Private Forest Landowners – Evolutions in
When my grandfather, Fred Besley, began his task as State Forester almost 100 years ago, the condition of privately owned forest lands in the state could only be described as deplorable. They were over- harvested, frequently burned and little attention was paid to reforestation. Besley concentrated his early efforts on forest inventory, fire control and modest extension efforts to educate private forest landowners. I can remember him describing at the family dinner table his early efforts to educate landowners using lantern slide talks, with his son Lowell Besley operating a slide projector powered by a small generator attached to the back wheel of a car.
That extension work provided by the state forestry department, coupled with the demonstration effect of good forest management on the growing acreage of state owned lands, were some of the tools that helped bring about the revolution in the management of privately owned lands in Maryland that took place during the last century. But we must also credit the ingenuity of landowners and their constant trial and error efforts to find better sustained economic return from their forests. And we must remember that private forest landowners have always owned the vast bulk of Maryland’s forests. Today that figure is 78%.
To describe an evolutionary process one needs some guideposts and historians like to define eras. One of my favorite forest historians in Maryland, Francis Zumbrun, has used a series of historical periods as a framework for some of his writings. Following the period of the 1800’s, which he refers to as the "Age of Exploitation" he described the following four periods in the 20th century each of which has a distinct forest management style:
I am going to use these guideposts and blend in some of the 60-year history of trial and error management on my family’s land on the Eastern Shore. In so doing I will be telling you part of the fascinating story of the post retirement life of Fred Besley, picking up where Francis Zumbrun left off in his talk this morning. In a way a sub-title of part of this speech could be: “The Career of Fred W. Besley, Part Two and Beyond.”
The Custodial Period 1900-1940
In the custodial period private forest landowners, many of whom were farmers, responded very slowly to the urgings of Fred Besley. They continued to burn their forests and to graze cattle in them. This prolonged the period of degradation of forest lands particularly in Western Maryland. On the Eastern Shore of Maryland farmers grazed their cattle in marshes as well as on pasture. Marshes were burned each year to improve their quality for grazing and these fires often spread into adjacent woodlands. This was not all bad according to H. H. Chapman, a famous forestry professor at Yale, who often referred to loblolly pine in this region as a “fire climax species”. The gradual elimination of fire, in fact, favored lower value hardwoods. But fire control efforts were top priority in the Custodial Period.
Technical assistance provided by the State slowly began to influence private forest landowners, but also important was entry on the scene of a small group of well-trained foresters who functioned as consultants to private landowners. The development of the science of forestry, more specifically how to harvest trees in a way that assured their future regeneration, was in fact the driving force of change in the Custodial Period. “High grading” of private timber lands continued throughout much of the state, but forest regeneration efforts gradually began to take hold.
Fred Besley had used the word “devastated” to describe Maryland’s forest lands at the beginning of the 20th century. He was probably referring particularly to the badly cutover, burned and eroded forests of Western Maryland, where he spent so much of his time. But the Eastern Shore had its own forms of devastation. Very much in evidence at the end of the Custodial Period were huge areas of seedling and sapling sized forests remaining after the harvest of the loblolly pine. These forests contained mostly hardwood with suppressed pine saplings. Much of the hardwood in the wetter areas on the Shore is of poor quality and it is common to find trees that are hollow before reaching maturity. In the 1940’s and 50’s following World War II, many people thought of these cutover lands as nearly worthless, which is why this forest land was selling for $10.00 to $15.00 per acre and sometimes as low as $5.00.
This is exactly the kind of land that Fred Besley decided to buy when he retired from his position as State Forester in 1942. In an interview in 1956 on the occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of Forestry in Maryland he said the following: “I didn’t own an acre of land while I worked for the state, but when I retired I decided I might as well begin to practice what I’d preached for 36 years. By picking up a piece of cutover land here and there in three counties, I have enough to keep me busy.” He added: “There is no age restriction to the job of growing trees.” The article went on to say that he had already worn out two jeeps and was working on a third.
I can say that he had also had worn out a teen-aged grandson who was his brush cutter and rod man for property boundary survey. My visual memory of my grandfather while on the job was a view of his back as he disappeared into the underbrush. He was a very fast walker! I particularly enjoyed watching him sitting quietly eating his favorite lunch – a jelly sandwich accompanied by a handful of ginger snaps washed down with water from his canteen. We continued working together when I was home from college on vacation in the Fifties and listening to him talk at the family dinner table was an education in itself.
