Dedication of Fred W. Besley Demonstration Forest
Francis "Champ" Zumbrun
Retired as Maryland State Forester & Manager of Green Ridge State Forest
Serves on the Committee for Maryland Conservation History
April 20, 2102
Events like today are true celebrations and calls to remembrance.
Today we briefly take time from our busy schedules to reflect on our past, our collective history, and honor those pioneering individuals, visionaries like Fred W. Besley, who is sometimes referred to as the Father of Maryland Forestry. He was Maryland’s’ first State Forester, serving in that role from 1906 -1942.
When we look back on history, it seems destiny has a way to bring the right people, with just the right leadership skills, at just at the right time, to accomplish a vital mission and purpose. For instance…think of what the American Revolution would be without George Washington; think of what the American Civil War would have been like without Abraham Lincoln.
When there was a war on our natural resources a little more than a hundred years ago, when our country’s forests were devastated - think of what the landscape would have looked like without Theodore Roosevelt, our great conservation president.
As the President of the United States, Roosevelt called on Gifford Pinchot... The Father of American Forestry, to restore out nation’s forests. It was Gifford Pinchot who called on Fred W. Besley to restore Maryland’s forests.
Besley was a man on fire for forestry. He not only had this passion himself - he possessed remarkable leadership skills that stirred in other’s the passion to support and act on a noble cause… forest conservation!
The exhibits on display today highlight some of Besley’s
pioneering forest conservation accomplishments that we are
celebrating today. It would indeed be impossible to capture them in
a ten minute talk. I am going to focus in on his contributions to
Maryland’s state forests and parks.
In 1906, Maryland was only the third state in the union to have a position of State Forester.
As a result, Besley had to pioneer many of the forest practices he put in place. They had never done at the state level at the scale he implemented. His programs were so innovative and successful, that they became models for other states to follow.
In 1906, the forests were in deplorable condition... they were “devastated” in Besley’s words. There was only 30-percent forest cover east of the Mississippi River. Maryland mirrored the same poor condition of only 30-percent forest cover.
The forests were reduced in size and health primarily due to settlement, agricultural expansion, and industrialization. In addition, large uncontrolled forest fires burned, livestock grazed in woodlands without constraint, and poor timber harvesting practices occurred without any thought of regeneration. Besley called this the “age of forest exploitation.”
Documents became known as if by divine providence during the Maryland Forest Service’s centennial celebrated in 2006. One set off documents found in a trunk by Kirk Rodgers was an unpublished hand-written autobiography by Fred W. Besley. Besley’s hand-written accounts confirmed what we suspected, that Besley had a close professional relationship with Gifford Pinchot.
We knew Besley was part of Gifford Pinchot’ Baked Apple Club. This club of young foresters would meet in the winter months at Gifford Pinchot’s home in Washington D.C. and talk about what else… forestry! And after business, they were served baked apples by Mrs. Pinchot.
Well, at one meeting in 1903, who do you think showed up to their meeting? President Theodore Roosevelt himself! Here was a president fired up about forestry and forest conservation. I always wondered what he said at the meeting.
And guess what? During the centennial celebration, a document surfaced not seen in years of Roosevelt’s speech to the Baked Apple Club He told them quote: “Forestry is the preservation of forests by wise use…You are engaged in pioneer work!”
in essence, Roosevelt sent them out from the meeting saying…”go forth into the world, heal the land, restore the forests using the new science of forestry as your tool…you are pioneers…your work will be hard, but I know you can do it!”
And that is exactly what Besley set out to accomplish. After gaining much practical experience working for about six years under Pinchot on various assignments throughout the country…in 1906, He was handpicked by Pinchot to be Maryland’s first State Forester.
For the next 36 years, until 1942, Besley worked tirelessly to stem the tide of forest destruction by educating the general public, especially private woodlot owners, in the merits of forestry and forest conservation.
I had the privilege to meet one of Fred Besley’s daughters, Helen Besley Overington who gave me first-hand accounts of travels with her father as a child around the state measuring champion big trees and helping him operate his lantern slide projector that he used during presentations to groups of woodland owners.
I believe Besley’s greatest legacy is the state forests and state park systems he established across the state of Maryland. We need to remember; in 1905 there were no state parks or state forests. Imagine that!
There were zero people recreating in the outdoors on state lands as there were no state parks or state forests.
By 1942, when Besley retired, there were more than 100,000 acres
of state forests and state parks. The chief cornerstones of the
state lands system he established were Swallow Falls State park,
Potomac State Forest, Wye Mill State Park, Savage River State
Forest, Herrington Manor, Patapsco State Park, Gambrill State Park,
and Green Ridge State Forest He had to figure a way to maintain the
forest boundaries. And this axe was one of the tools used to
maintain those early forest boundaries.
Today, there are 66 state parks and 9 state forests built on the early cornerstone of Besley’s forested public lands system.
Today 11 million people annually visit these lands to enjoy all aspects of outdoor recreation, and add millions of dollars each year to the local economy.
The Maryland Forest Service is now over 100 years old. Besley’s vision to restore Maryland’s Forest became a reality.
When one studies Besley’s life and work, they are looking at greatness in action.
We all are heirs to the fruit of the land from their hard work: clean water, healthy forests, abounding wildlife, places to go for outdoor recreation and countless other environmental amenities that we often take for granted.
Theodore Roosevelt would shout out with a loud enthusiastic… “Bully” if he could be celebrating with us today - If he could see today the success of one of his broad goals realized when he first sent foresters like Fred W. Besley out into the field from Gifford Pinchot’s living room in Washington, DC.
One question…Before I conclude… When planting trees at public
ceremonies, Besley would go around and ask: "When is the best
time to plant a tree?" (20 years ago!) "When is the next best time?"