Fred W. Besley: Forestry Pioneer
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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
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.”
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.
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!
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.
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.
Next Week: Part 3
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):
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