Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Dust Bowl and The New Deal

Due to a recent PBS documentary on the Dust Bowl and the 80th anniversary of the crash of the stock market which initiated the Great Depression, I thought it would be appropriate to share one of my essays.

"Conservation is Land Technology"
The New Deal and the American Landscape
By Jared Frederick

“A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.” President Franklin Roosevelt said this in 1933 as he initiated the campaign to save the American West from itself. A combination of poor agricultural practices, dreadful economic conditions, and less than ideal climate conditions led to a disaster known as the “Dust Bowl.” Such an event created great hardship throughout the West. Yet, through all the despair, a stronger and more efficient farming nation arose.

Historian Paul Sears envisioned the problems on America’s vast horizon: “The white man in a few centuries, mostly in one, reversed the slow work of nature that had been going on for millennia. Thus have come deserts, so long checked and held in restraint, to break their bonds. At every step the girdle of green about the inland deserts has been forced to give way and the desert itself literally allowed to expand…If man destroys the balance and equilibrium demanded by nature, he must take the consequences” (Worster, 200).

Another historian, Lewis Mumford, wrote, “The Era of Expansion...has come to an end; the era of settlement has taken its place...Instead of exploitation by mere spread and plunder, a stable and orderly culture of the earth and its resources will take its place” (Worster, 186). Therefore, as Donal Worster points out, “the old beliefs that the land was wasted unless it was longer made much sense. It was necessary now to confront the fact that America was a ‘matured’ economy...These were the brave, new themes of the thirties land-use planners.” (Worster, 184).

In the early 1930s, President Roosevelt instructed the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to create what would come to be known as the “Tree Belt.” This vast line of trees spanned several thousand miles and included some two hundred million trees. The purpose of this mission was to reverse the impacts of the Dust Bowl and prevent it from happening again. The Roosevelt Administration went a step further. Soil experts traveled to the plains and instructed farmers how to properly utilize the soils. Such techniques included crop rotation and ways to prevent erosion. Other purposes of the CCC were to create roads, parks, and other agriculturally based projects.

The new wave of proper soil usage and agricultural education helped turn the tide of the Ecological Depression plaguing the West. Further conservation practices implemented by the government significantly reduced the amount of loose soil. One important group that made these new implementations possible was the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), founded in 1933. This group, among the CCC, and NRA, was part of FDR’s “Alphabet Soup” created to pull the nation out of the depression.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was one of the most progressive of these groups. Much like the SCS, the TVA showed farmers how to successfully utilize fertilizers among other practices. Its biggest contribution however was the supplying of electricity to much of the rural south and west. Perhaps not since the settling of the Old West was the landscape of the country altered in such significant ways. Many areas were dammed in the efforts to initiate more successful agricultural practices. Most importantly however was the electricity power created by dams. Leaders such as Alexander Hamilton, who wished to industrialize the young nation, would have been pleased to see such commandeering of the forces of nature. Not since the Industrial Revolution perhaps was water used in such vital ways (Source).

Meanwhile, the Agricultural Adjustment Act encouraged farmers to not grow any surplus crops. This effectively made existing crops more valuable on the open market. Such practices were not only ecologically wise, but economically prudent.

Not only did man have to cope with the environmental conditions of the land, but the animals which roamed and lived off of it. Perhaps one of the most notable proponents of this idea was Frederick Clements, who, with a man named Victor Shelford, wrote Bio-Ecology in 1939 which dealt with this topic. The work “argued for the importance of animal-plant interrelationships within the area that Clements was the first to designate as the biome, ‘an organized unit comprising all the species of plants and animals at home in a particular habitat’” This ultimately helped change the thought of animal-environment relationships (Source).

During the Great Depression, “the plains experience helped provoke a reevaluation of the nation’s entire approach to conservation. It was no longer adequate to talk separately about forests or wildlife, grasslands or soils in resource management; all elements were discovered to be found together in a single equation...The ensuing depression, so starkly coincidental wit the Dust Bowl, put Americans in a more communal, integrative mood. It also engendered a new willingness to subordinate economic criteria to broader standards of value, including ecological sanctity” (Merchant, 466).

In other words, it took a man-made natural disaster to grasp the consequences of an unregulated agricultural society. The learning of proper farming techniques became a necessity to the American farmer after the deadly effects of the Dust Bowl and drought. The government stepping onto the scene was not seen as a pestering nuisance, but a godsend. Ultimately, it was these government organizations that saved the Plains.

The Great Plains Committee released a statement in 1936 which declared that the Dust Bowl should be blamed entirely on man’s inability to properly care for the soil. “The essence of the tragedy as they understood it was a failure to heed common sense lessons of ecology. ‘Nature has established a balance in the Great Plains by what in human terms would be called the method of trial and error. The white man has disturbed this balance; he must restore it or devise a new one of his own,’ wrote the committee. Unless this was done, the land would become a desert, and the government would have on its hands a perennial, costly problem of relief and salvage...” (Merchant, 466).

In addition, The Future of the Great Plains, a study submitted to Roosevelt stated that, “Land destruction was basically the result of ‘attitudes of mind’-by some means they had to be changed. All the attitudes identified were those found at the heart of the expansionary, free enterprise culture” (Worster, 195).

It was through these programs, initiatives, and government studies that President Roosevelt laid the foundations of what would become perhaps the greatest recovery effort in our nation’s history. As FDR promised in one of his famed Fireside Chats, “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.”

Poorly utilized and misused soils of the west created sandstorm-type conditions throughout the Dust Bowl.

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