Trees and the Dust Bowl
There is still a generation living that can recall the hard times brought on by the Dust Bowl. I think about how my grandparents, in their late 90's now, would have been just teenagers at that time. I recall reading Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck trying to imagine a different Nebraska than the one I had grown up in. I cannot imagine hanging wet sheets over the windows to keep the dust out or wearing a mask every time I went outside. Even worse would be watching thousands of acres of crops dry up before my eyes.
Between 1925 and 1930 more than 5 million acres of farmland was added to crop production, aided by the use of mechanized farming equipment. The prairie became farm fields in order to increase profits during an already hard economic time. All the native plants and drought tolerant species were removed, allowing the fertile topsoil to blow away. In 1934, the Yearbook of Agriculture stated "approximately 35 million acres of formerly cultivated land have essentially been destroyed for crop production...100 million acres now in crops have lost all or most of the topsoil."
The Dust Bowl of the 1930's lasted about a decade, beginning in 1931 with a severe drought on the Midwestern and southern plains. As farmers continued unsustainable agricultural practices combined with drought and unusually high temperatures, the "black blizzards" began. In 1932 there were 14 reported black blizzards, also known as dust storms. The fields were over grazed and over plowed leading to wind erosion and the beginning of the Dust Bowl. This led to the forced migration of over 200,000 farmers looking to find work.
The government stepped in with numerous federal programs aimed at supporting farmers and reversing the damage done in the fields. The first Roosevelt era program was the 1933 Emergency Banking Act which federally backed the banking system to restore the people's trust. The next step was to pass the Emergency Farm Mortgage Act which allocated $200 million to help farmers facing foreclosure. The Farm Credit Act of 1933 established a local bank with local credit associations.
Perhaps one of the more controversial programs was the slaughter of over 6 million young pigs at a time when much of the country was going hungry. The reasoning for this was to help stabilize prices. One program that was less controversial was the Prairie States Forestry Project. The program was a tree-planting effort that created 18,600 miles of greatly needed shelterbelts (windbreaks) to stop the winds from eroding more fields. In Nebraska, where the program began, 4,100 miles were planted, protecting almost 7,000 farms.
The first farm to benefit from the Prairie States Forestry Project was the John Schleusener farm, just north of Orchard, Nebraska. Lyle Schleusener was three years old in 1935 when the seedlings were planted and he watched them grow into a full windbreak. The shelterbelt consisted of Willow, Red Cedar, Chinese Elm, Bur Oak, Black Walnut and Cottonwood tree species. In 1985 after the owners applied for a historic marker for the shelterbelt, the Nebraska State Historical Society installed the marker identifying the windbreaks contributions to history. Unfortunately the marker was just that and did not provide any protections for the trees.
The current property owner did not understand the ecological and historical value of preserving this piece of history. In May of this year the owner clear cut and burned the entire shelterbelt, burning the very first plantings associated with the 1930's era program. The field was returned to its Dust Bowl configuration, cleared of all native plantings in order to squeeze out a few more rows of crops to sell. A dangerous decision given that the Dust Bowl began with the same mentality of adding just a few more acres of productive land.
History has a way of repeating itself and if we are smart we can learn from the past to avoid some of the pitfalls. The Dust Bowl was not an entirely man made disaster, but was greatly assisted by mans view of nature. If more land had been reserved for native grasses and trees had been left to grow, the Dust Bowl could have been less drastic. Since then, the United States has come a long way, expanding Depression Era programs that preserve and protect the environment and addressing new problems that have began after the rise of the automobile. We as a society need to continue to think about our actions and the effects they have on the world we live and support programs that improve our environment for generations to come.