Fred W. Besley Demonstration Forest Dedication

Geoffrey L. Buckley
Associate Professor
Department of Geography
Ohio University
April 20, 2012

Tribute to Fred Wilson Besley

It is truly an honor to be here today and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for having me. When Kirk called to inquire whether I might be interested in coming, I didn’t hesitate. Although I have classes to teach, committee assignments to fulfill, a book review due next week, and an education abroad program to Scotland departing in 6 weeks, I could not imagine missing this important ceremony. I am not so sure about my wife. She is still trying to figure out how to get our two boys to four soccer games tomorrow while still attending our teenage daughter’s track meet!

We all take just pride in the fact that we are here today to set aside this parcel of land. I would argue, however, that doing so sends two very different messages. On the one hand we are relieved because we trust that the state of Maryland will manage these 1,040 acres so that future generations may learn about forest conservation. On the other hand, it serves as a reminder that so many of us still need to learn about forest conservation. Geographer Carl Sauer once said that Americans “have not yet learned the difference between yield and loot.” It was exactly this sort of lesson that Fred Besley was trying to teach us so many decades ago.

I do not want to take up too much of your time this afternoon but I do want to say a few words about Fred Besley’s career. When Besley took office in 1906, there was barely a foundation upon which to build a state forestry program. By the time he retired, his legacy was assured. During that 36-year span, he conducted a state-wide forest survey, erected fire towers and hired forest wardens to protect our forests from destructive fires, organized the state nursery, beautified our streets and highways with roadside trees, launched a popular champion tree competition, set up a program to help private landowners manage their timber holdings, and, of course, established the core of today’s system of state forests and parks. He also set a very high standard for the civil servants who would follow in his footsteps. Offutt Johnson once told me that “Each state forester and his staff seemed to be right for their time. We never had a bad one – from Besley right down to today. Never a hint of impropriety or scandal.”

What I find truly remarkable is his longevity. He served 36 years through both Democratic and Republican administrations. No easy feat! In the Yale Forestry School Alumni Magazine, Besley once described himself as an independent Democrat. Although politically astute, I do not think politics ever factored into the decisions Besley made regarding management of Maryland’s forests. In many ways he was the quintessential Progressive. He identified a problem, collected the data he needed, and then went about solving the problem. How refreshing! Today it seems we analyze all things environmental through the lens of politics. I was just reading the other day that the kind of car we drive may be a good indicator of whether we are Democrats or Republicans. Were Fred Besley here with us today, I think he would remind us that we have important work to do and that we don’t have time to engage in such petty and childish games, and further, that it takes the best men – and women – from both parties to solve the problems that confront us, whether it’s forest fragmentation due to suburban sprawl or the social and ecological consequences of climate change.

General Fox Conner, best known as Dwight Eisenhower’s mentor, once said “Always take your job seriously, never yourself.” I can just as easily imagine Fred Besley imparting this advice to a colleague or young person. Surely, if Fred Besley were here today he would be embarrassed by all the fuss we are making. He was just doing his job. Doing it the way it was meant to be done.

Of course, forestry was more than a profession for him. I’d like to read you a short excerpt from a piece I wrote about Besley not long ago:

“Especially in his later years, Besley took advantage of every opportunity to spend time ‘in the woods.’ For him it was not a pastime but a way of life. As he grew older, however, travel to the eastern Shore became increasingly difficult. While he still possessed a driver’s license and enjoyed operating his jeep on the family property, his eyesight was extremely poor. One night in the late 1950s he drove to the cabin on Church Creek from his home in Laurel by following the lights of a yellow truck that he knew was headed to Cambridge, much to the dismay of family members. Concerned for his safety, his sister, Florence, agreed to accompany him on future trips. On one particular occasion she escorted him to an area that had been recently cut over so he could check the progress of new growth. By this time he was nearly blind. She took his arm and helped him kneel down so he could run his fingers over the tiny seedlings. It was one of his final visits to Woolford.”

I’d like to close today with a quote from the late Tom McCall, governor of Oregon from 1967-1975: “Heroes are not giant statues framed against a red sky,” he reminds us. “They are people who say: This is my community, and it’s my responsibility to make it better.” It would be easy on an occasion like this to place Maryland’s first state forester on a pedestal, celebrate his accomplishments, and hope that one day someone else like him comes along to show us what needs to be done. But we need to resist this temptation. Instead, we need to honor Fred Besley by taking forest conservation and environmental stewardship to the next level – all of us with a stake in a more sustainable future shouldering the burden together.

Note: Geoffrey L. Buckley is the author of  a biography of Fred W. Besley:  America's Conservation Impulse: A Century of Saving Trees in the Old Line State. Published by The Center for American Places. Chicago. 2010