The other exceptional opportunity for learning was to work at his side during the summer of 1949 in the construction of a cabin made from loblolly pine logs from our own land. This simple rustic building became the headquarters of our family business on the eastern shore and a retreat for many generations of Besleys and Rodgers. Some people have actually compared it to "the shack" of famous environmentalist Aldo Leopold. I guess in many ways it served the same function for the family of Fred Besley. A lot of knowledge about Maryland forestry was imparted to family members and friends in that simple building and today it is filled with memorabilia of the early years of forestry in this state. After grandfather's death in 1960 my father, S. Procter Rodgers, took over management of the family timber corporation and continued the process of trial and error to find the best management practices for our lands.
The Sustained Yield Management Period 1940-1970
Logging was still primitive in the 1940’s and 50’s and even into the 60’s. Horses were still in use in 1961. They did the job of today’s skidders, and the loader was usually a tractor using a pine tree and boom to load the log trucks. But the technology evolved very quickly, as we all know, and improved logging techniques changed the situation dramatically.
Management efforts by private landowners in the Sustained Yield Period were not always effective or efficient. Selective cutting of pine, concentrating on trees with a diameter greater than 12-14 inches, was the norm in the 40’s and 50’s. I remember hearing Grandfather say that he felt it was foolish to harvest a pine of less than 12 inches diameter. What are you going to get he said, “a bunch of two by fours?” The contemporary practice of selective cutting of larger pine, however, continued to favor the hardwood on the Shore and soon came to be seen as a serious management issue. Clear cutting began to be practiced, but the lack of a market for most of the hardwood constituted a major obstacle. Early attempts to poison hardwoods had uneven results. Girdling trees and using herbicides in the cuts often failed and the cost of these labor intensive efforts was excessive.
Some experiments we conducted on our own land were particularly instructive in this regard. As tree harvesting machinery got more sophisticated, however, the situation gradually improved. The big breakthrough for us was the total tree harvester or “chipper” as it is called. This facilitated excellent site preparation and provided a much needed market for small hardwood.
To improve regeneration grandfather and my father, S. Procter Rodgers (who was his partner), began to leave seed trees. Dad spent a lot of time marking them as I recall. It was a novel idea in those early days and originally we probably left too many seed trees per acre, but our experimental efforts along with those of other private landowners contributed to the eventual decision to pass the Maryland Seed Tree Law in 1979. Hand planting began to replace the use of seed trees, and clear cutting was often followed by site preparation with bulldozers, the practice we know as “sheer blade and piling” which was used most intensively by industrial forest landowners.
Gradually clear cuts, hand planting and aerial application of herbicides created productive pine plantations with trees of various ages. Pine plantations on our land are often interspersed with mixed stands of pine and hardwood, particularly in wet areas. From the air many of our tracts look like a patchwork quilt of varying timber types and ages. Roads have been built and carefully maintained. Timber has grown faster and productivity of the land has increased dramatically.
The Sustained Yield Period was good for forest production on the Shore and the increased income generated by timber harvests proved to be a strong incentive for private forest landowners to reforest and begin to think about the long term. During the Sustained Yield Period, Fred Besley had the following to say in a communication to his alma mater, the Yale Forestry School, in 1949: “I am getting some interesting experience in multiple use of privately owned forest land. Loblolly pine lands purchased a few years ago purely for their timber growing value are now producing income from oil leases on a prospect basis sufficient to pay the taxes, and the limited marsh areas are leased for the trapping of muskrats. Other possibilities of grazing leases, holly production, fishing and hunting privileges are being explored. In the meantime the pine is growing at close to 10% per annum. I am having to revise the argument I used before appropriation committees to get money for the purchase of state forests, that it was only in public ownership that these multiple use values could be fully developed.” In this insightful statement he recognized both the evolution of management practices on private lands in the state and the very positive role of private landowners in these changes. He had predicted what was to come in the Multiple Use Management Period.
Evolution of a Family of Private Forest Landowners
A family picture taken in 1959 shows Fred Besley and his twin sister, Florence, seated (on the left) next to three generations of Besleys and Rodgers. Fred Besley passed away a little over a year after this photo was taken. He was in his late eighties, but was still active in managing the family business. When his eyesight failed his twin sister became his “eyes in the forest”. She accompanied him on his tours of our forest land and on one occasion, when he wanted to know how the young pine reproduction was doing, they both got on their knees and she guided his hands so he could feel the young seedlings. He smiled.
