A Brief History of the Forest Service

Picture of foresters from the early days of forestry 1996 marked the 90th anniversary of Forestry in Maryland and the birth of what is known as the Department of Natural Resources Forest Service. Although we have been known by many names over nine decades, our mission has been consistent, "To conserve and enhance the quality, quantity, productivity and biological diversity of the forest and tree resources of Maryland."

To commemorate this milestone, the citizens of Maryland received a gift on April 22, 1996 when the state-of-the-art John S. Ayton Forest Tree Nursery was dedicated in Preston, Caroline County. What better way to celebrate Earth Day than to open a facility that will grow trees for the future of Maryland's forests and the Chesapeake Bay well into the 21st century?

As we look forward to the challenges of conserving and protecting our forests and greenspaces, it's equally important to reflect on the people and policies that have enabled us to approach a century of service. To do this we must travel back to the year 1900 to a home on Rhode Island Avenue in Washington, D.C.

It was in this home where an eager group of young "student assistants" met on Sunday evenings in a group they called the "Baked Apple and Gingerbread Club" to learn the science of forestry. Their teacher was Gifford Pinchot, first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service and widely credited as the father of American forestry. One unforgettable evening, their guest speaker was a pioneer of conservation, President Theodore Roosevelt. Pinchot selected sixty-one young men to participate in forestry training and sent them out in groups around the country to collect forest data for twenty-five dollars a month. One of these young men was Fred W. Besley, who six years later would become Maryland's first State Forester and establish one of the first state forestry agencies in the nation.

Besley learned his forestry from the ground up. He traveled to the Adirondacks, the Jack Pines of Michigan, and moonshine forests of Kentucky. He ultimately made the decision to seek out formal forestry training and enrolled at Yale. After completing college, he went back to the woods to pursue the passion that was kindled by the teachings of Pinchot.

Many years later, at a 1956 dinner held in Baltimore to celebrate the golden anniversary of forestry in Maryland, an eighty-four year old Fred Besley reflected on the telegram he received fifty years earlier while planting trees on a spring morning in the Colorado mountains that offered him a job to become Maryland's first State Forester.

Besley's thirty-six year tenure as State Forester helped place Maryland as one of the Nation's leaders in forest conservation. His appointment coincided with the birth of the state forest system in Maryland that was established by the donation of 2000 acres of forest land by the Garrett brothers. Robert Garrett, who was a Baltimore investment banker and philanthropist, would later say of Swallow Falls, "My brother and I agreed to donate a State Forest if Maryland would take care of it."

By the turn of the century, much of Maryland's forest resources were ravaged by fire and indiscriminate logging. One of Beasley's first tasks was a monumental one - to survey the forests of Maryland from Somerset to Garrett County. With an initial operating budget of two thousand dollars, he was a one-man forest service. Traveling in a rented horse-drawn buggy Besley "trampled every cow path in Maryland" for seven years to finally publish The Forests in Maryland in 1916, the first comprehensive survey of a state's forests in the nation.

Other "firsts" would establish Maryland as a national leader in forestry. The Maryland Timber Marking Plan provided landowners with expert advice with foresters marking and tallying trees for harvests. In 1910, the Forestry Act established a network of Forest Wardens to combat "burning off the woods," and gave them legal authority to fine and prosecute fire-setters and "volunteer" local residents to help fight the forest fires. As a forerunner to the science of urban forestry, the 1914 Roadside Tree Law works to this day to protect and beautify Maryland's highways.

It was during this early period of our history that the Board of Forestry established a forest tree nursery at the University of Maryland to grow seedlings for reforestation and new forests. The nursery operated for many years in College Park until the operation was moved to Harmans in Anne Arundel County in the 1940s. Many future leaders of the Forest Service such as Silas Sines, H.C. Buckingham, and A.R. Bond worked at the Harmans nursery to refine and master the science of growing trees.

The DNR's commitment and leadership in forestry continues with the opening and dedication of the John S. Ayton Forest Tree Nursery on April 22. Situated on 300 acres in Caroline county, the Ayton Nursery is capable of producing millions of seedlings with areas for research, genetics, and the propagation of famous and historic trees such as the Wye Oak.

