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  • April 21st, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

There are 20 of them, scattered across the Great Plains, children of the worst natural disaster in American history, nevermind Katrina. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the Dirty Thirties, devastated 100 million acres in states from Texas to the Dakotas and killed countless people from dust pneumonia and just general debilitation and woe.

The 20 National Grasslands are because the country awoke to the fact that grasslands never were meant for plowing and cropping. The 600,000-acre Comanche in Colorado, 108,175-acre Cimarron in Kansas and the 230,000 Rita-Blanca in Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma, all are Dust Bowl children, all born in the heart of the near-decade-long misery.

There never has been a natural disaster as prolonged and as widespread as the Dust Bowl but as usual American memories are short-term and many of the lessons we learned the hard way haven’t stuck. Still some legacy remains from that grim time.

Today the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which until a few years ago was the Soil Conservation Service, owes its origin to the Dust Bowl. It began as a federal agency to work with landowners to stop the dusters, those almost daily blizzards of dirt that ruined crops, killed livestock and sickened people during the 1930s.

The SCS should have begun in the 1920s or even before–when the first plow bit the prairie, but it’s the American way to react to disaster, not to act to forestall it. A few farsighted folks had realized that the virgin prairie was not meant for cropping, that inevitably the wet years of the 1920s would give way to drought and that the ever-present prairie wind then would whisk away unprotected topsoil. But they were voices lost in that prairie wind, swept away on a misguided tide of optimism.

Everybody was going to get rich on wheat and other crops. Folk legend maintained that rain followed the plow. Plow up your ground and somehow that disturbance would incite moisture. People believe any nonsense if you tell them it will make them money.

There was some federal planning for what to do to protect the Great Plains as early as 1929 but it wasn’t until 1934 and 1935 that there actually was any action and by then it was too late—the prairie topsoil was airborne and the land was ruined.

Cautionary voices had been shouted down by exploiters, including honest, hard-working farmers who descended on the Plains states like a horde of locusts (which also would devastate the land late in the Dust Bowl days), intent on making a fortune with wheat and corn.

It worked…for a while. And then came the Dirty Thirties. The Dust Bowl states never have fully recovered. Today more than 80 percent of the farmers who once staked claims and their dreams in the Panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas and the rest of the Plains have given it up. The ones that remain are banking on water from deep wells, tapping into the High Plains (Ogallala) aquifer, a once-huge subterranean lake that lies beneath most of the Plains states—an estimated 174,000 square miles of hidden lake.

This massive puddle is estimated originally to have been the size of Lake Huron, making it the true sixth Great Lake. It’s from long-ago drainage from the Rocky Mountains.

Irrigation farmers are sucking the Ogallala dry at the rate of 1.1 million acre feet a day! As vast as the aquifer is, it can’t forever withstand that rate of depletion. The Ogallala has a shelf life estimated from 25 to 250 years depending on location. Even if dryland irrigation were stopped right now it would take 100 years for the aquifer to recharge…assuming it could (in western Kansas, for example, more than 90 percent of rainfall evaporates rather than seeping into the ground, meaning virtually none would help to recharge the Ogallala)

Young landowners on the dry end of that statistic can expect to see their water source evaporate in their lifetime. The rest can pass the problem on to their kids and grandkids. Planners today are concentrating on extending the life of the aquifer—not of restoring it. It’s quickly apparent, reading through existing studies, that there’s far more hydrologists don’t know about the Ogallala than what they do—but they do agree that the aquifer is threatened and what happens down there dramatically will affect what happens up here.

We don’t seem to learn from our mistakes. Timothy Egan’s best-selling book The Worst Hard Time (Houghton Mifflin 2006) won the National Book Award for non-fiction and should be required reading for every dry land farmer in the Great Plains. It illustrates modern economics in a paragraph: “….cotton growers, siphoning from the Ogallala, get three billion dollars a year in taxpayer money for fiber that is shipped to China, where it is used to make cheap clothing sold back to American chain retail stores like Wal-Mart.”

How’s that make you feel, Wal-Mart shoppers?

Egan’s book is not a diatribe against disastrous land and water use in the Plains. It is a haunting report on the worst natural disaster in American history. And the old saw that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it inevitably springs to mind.

It wasn’t until 1960 that various federal purchases from the 1930s and beyond came to be known as the National Grasslands. The Grasslands encompass just over four million acres. Total federal purchases after the Dust Bowl top just over 11 million acres, far short of the proposed 75 million suggested in the immediate wake of the Dust Bowl. The Grasslands do serve as graphic examples of how careful prairie management can restore some of what once existed before the first plow bit the sod.

I’ve hunted on two of the National Grasslands, the Cimarron and the Ft. Pierre in South Dakota. Once you cross the first rolling hill and can’t see the parking lot, you’re struck by awe, akin to being adrift in a small boat in the middle of the ocean. The grass ripples like waves to the horizon and beyond and one feels vulnerably small clutched by nature’s enormous, impersonal fist.

Yet the fence between the federal and private land is a stark contrast between today and yesterday. The grass on the private land is cropped almost to the thin soil, while the federal land, operated under a grazing permit system, is comparatively lush.

Today the Grasslands are part of the National Forest system, administered by the U.S. Forest Service. Ironically, part of the original restoration plan was to plant trees to act as windbreaks and hold the soil. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted 220 million trees and only a scattering remain, testimony to the fact that the early soil conservationists largely were operating by guess and by God. The Plains never were meant for trees, but at least efforts to restore grass paid off on the federally-owned land.

