The Father of Maryland’s Forests: M.A.C. Alumnus Fred Besley

What would Maryland look like if there were no trees? McKeldin Mall, at the heart of the University of Maryland’s campus, would be barren. Drivers on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway many of and Maryland’s other roads and highways would only be able see road signs and billboards. The great forests in Patapsco Valley State Park, Deep Creek Lake State Park and all the other state parks would be gone too. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? Fortunately today, trees are a common and beautiful sight all over Maryland, thanks in large part to Maryland Agricultural College alum Fred Besley, the first Maryland State Forester and the father of forestry in Maryland.

Willow Way, circa 1985
The trees on the north side of McKeldin Mall are willow oaks which have provided share for generations of students.

Besley was born in Fairfax County, Virginia, in 1872. He entered the Maryland Agricultural College (later the University of Maryland) at the young age of 16 and graduated in 1892 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. He started working as a teacher, but soon grew dissatisfied and left to work at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. During his first visit at the USDA, Besley met Gifford Pinchot, the father of American conservation, who convinced him to work in the Division of Forestry. “Pinchot was so boiling over with enthusiasm about forestry that then and there I adopted forestry as my career,” Besley later recalled. Besley worked as a student assistant for Pinchot and took advanced courses in forestry from Yale University.

In 1906, Besley was appointed the first Maryland State Forester. Maryland was just the third state to even have a state forester, and he was hand-picked by his mentor Pinchot to lead the state’s forestry and conservation efforts. Immediately, Besley went to work protecting Maryland forests from fires, pests and fungal diseases, and excessive harvesting and cutting practices. Land for state parks and forests were increased from a little under 2,000 acres in 1906 to well over 117,000 acres by his retirement in 1942. After Maryland passed the Roadside Tree Law, the nation’s first law to protect trees and natural areas near public roads, Besley encouraged utilities and the State Roads Commission to plant and maintain roadside trees and made sure that unauthorized advertisements were not put on public highways. One of Besley’s favorite leisure activities was to arm his family with handsaws for a Sunday drive, hunting for any illegal signs on the roads to cut down and haul away. Besley’s 36-year storied career laid the groundwork for the great system of state forests and parks that Marylanders enjoy all over the state today.

Fred Besley
Protecting Maryland forests was no joking matter for Fred Besley. Photograph courtesy The Forest History Society.
Fred Besley at a Campfire talk
Besley (standing) believed in teaching the public about the value of forests. He is shown here giving a talk to the Maryland Mountain Club in 1941. Photograph courtesy of the Maryland State Archives.

By 1916, Besley had personally surveyed, cataloged, and mapped every single wooded area larger than five acres in the entire state of Maryland! A ten-year project, he often had to travel by horse or on foot to get to remote areas. “I’d hire a horse and buggy at a livery stable and jolt out along the dirt roads as far as possible and then on foot follow the cow paths up through the woods,” he later said. He published a book, The Forests of Maryland, based on his work, which was regarded by many as one of the finest forest surveys written.

Besley remained involved with his alma mater throughout his career. He occasionally taught forestry classes, and he established the state’s first forest tree nursery in College Park in 1914 on the corner of Route 1 and Lakeland Road. Besley’s assistant foresters were so well-trained that the university constantly tried to hire them away as professors of forestry, though Besley fought hard to keep them working for the state forest service. He had a personal relationship with many presidents of the University of Maryland and often made recommendations about campus trees. Besley even visited President Raymond Pearson’s house often and once helped discover a mysterious disease that kept killing all the oak trees on his property!

After Fred Besley’s retirement in 1942, he remained active in forestry, teaching classes at the University of West Virginia and privately maintaining forests on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He died in Laurel, Maryland, in 1960. Without Besley, the Maryland would look very different. The M.A.C. alum’s commitment to healthy forests, public parks, and beautiful natural areas made a major impact on the state and became a model for forestry and conservation around the country.


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