As we look to the future of Maryland's forests and and watersheds and the many opportunities that lie ahead, it's equally important to remember the pioneers of forestry that built a strong foundation of dedication and professionalism that continues today. If Fred Besley could have joined us on April 22nd to help dedicate the new Ayton Nursery, we're sure he would be proud.

Colonial Times to the Present

When the first colonists arrived in Maryland in the early 1600's, forests covered most of the State. Very little vegetation grew under the age old trees.

One of the settlers wrote this description of the area:

"Fine groves of trees appear, not choked with briers or bushes and undergrowth, but growing at intervals as if planted by the hand of man, so that you can drive a four horse carriage, wherever you choose, through the midst of the trees" (Andrews, Matthews Page, History of Maryland, 1929).

Hardwoods predominated, and the forests contained extensive stands of oak and hickory. In western Maryland, endless waves of American chestnut and white pine covered the ridges of the Appalachians. Oak, walnut, poplar, locust, hickory and cucumber trees grew in the bottomlands.

The settlers regarded these awe-inspiring forests as an obstacle to progress. To grow their crops, they cleared the land of timber, which had no market value. Using the most efficient method they had, the settlers destroyed vast areas of forest by burning or girdling (removing a band of bark from the circumfrence of a tree).

Initially the supply of wood obtained from clearing land exceeded the settlers' needs for timber. As the population grew, however, this source no longer met the demand, and in the 1800's the exploitation of timber began. A "cut and get out" philosophy was the order of the day.

At first, the loggers cut only the choice trees and left those of poorer quality. But as a changing market made their harvesting economically feasible, even the inferior trees were logged. No effort was made to regenerate the depleted areas, and forest fires were frequent. Believing the myth of "superabundance," the loggers simply moved on to untouched forest.

Exploitation of Forests

loggers in the field The rate of forest exploitation grew as techniques for milling and harvesting improved. The water-driven straight saw gave way to the steam-powered circular and band saws capable of processing millions of board feet a year. The Climax and Shay logging locomotives made possible harvesting of timber in Western Maryland that previously had been inaccessible.

In the late 1800's, the nation grew concerned about the abuse of its forest resources, and their protection and management became a politically popular issue.

Gifford Pinchot, the "father of American forestry" and one of Theodore Roosevelt's chief advisors, promoted the concept of wise use and sustained yield of forests.

Aware of the need for conserving Maryland's forests, John and Robert Garrett of Baltimore offered 2,000 acres of woodland to the state in 1906. The bequest was contingent upon the organization of a state forestry department to manage the land.

Maryland's First Forestry Law

Loggers laying down a new road As a direct result of the Garrett's generous and farsighted gift, the legislature passed Maryland's first forestry law. It dealt mainly with the control of the forest fires which made the practice of forestry financially impractical. Specifically the law called for the establishment of a State Board of Forestry, the appointment of a State Forester and the organization of a corps of local fire wardens. The law also provided for education of woodlot owners about better management and harvesting methods. The Forestry Board's total operating budget in 1906 was $2,500.

Throughout the 1920's and 1930's, Maryland's forestry program continued to stress protection of the resource. Federal-State fire control legislation and a "Keep Maryland Green" campaign strengthened this effort.

The establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933 boosted Maryland's forestry substantially. The CCC not only fought fires but also built cabins and other structures on State Forest land and initiated many reforestation projects. By the 1940's, the risk of forest fire to Maryland's timber growing business had been greatly reduced.

Maryland's Forestry Conservancy District Act of 1943 was one of the most progressive forestry laws in the nation. The act stated, "It is...the policy of the State to encourage economic management and scientific development of its woodlands to maintain, conserve, and improve soil resources of the State to the end that an adequate source of forest products be preserved for the people...where such interests can be served through cooperative efforts of private forest landowners, with the assistance of the State, it is to be the policy of the State to encourage, assist and guide private ownership in the management and fullest economic development of such privately owned forest lands."