Corporate America and farm landowners across the country would fight it to the death, but a proposal by some scientists, first floated in 2005, would return much of the Great Plains to the Pleistocene Era of 13,000 years ago—reintroducing animal species that lived 13,000 years ago in the 10 states involved (Montana, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas).

It would take 50 years, the scientists estimate, but we’d have bison which already are established in some areas (an estimated 300,000 in North America)…and such veldt critters as lions and elephants. That’s a fairly nutty and unlikely proposal. More specific to reality is the Buffalo Commons proposal.

Drs. Frank and Deborah Popper wrote in 1987 that dry, sparsely-populated parts of the Great Plains (10 to 20 million acres) should be restored to the historic shortgrass prairie and repopulated with bison through a system of incentive payments to volunteer landowners who would, at the end of the contract, sell out to the Forest Service.

The Poppers had several strikes against them from the get-go. They were from New Jersey which, to a Westerner is like being from Soviet Russia. And they were academics, not hard rock farmers. And they were proposing something that smacked of government interference which always is anathema to Western landowners, even when it’s for their benefit.

Still there is some regional sympathy for the idea. Tourism almost certainly would benefit and the land almost certainly also would. Ideas this revolutionary gain ground slowly. The original proposal would have retired 130,000 square miles—roughly an area the size of Montana but it has been scaled back to what is possible, no matter how remotely.

If the Buffalo Commons ever becomes reality it will take a long time and leaders not only of vision, but of enough charisma to lead the reluctant and the apathetic. President Franklin Roosevelt and the first head of the SCS, Hugh Bennett, were men for their time when the Dirty Thirties threatened to ruin the nation’s farm economy. They fought through apathy and overcame the dreary inertia of the Dust Bowl and brought some measure of restoration to the Great Plains. Nature helped by mellowing its savage dry and hot assault of the Dirty Thirties to more normal weather in the 1940s. World War Two helped by taking a generation of young men off the land, thus letting it rest. Modern land use practices, experimental at the time, helped by proving themselves so that people could see the results.

The federal government helped by stepping in to make the worst acreage of the Dust Bowl public land, without the perceived necessity to beat it to death with crops. Landowners hated it when they had to give up their land heritage to the feds…but they had no choice. It was leave or die.

The Plains have been in population decline ever since, not as dramatically as they were in the Dirty Thirties, but steadily. Even the dramatic growth of cities like Houston and Dallas-Ft. Worth hasn’t offset the overall exodus of people from the rural parts of the Plains states

Woody Guthrie, who knew the Dust Bowl intimately because he grew up in the heart of it, Okemah, Oklahoma, recorded an album called “Dust Bowl Ballads.” “It’s a mighty hard road that my poor hands have hoed…” he sang and as an expatriate from the ever-present dusters himself, wryly sang, “So long, it’s been good to know ya.”

The United States bred at an unprecedented rate between 1990 and 2000—we added 32.7 million people, the most ever in a decade. The baby boom right after World War Two produced only 28 million and it is considered the most fecund orgy since the days of hedonistic Rome.

But even as the rest of the country has piled people on people, the roughly 450 Dust Bowl counties mostly have lost population. The exodus from farm to city has mirrored what happened in the Thirties—can’t make it down on the farm, head for the big town.

Then it was economic and natural disaster; now it is economic. The natural disaster part is yet to come. But inevitably the well will run dry and what happens to irrigated wheat and cotton?

In 1937, as the Dust Bowl neared its bitter end, there still were 134 dust storms, most of any year in the 1930s, though none that approached the Black Sunday in April, 1935, when a wall of dirt, estimated at 200 miles wide and 2,000 feet high swept from the Dakotas south to Texas with winds of 60 miles per hour, choking people and livestock in state after state. Many thought it was the end of the world. The day turned as dark as the blackest night and dirt piled in drifts like snow eight or nine feet high. Woody Guthrie sang, “Buried head over heels in the black old dust, I had to pack up and go.”

Could there be another Dust Bowl? Don’t count nature out. No one aside from the doomsayers warned that New Orleans could be devastated by a hurricane. But it was. The unthinkable happened. It could happen again next year or next century or never. The unthinkable always is just over the horizon, like the hurricane that hit New Orleans or the tidal wave that washed over Galveston or the earthquakes that shook San Francisco and earlier the New Madrid fault where John James Audubon’s horse braced its legs and “commenced to groaning” just before the quake began.

With modern farming methods the worst of the Dust Bowl isn’t likely to recur, but when nature shuts the water tap above ground and the aquifer runs dry below ground and there is a hot weather cycle (think global warming) and the wind blows incessantly, as it does even in wet times…the stage is set for another down time on the Great Plains.

Remember the woman on television who posed as Mother Nature and warned, “Don’t mess with Mother Nature!” as she summoned lightning and thunder. It was hokey and was designed to sell faux butter…but it inadvertently was words to the wise.

Nature always rules in the long run and those who ignore that do so at their peril.
Where are the wise when you need them?


By all means read Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time. It, in turn, has a long list of sources that amplify his history of the Dust Bowl.

. The National Grasslands by Francis Moul (University of Nebraska Press) is a comprehensive look at those prairie gems. Individual Grasslands have web sites with information and maps—Google “national grasslands” for specifics.

For information on the Buffalo Commons proposal, check http://www.gprc.org/buffalo_commons_popper.html . A Google query on “Ogallala aquifer will give you hours of background reading.

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