Maryland’s First State Forester

Fred W. Besley - A Pioneer in Forest Conservation


Important Dates in the Life and Times of Fred W. Besley
  • 1872 – February 16th, Born in Vienna, Virginia

  • 1892 – Received B.A. from Maryland Agriculture College (University of MD)

  • 1892 – 1900 Public school teacher, principal, and later Deputy Treasurer of Fairfax County, VA.

  • 1899 – First met Gifford Pinchot at the Department of Agriculture. “Pinchot was so boiling over with enthusiasm about forestry that then and there I adopted forestry as my career.”

  • 1900 – September 19th, Married Miss Bertha Adeline Simonds of Washington, D.C. Besley was one of 61 applicants out of 232 chosen by Pinchot to work as a student assistant for fieldwork in the Forestry Division of the Department of Agriculture. He was sent with four others to cruise the Adirondack Mountains to survey timber, and then went to Michigan to determine the suitability of jack pine woodlands for a state forest.

  • 1900-1901 Invited to Pinchot’s home every Thursday evening for the famous “Baked Apple and Gingerbread Club” where different guests spoke on forestry and conservation. On one occasion, President Theodore Roosevelt, who shared Pinchot’s enthusiasm for conservation and natural resources, met with the group and encouraged conservation careers.

  • 1901 – Summer – dispatched by Pinchot to investigate the hardwood forests of Kentucky, and became an official forest photographer on the trip. Many of the photographs were used in forestry publications and were the first of thousands that he would take of forestry practices.

  • 1902 – Late in the year while working on a management plan for the Kirby Lumber Company in eastern Texas, he decided that after two years as a forestry assistant, he needed technical training.

  • 1903 – January – Started at Yale Forestry School, which two years earlier had been endowed by the Pinchot family. Besley spent his summer field study in the Pike’s Peak area, and the winter studying lumber operations in northern Maine.

  • Gradated “Cum Laude” in June with a Master’s Degree in Forestry. Worked as superintendent of a large federal forestry nursery near Halsey, Nebraska where he planted 350,000 pine trees on the barren sand hills. Besley then transferred to do experimental planting in the Pike’s Peak region of Colorado.

  • 1905 – Was one of the corps of 7 experts Pinchot organized to travel over western Colorado to alleviate some of the ill will among ranchers and farmers over the transfer of forest reserves from the Dept. of Interior to the Dept. of Agriculture. With changes in their rights to free grazing on the public domain, ranchers were often hostile, so he held one-day meetings to discuss these problems with the locals.

  • 1906 – Became State Forester of Maryland after Robert and John Garrett donated 2000 acres of land on the condition the state would take care of it.

  • 1912 – Influenced the state legislature to make its first appropriation for the purchase of forestland. With the addition of several donated small tracts, the Patapsco Forest Reserve was created in 1914.

  • 1913 – Started the Timber Marking Plan to assist farmers and other woodland owners in knowing which trees to cut, who would do it, and cost estimates so the landowner could obtain competitive bids and know in advance the price of the sale. This practice eventually became accepted as industry standard throughout the country.

  • 1914 – June 21st “Sign Board Day.” With “Carrie Nation” fervor, women’s organizations volunteered and cleared highways of signs to enforce the Roadside Tree Law of 1914, the first statewide legislation in the U.S. to plant and protect roadside trees and prohibit unauthorized advertising on public highways. This law also made provisions for the establishment of the first tree nursery, located at College Park. Besley received an honorary Doctor of Science degree in recognition of his public service in advancing forestry in Maryland.

  • 1916 – Completed and published The Forests of Maryland, which included comprehensive county maps and forest data. It was the first accurate and detailed survey of the forest resources of any state in the union. After surveying and summarizing every tract of woodland five acres or larger in each of Maryland’s counties, Besley said, “I trampled every cow path in Maryland making it.”

  • 1924 – Along with the Maryland Forestry Association, sponsored a statewide Big Tree contest, which was revised in 1937. Besley worked with The American Forestry Association to develop a national Big Tree contest in 1940, and again in 1955.

  • 1927 – Influenced legislation to repeal the 1908 act allowing the federal government to acquire forestland in Maryland. Besley was a strong advocate of state’s rights.

  • 1933 – With the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, Maryland was fortunate to have 55,000 acres of state forest and park land eligible for 10 camps of 200 men each. This enabled the state to greatly improve its forests, develop some of its recreational potential, and implement more conservation measures.

  • 1942 – Retired February 16th as State Forester of MD with the longest continuous service as State Forester in the U.S. Besley replaced his son (who was serving in the Navy) as a forestry professor at West Virginia University, where he also worked on forestry legislation for West Virginia.

  • 1946 – Formed Besley-Rodgers Inc. and bought 6000 acres of Eastern Shore land, much of it cutover and swampy, that he had been unable to influence the state to buy. Using the scientific forest techniques he had preached so long as State Forester, he turned it into profitable timberland.

  • 1960 – At the age of 88, Fred W. Besley died in Laurel, Maryland.

    Source: Fred W. Besley and Maryland Forestry (1976) by John Overington, Member, West Virginia House of Delegates and Grandson of Fred W. Besley