“Celebrating Our Past, Creating Our Future.”

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

Part 3 of a 3-part series

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

Portrait of Fred W. Besley - 1940 - Photo by ME WarrenFred W. Besley - A National Record for Service 1906-1942

"The Longest Continuous Service of a State Forester"

On February 16, 1942, Fred Besley retired with 36 years of State Service. Besley holds the national record for the longest continuous service of a State Forester (1906-1942). When he first accepted the job as Maryland State Forester, he had concerns about the politics of Maryland, if he would have freedom from “political control.” Besley wrote,  "After serving as a State Forester for 36 years under seven administrations of Governors both democrats and republicans, my fears seemed unfounded or a striving for political independence of the department which paid off.”

Fred W. Besley served under seven Governors:

Abused land Restored Land

At the time of his retirement, a new era of forestry was beginning called The “Sustained Yield” Period. The Custodial Period was ending with Besley’s departure. State forests and state parks had grown to 100,000 acres at the time of Besley’s retirement. Times were changing. The last CCC Camp in Maryland permanently closed several months after Besley’s retirement. The United States was now fully engaged in World War II after the recent bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Besley's Retirement Years

Besley wasn’t really retired. He was just kidding! In 1943, Besley soon temporarily replaced his son Lowell, called to serve his country in World War II,  as a forestry professor at the University of West Virginia. During this time, Besley introduced new forestry legislation for West Virginia. Actually Besley was never far from being an educator. Throughout his career, as required by the 1906 Conservation Act, Besley taught academic forestry-related courses at the University of Maryland. He also provided non-academic forestry training to woodland owners throughout the state.

Besley refused to own land while he served in the position as State Forester. He didn’t think it was ethical; however, after he retired, he wanted to practice what he preached so in 1942, he started to buy land for $10 to $15 per acre. This was land he was unable to persuade the State to buy, much of it swamp and cutover. The Besley/Rodgers Corporation today manages this land, consisting of about 6,800 acres; it is the largest private non-industrial forest landowner in Maryland. Using scientific forest management techniques he promoted for so long as a State Forester, Besley turned the land nobody wanted into profitable timberland.

"The reason Father bought these lands was to utilize areas not good for anything else and practice forestry. He thought it was important to practice what he preached." - Helen Besley Overington

A stream running through a forestThe Department of Natural Resources continues to carry forward the legacy of early foresters like Fred Besley. These land management professionals have a proven track record, well documented, for restoring lands back to excellent health, lands that were in poor condition before becoming public lands.  With the overall healthy appearance of the forest on public lands today, it is hard to imagine that most of the land was once cutover and abandoned.

History shows us that foresters are skilled at restoring “devastated landscapes". Fred Besley, and the State Foresters that followed after him lead Maryland on the Forestry Conservation path.

Besley had a long-range vision for Maryland’s forests, (foresters are trained to think in terms of 100 years or more), and he pursued his vision with drive and vigor.  State Foresters, like Besley, have given us a long, rich tradition of conservation and forest management.

Today, as in Besley’s time, forest management on public lands emphasizes the importance of clean streams and waterways. Woody vegetation is retained along riparian areas and foresters have already exceeded the Governor’s initiatives to plant 600 miles of riparian areas within the Chesapeake Bay watershed in Maryland.

A river running through a forested areaMD DNR Forest Service provides staff support for Maryland Stream ReLeaf a statewide initiative supporting riparian forest buffers. Stream ReLeaf coordinates the efforts of a wide variety of state, local, federal, and nonprofit agencies and groups, all of whom play a part in expanding or maintaining streamside and shoreline forests.

Because of the existence of public lands in Maryland, forest fragmentation is better controlled in a State where the population is quickly growing. Because there are public lands, more than 10% of Maryland’s land is protected from development.

Timber harvesting occurs on some of these sites, creating early successional habitats so beneficial for a wide-variety of wildlife that occur inside the larger landscape of maturing forests.  Wildlife is thriving on public lands.  It is no longer uncommon to see deer, wild turkey, black bear, and beaver; animals that were nearly extinct from the Maryland landscape 100 years ago. 

At the same time, forests continue to provide wood products for a society whose demand for forest products keep growing.  The more diverse the landscape is (timber types and age classes), the healthier the ecosystem.

Beyond timber values, public lands are also managed for old growth values. In fact, more than 50% of the State Forests are managed for old growth objectives.

The Maryland Conservation Law of 1906

The Maryland Conservation Law of 1906 is one of the important forestry conservation laws enacted during the past century. In 1905, outdoor recreation did not exist on state public lands, simply because there were no state public lands in Maryland. Today, in a little less than one hundred years, the Department of Natural Resources now manages a little less than 500,000 acres. In 2002, more than 11 million people visited Maryland’s state parks and state forests to enjoy all aspects of outdoor recreation. Today, we have state parks that didn’t exist 100 years ago. All in all there are 47 State Parks, 4 State Forests, 2 Marinas, and several Natural Resource Management Areas.

The Garrett brothers would be amazed how their gift of land in 1906 produced so many wonderful benefits for the citizens of Maryland and generations of people to come.  Their gift helped make it possible for Maryland to have large tracts of forested public lands, as well as produced a legacy of great Maryland conservation leaders to manage them, starting with Fred W. Besley.

What would Maryland look like today if the Garrett Brothers had not made their initial donation of land to the State of Maryland? 

We can also ask, "What will Maryland’s forested landscape look like 100 years from now?"

That’s up to us! Perhaps we can look back to our rich history for answers to solve our present challenges. We can ask, "How would Fred W. Besley have handled this issue?" There’s much work before us.  Let’s get to work!

Only 10 individuals have served as Maryland State Forester over the last century.

  • Fred. W. Besley 1906-1942
  • Joseph F. Kaylor 1942-1947
  • Henry C. Buckingham 1947-1968
  • Adna “Pete” Bond 1968-1977
  • Donald E. MacLauchlan 1978-1979
  • Tunis Lyon 1979-1983
  • James B. Roberts 1983-1991
  • John W. Riley 1991-1995
  • James E. Mallow 1995-2001
  • Steve W. Koehn 2001-


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, and Rob Schoeberlein of the Maryland State Archives for graciously providing historical documents, photographs and source materials that greatly helped in the preparation of this article.

Photographs (top to bottom):

Fred W. Besley
Abused Land
Restored Land
A stream running through a forest
A river running through a forested area