Forestry Pioneers in America

Photo courtesy of Josh Birnbaum NASF

The practice of forestry dates back thousands of years to the Roman Empire, China, and Germany. Early societies recognized the need to protect forests, establish plantations from local seed sources, and plant trees next to water bodies to prevent erosion and enhance water quality. In Europe, where humans have been present for thousands of years, it became apparent that forests needed to be wisely managed to ensure that people can reap the potential benefits. In Europe, forests were routinely managed for sustained yields; various forestry management practices were developed and recorded for posterity. The Europeans eventually developed institutions of higher learning that taught the tenants of forest management along with other science curriculum. The first such school was believed to have begun in 1785 in Germany. Soon thereafter, Forestry Schools sprang up in Russia, France, and Austria, as well. Graduates of German forestry schools were known as “Forest Meisters.”

Meanwhile, back in the United States, there was very little regard for forests, wildlife, and other natural resources, from the time colonists first settled here until it was hard to ignore the devastation. This widespread exploitation gave way to the Conservation Movement in the late 1800’s. As the need to protect, rehabilitate, and manage forests grew, the practice of forestry was slowly adopted in the United States. In the mountains of North Carolina, the wealthy industrialist, George Vanderbilt, bought up thousands of acres of forest and hired foresters to manage these reserves. Initially, Gifford Pinchot, an American whose formal forestry education was acquired in Europe, was hired, but his tenure was short when Carl Schenck, a classically trained German Forester, was brought on to manage the property. While employed on the Vanderbilt estate, Schenck started the Biltmore Forest School in 1898– the first school of Forestry in the United States. It was Dr. Schenck’s opinion that Forestry education needed to be practical, with much field work and on the job training at lumberyards and sawmills. This contrasted with another prominent forester, Bernard Fernow, a Prussian trained forester who thought that Forestry training must have a strong theoretical component; otherwise, the practitioners would become superficial and incompetent. Soon after Schenck set up the Biltmore School, Dr. Fernow developed a forestry curriculum leading to a Bachelor of Science degree at Cornell University. Dr. Fernow authored many papers on the scientific aspects of forestry, and conducted much research on forest management throughout his career. Gifford Pinchot also helped develop a forestry curriculum at Yale University that had a strong theoretical background, with the addition of summer camps that helped develop the practical aspect of working in the woods. Many of the graduates of these three schools went on to have very prominent roles in staffing newly created federal and state forestry agencies.

Fred Besley


Fred Besley was one of these graduates. In 1906, Mr. Besley founded the Maryland Forest Service. In his role, Forester Besley travelled to the far ends of Maryland to inventory much of the state’s forest lands. Besley also helped acquire lands which are now part of our State Forest system, developing the Roadside Tree Law and Big Tree Program. Both of these programs are still in effect over 100 years later.

Forestry, and its main duty was more of a consulting nature, providing information on federal forest reserves, and other related matters.

In 1891, Congress passed the Forest Reserve Act, which provided Congress the power to withdraw large tracts of timber from the public domain as forest reserves. In 1911, the Weeks Act authorized the purchase of new lands as forest reserves, which greatly expanded the national forest system, especially in the Eastern part of the United States.

The first Federal Forestry Agency created in 1881 was the Division of Forestry. It was during Gifford Pinchot’s tenure as the fourth Chief of the Division of Forestry that his friend, Theodore Roosevelt, became President of the United States. In 1905, soon after becoming president, Roosevelt named Pinchot as the first Chief of the United States Forest Service. This new agency was moved from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Agriculture. The mission of this new agency was to manage federal forests, conduct forestry research, assist state agencies, and extinguish forest fires. This more hands-on approach led to a decentralization of the agency throughout the country and the hiring of thousands of forestry specialists.

Roosevelt & Pinchot

Credit: US Department of Interior

Over the next hundred years, thousands of people have worked at the federal, state, and local levels to conserve and protect our forests and forest reserves. It was Pinchot, Fernow, and Scheneck that started the movement.

Article by FCFCDB