland’s first systematic methods of fighting forest fires by using commissioned forest wardens. Besley personally handpicked these wardens, seeking out individuals who were pillars of the community. Forest wardens were involved in a variety of activities, from fighting wildfires to providing political clout when called upon to support Besley’s conservation initiatives. He proved the best way to preserve forestland from threats is to involve the community and arm them with information that responsible forest management on public lands and private lands is not only good for the environment, but also beneficial to both the community and economy. In 1920, there were 150 forest wardens; in 1935 there were 650 forest wardens.

  • Besley pioneered methods to fight and detect forest fires. In the 1920’s, fire control was prominent in the mind of Besley. He wrote in a 1920’s report that one of the important functions of the Department is to “organize and maintain a system of state-wide forest protection for 2,200,000 acres of forestland in the State.”

    He must have had a very effective program. He wrote in 1920 that the average forest fire was 203 acres; by 1927, the average size of a fire was reduced to 17 acres.

    By 1920, there were at least three fire towers, all in Garrett County. About 42 fire towers were constructed during Fred Besley’s tenure throughout the State.

    Old photo of a firetower.

    In Besley’s words, forest fires “impoverished soil, destroyed reproduction, and [caused] damage [to] the large trees.” Through his foresters like Joe Davis, Besley pioneered building a fire line around a wildfire using the “two-lick method.” In the 1920’s fire control was prominent in Besley’s mind. He wrote in a 1920’s report that one import function of his Department was “to organize and maintain a state-wide forest protection for 2,200,000 acres of forest land in the State.” His program was very effective, reducing the average size of a forest fire from 203 acres in 1920 to 17 acres in 1927.  In 1916, only three fire towers stood, all in Garrett County, by 1942, during Fred Besley’s tenure as State Forester, 42 fire towers were constructed. Fire towers established an early romantic stereotype of the forest service. Today, the fire towers that still stand serve as monuments to the early forest conservation movement.


Address by Francis “Champ” Zumbrun for the Maryland Forests Association Conference Centennial Kick-off, November 5, 2005. Francis "Champ" Zumbrun is the forest manager at Green Ridge State Forest. He has worked as a professional forester for DNR since 1978. He serves on the Forestry and Parks Centennial Committee. He is currently looking for an alidade to place in the Town Hill lookout fire tower at Green Ridge State Forest.

The author would especially like to thank Ross Kimmel, Robb Bailey, Offutt Johnson, Helen Besley Overington, Kirk Rodgers, Mary Rotz, Don and Peggy Weller, Rob Schoeberlein of the Maryland State Archives, and Silas Sines, Jr. for graciously providing historical documents, photographs and source materials that greatly helped in the preparation of this article.

Photographs (top to bottom):

  • Map depicting Forest Survey of Allegany County, 1915
  • Book Cover, The Forests of Maryland
  • Loch Raven, looking downriver from the new dam to the old dam, 1920s, photo by Fred W. Besley
  • Caretaker's House, Gambrill State Park, 1930s
  • Large tree left in middle of the road, with cars passing. Easton, Maryland, 1920s
  • John Burroughs, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone
  • Fred W. Besley (on far left wearing a State-issued jacket) and his foresters posing in the field
  • Camping at the Patapsco Forest Reserve.
  • Getting ready for a day on the slope at New Germany State Park
  • Photo collage of Silas Sines, Sr., manager of Maryland's State Forest Tree Nurseries for almost 45 years (1929-1974)
  • Fred W. Besley telling story at campfire in Greenridge State Forest, Maryland Mountain Club, 1941
  • Richards Oak near Rising Sun, with person at base of large tree for scale, 1920s
  • Snaggy Mountain Fire Tower