As a result of the legislation, scientific forestry principals were applied to all types of privately owned forest land in the State.

Multiple Use Management

In the 1950's and 1960's more and more people began to visit Maryland's forests. The general public, as well as professional foresters, recognized the fact that forests were valuable for reasons other than simply supplying timber.

The philosophy of multiple use management began to evolve, and the passage of federal legislation made it the cornerstone of forest management throughout the country. Management of Maryland's state forests expanded to encompass outdoor recreation, wildlife, fish, and water, as well as fiber production.

The environmental movement of the 1970's and the 1980's produced a growing awareness of both the benefits and adverse effects of various forest management practices on the ecosystem. Managers began to coordinate their multiple use management practices more effectively with potential environmental, economic, and social impacts.

A system evolved for intensive long-range planning for forest service management. Now the Maryland Forest Service inventories and closely examines the supply and demand for all forest resources. More attention is given to collecting data and to planning programs, legislation and activities that involve the public in forestry affairs.

Our Forests Today

a wooded grove According to a recent forest survey, Maryland has 2.7 million acres of forest land, forty percent of our total acreage. Of this total, 2.4 million acres (90 percent) are classified as timberland. Timberland is defined as land growing at least 20 cubic feet (or the equivalent of twenty-four 2" x 4" x 8' framing studs) of wood on every acre each year with the potential of harvesting it. Examples of areas not classified as timberland include federal and state park land, Christmas tree farms, and forests set aside for scientific study.

Maryland has approximately 4.5 billion cubic feet in volume of "growing stock" - trees 5 inches in diameter or greater, measured at 1 foot above the ground to a top diameter of 4 inches. This much wood weighs 270.5 million tons. Each acre of our forest is growing 1846 cubic feet of wood, an increase of 18 percent over the 1976 forest survey. Softwoods account for 36.6 million tons, or 15.1 tons per acre; hardwoods account for 233.9 million tons, or 96.5 tons per acre.

The timber on our forest land is divided into four categories according to size: sawtimber is 11 inches or greater in diameter; pole timber is 5 to 10 inches in diameter; saplings are 1 to 4 inches in diameter and seedlings are less than 1 inch in diameter. Diameter measurements are taken on the trunk of the tree at 4.5 feet above ground. At present the growth of our forest land comprises 71 percent sawtimber, 19 percent pole timber and 10 percent seedlings and saplings. Total volume of sawtimber is 13,334 million board feet, an average of 5,501 board feet per acre.

Our forests make a very direct and visible contribution to our economy. Every year, Maryland households spend over $454,000,000 on the many products produced from trees. Furniture alone accounts for $170,000,000. Wages and salaries of individuals involved in the manufacture of goods and services in the wood industry amount to $327,840,000 annually. Indirect business taxes add up to $21,314,000 each year. The pulpwood paper products industry alone employs 9300 people across the State.

At this volume, it would require the wood from two acres of our forest to build the average house. Our sawtimber size forests have increased 20% in the past 10 years. They now total 1.7 million acres. A 54 percent decrease in the acres of seedlings and saplings has reduced these forests to 231,000 acres, or 10 percent of our forest land. An ideal proportionate distribution of our forests should be 50 percent sawtimber, 25 percent pole timber and 25 percent seedlings and saplings.

Yellow poplar, our largest tree species by volume, has increased 15 percent since the 1976 forest survey. With 547 million cubic feet, yellow poplar accounts for over 12 percent of the total growing stock. Oak/hickory is the dominate forest type, occupying 60 percent of our total forest land. Seventy-six percent of our forest land is privately owned by 130,600 individuals - professionals, executives, farmers, and retirees, people from all walks of life.

In the next ten to twenty years, a large amount of sawtimber will be sold. Since harvesting is a crucial time in the life of a forest, we must take advantage of this opportunity to reforest our harvested woodland. Professional foresters applying proper silvicultural practices can improve the health and quality of our trees and forests. Landowners should become well informed in good management techniques by availing themselves of professional forestry advice. The future of our trees and forests depends on sound forest management. ​