Fred W. Besley Demonstration Forest Dedication

Kirk P. Rodgers
Chair of the Besley-Rodgers Corporation
& Grandson of Fred W. Besley
April 20, 2012

When  Fred Besley stepped down as Maryland State Forester in 1942 at age 70 he set as the principle goal of his retirement:  the purchase of forest  land and its management in accordance with the techniques he had encouraged so many others to adopt.  He said that he wanted to:  “practice what I preached for 36 years.”  The 1040 acres of forested wetlands that we dedicate today, as the Fred W Besley Demonstration Forest, symbolize these efforts.

It is interesting to note, in passing, that the size of the five properties that make up this demonstration forest is roughly equivalent to the size of the total forestland holdings of the State of Maryland in 1906 when Besley became State Forester.  By 1942 when he retired he had enlarged state forest holdings to 110,000 acres.

In the year of his retirement Fred Besley formed a partnership with his son-in-law, S Procter Rodgers (an industrial engineer from Baltimore) to acquire and  manage forestland on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, purchasing more than 5000 acres in the period 1942-1946.  In 1947 they decided to form a family corporation entitled Besley & Rodgers Inc. to assure the continuity of their enterprise and to act as a cohesive force in their families.  The goal of the corporation as stated in its charter is:  “to acquire, manage and produce continuous crops of standing timber and wildlife on forest land.”  Today we celebrate the 65th anniversary of our family forestry business. Three generations of the family are with us at this event.   I am proud to say that our corporate headquarters is here in Dorchester County in a log cabin that was built in the summer of 1949 by Fred Besley, Procter Rodgers and a teenage grandson. The cabin is made of logs from one of the tracts of land that we dedicate today.

The Land

But what was the condition of the forests acquired by Besley and Rodgers in the 1940’s?  Unfortunately, most of the land demonstrated decades of over- harvesting , high grading and taking only the best timber with no attention whatsoever to reforestation.  The many photos that we took in those early years showed poor quality hardwood overtopping suppressed loblolly pine and brush with little or no short term value. 

Wildlife populations demonstrated the same kind of mismanagement.  Deer and other species had been extensively harvested by poachers, who apparently shot at anything that moved.  There was major illegal trespass and no effective hunting regulation.

The good news for us, however, was that these lands were selling for $10 to $15 per acre with marsh land going for $5 per acre.  Owners thought of this recently harvested forest land as next to worthless and no one was imagining what would happen to the economy after World War II.

As soon as the land was acquired vigorous efforts of reforestation were initiated, including tree planting on plots of abandoned farm land.  Systems of forest roads were established to provide access for forest management and fire control.  Lands were leased to responsible hunt clubs who evicted trespassers, followed hunting regulations, and set out to improve the quality of wildlife management.  Some of the early years were described by hunt clubs as “taming of the wild west”.  One imaginative club decided to bring into its membership a county sheriff, a state trooper, and a judge.  They helped provide impressive enforcement of local hunting and trespass regulations.

By 1960, the year that Besley died, significant progress had been made.  The Baltimore Sun in an article in November noted that: “the strategy employed by Besley& Rodgers, a timber company whose avowed purpose is to demonstrate that forests could be a good investment” was proving to be as successful for a timber company as it had been for the state’s forests and parks.”

The five tracts of land which we name today in honor of our first State Forester are particularly interesting from the standpoint of the management challenges that they present.  As forested wetlands they contain very sensitive marsh ecosystems and several endangered wildlife species, most notably the Delmarva Fox Squirrel and the American Bald Eagle.  Great care has been taken to protect these environmental values while obtaining economic benefits.  I think it would be fair to say that under their current management they demonstrate sustainable forestry of the highest order.

The Man

You have heard a lot about Fred W Besley today.  Let me conclude with a few personal impressions of him and some anecdotes.   I very much looked up to my grandfather as an important member of our household when I was growing up.  He was a stern figure and a strong disciplinarian.  But he had a sense of humor which was particularly on display at the dining room table.  He loved to tell stories, although his youngest daughter Helen, who lived to be 103 years old, complained that he often laughed the loudest at his own jokes and stories.  Personally I never found that to be a problem, as his stories of Paul Bunyon,  Babe the Blue Ox and other out of doors stories were terrific.   I must confess, however, that I did I complain that he was a hard task master and sometimes accused him of being a  “slave driver” while  directing forest boundary survey efforts.

Everyone admired his work ethic.  He put in long work days whatever he was doing.  As his teenage grandson, however, I was shocked to be shaken awake at 9 AM with the words:  “Get up you lazy bones, half the day is gone and nothing’s done.”  I guess as a farm boy he was got up at 4 AM to milk the cows 9 AM did seem like half the day.

But for those of us in this room who are accustomed to giving speeches there is one final anecdote.  Fred Besley was known for his economy of words in speaking as well as writing.  The Yale Forest News in a 1925 issue of the magazine noted that:  “he was the only state forester able to deliver a 30 minute speech in 28 minutes.” 

So with that in mind let me conclude my tributes to Fred W Besley, a towering figure in the world of forestry and a great human being.