Francis "Champ" Zumbrun
Retired as Maryland State Forester & Manager of Green Ridge State
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…
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.
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
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.
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?"
580 Taylor Ave, Annapolis MD 21401