I should mention that many of the women in our family also tend to be strong and adventurous. This is particularly true of Helen Overington, the youngest daughter of Fred Besley, who at age 98 is here with us today accompanied by her children and grandchildren. In the photo on the left they were dressed for a jeep ride on our property and were fully prepared for the inevitable mosquitoes. The lady in the middle is Helen Overington. The family corporation of Besley and Rodgers has grown and evolved over more than 60 years, spanning a large part of the hundred years of forestry in Maryland which we celebrate today.
The Multiple Use Management Period 1970-1990
Preservation of natural resources, particularly species of wildlife, also took on great importance in the Multiple Use Management Period. The Endangered Species Act of 1974 mandated changes in forest practices and the private sector responded. On the Eastern Shore the American Bald Eagle and the Delmarva Fox Squirrel commanded particular attention. Besley and Rodgers lands are home to both.
Aesthetics also became important. In the 1980’s the family, on its own initiative, set aside “Natural Areas” which are to be permanently preserved. Aesthetically pleasing areas were set aside also, sometimes to honor a departed family member. These areas were sometimes created as an expanded streamside buffer. Road side as well as streamside buffers became the norm in many areas. Efforts to help bird populations with bird boxes became common and were often installed by hunt clubs just for their visual enjoyment. Our forested marshes are beautiful as well as productive places.
It is clear that during the Multiple Use Period private landowners on their own began to take serious action to improve wildlife habitat as a routine part of forest management. Excellent extension efforts, such as the Coverts Program of the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service, contributed to such progress.
Multiple use also expanded to include new income-producing ventures on private forest land, such as growing mushrooms and ginseng, pond construction and fee fishing, production of specialty wood products including handicrafts, and many many more. As private forest land holdings have become smaller, such uses have taken on even greater importance and private landowners have shown a lot of imagination in developing new ideas.
The Sustainable and Forest Health Period 1990-Present
Challenges to the private forest landowner have greatly intensified in the Sustainable and Forest Health Period in which we find ourselves today. According to the excellent document: “The Importance of Maryland’s Forest: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” published in 2003, private forest ownership in the state has been changing dramatically. Reflecting fragmentation of the forest land base, which is accelerating sharply, the number of private forest landowners in Maryland increased from 35,000 to 95,000 between 1955 and 1976 and by 1989 had reached 130,000. Most disturbing, however, is the fact that 75% of these owners hold less than 10 acres, each property is sold on the average of once every 12 years, and only 39% of owners have had harvest experience with their forests.
Private forest land management is now evolving in a lot of different directions and is often driven more and more by real estate development pressures rather than forestry considerations. Smaller parcels and more owners make the traditional benefits of forests more difficult to obtain and management options are more limited. Landholdings like those of Besley and Rodgers have become a rarity.
If Grandfather Besley were here today he would be astonished. In the early part of the century he was concerned with the twin threats of over-harvesting and destructive fires. Today’s urban and suburban sprawl destroys forests in a far more decisive and permanent manner. The actions he took to control forest fires and to improve management practices seem simple by comparison to what today’s forest managers and private owners must grapple with.
Addressing urban sprawl, plant diseases, insects, invasive species and loss of biodiversity require complex solutions and involve many actors. The private landowner is going to play a major role in finding solutions to these problems, even if he or she is not yet aware of it. Techniques of management of private lands will continue to evolve and new solutions to problems will be devised through a process of trial and error just as in the past. Maryland’s forests in the future will reflect the collective actions of these tens of thousands of land owners.
Many respected experts believe that the role of education will become increasingly important. We face a future in which the management of forests will be based on engaging more owners of small parcels, many of whom do not even think of themselves as forest landowners, but rather as owners of land which just happens to have forest on it.
Educational approaches that
leverage limited resources must augment and perhaps replace traditional
technical assistance provided by state government. The use of volunteers, local
workshops, and local forest landowner networks like county forestry boards must
be expanded. Partnership with lawn and tree service companies to deliver
forestry services to an increasing number of small land owners who hold forest
land simply as an amenity must be given consideration. Whatever is done must be
based on a better understanding of what private landowners want, not what we
think they need. Whatever the future brings, we must learn from the past and
count heavily on the ingenuity of our private forest landowners. They had a lot
to do with bringing us to where we are today.
Photographs (top to bottom):
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