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Environmental Lessons Learned from the Dust Bowl Tragedy

Environmental Lessons Learned from the Dust Bowl Tragedy

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By Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University, and Dr. Danny Welsch, Associate Dean, School of STEM

The Dust Bowl was one of America’s great environmental disasters. It devastated large swaths of the Great Plains, destroying crops and livelihoods. It took years for the land and the people to recover.

In addition, the Dust Bowl caused one of the largest migrations in the nation’s history. To get a better idea of the size, scope and long-term impact of the Dust Bowl, I spoke to Dr. Danny Welsch, Associate Dean of the School of STEM at American Public University.

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Dr. Mercer: Can you explain the factors that led to the Dust Bowl? The location, date, human migration, farming practices and governmental policies?

Dr. Welsch: The conditions that led to the Dust Bowl really started in 1862, when the U.S. government was encouraging westward migration and settlement by giving settlers free, 160-acre plots of land. This land was mostly west of the 100th meridian and extended to the base of the Rocky Mountains.

But it was not until 1865, with the end of the Civil War, and 1869 with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, that settlement really took off. Fortunately, for the early settlers, this was a time of plentiful rainfall in the region, which encouraged additional settlement and general overuse of the resource. What the settlers did not know at the time was that the region was prone to roughly 10-year cycles of wet and dry conditions, so their luck was about to change.

Dr. Mercer: Can you describe what prairie grass is and why it is so important to the Great Plains?

Dr. Welsch: The shortgrass prairie is the native vegetation and results in a very thick layer of sod and soil. This is where the term “sodbusters” comes from. These native grasses were also well adapted to the boom-and-bust cycles of rainfall that the semi-arid region experiences. The thick sod retains moisture in dry conditions due to a very high organic content — think of a giant sponge — and the strong root system holds the soil in place against the region’s famous windstorms.

Dr. Mercer: Why did wheat farming make the situation on the Great Plains even worse?

Dr. Welsch: A number of circumstances came together to create the Dust Bowl. The first was that the settlers, the sodbusters, plowed under the native grasses, exposing the soil directly to the atmosphere. They farmed like they were used to “back East” where conditions were much wetter. And for a while, that worked.

The second circumstance was the end of the wet cycle around 1930. No one was expecting it, and the farmers had no dry-land farming practices to fall back on. Without the native grasses, the exposed soil dried out, crops died, and the wind simply blew it away in massive dust storms called “black blizzards,” some of which made it as far east as New York City.

Dust Bowl
Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, photographed as a part of the Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection project. Image source: Library of Congress.

Dr. Mercer: What was the extent of human suffering that occurred because of the Dust Bowl? How did the Great Depression exacerbate the situation?

Dr. Welsch: By 1935, many families were forced to leave their homesteads in the region. Many headed west, coining the term “Okie” since so many came from Oklahoma, as well as Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa and the Dakotas.

It’s estimated that as many as half a million people left the region as a result of the Dust Bowl conditions, with almost 90,000 heading to California alone. Much of the migration was documented by artists and authors from the Farm Services Administration, most famously by the photographer Dorothea Lange.

Dr. Mercer: Did the government, state and federal, adequately learn lessons from the Dust Bowl? Were sound agricultural practices enacted?

Dr. Welsch: The Dust Bowl was one of the main factors that caused the U.S. government to get into the land management game. During the Depression, many new government agencies were created — the “ABC” agencies, since most had three-letter abbreviations — under the New Deal. The Soil Erosion Service — later renamed the Soil Conservation Service, later renamed the Natural Resources Conservation Service — was created and charged with mapping soils throughout the nation, but focusing initially on the Dust Bowl area.

They also developed agricultural practices designed to prevent the situations that led to the Dust Bowl, such as contour plowing, shelter belts to decrease the wind, crop rotation and cover crops. They also encouraged a shift toward crops that could thrive in the semi-arid conditions. By the end of the 1930s, the new methods had reduced windblown soil by over 50 percent.

However, the damage was largely done. Much of the resources, both human and natural, had left the region by this time. Despite the end of the drought around 1939, land values remained low and agricultural productivity was limited.

Farmers were still trying to grow resource-intensive crops in the most eroded areas, so crops were still failing. Despite adequate moisture, the nutrients had largely blown away years before.

The human resource was also impacted. Credit was very limited because many of the regional banks had failed. Remaining farmers could not raise the capital needed to shift production away from the resource-intensive crops. These conditions set the stage for the region to move away from the small farmer to the large agribusinesses with considerable external capital, capable of overcoming the limitations the region still has.

Dr. Mercer: What happened to the Dust Bowl region after World War II?

Dr. Welsch: By the mid-1950s, a number of factors came together to allow for the industrialization of agriculture in the U.S. The high plains were still recovering economically and environmentally from the Dust Bowl. World War II had ended, and the U.S. government was encouraging the industrialization of agriculture.

On top of that, technology had been developed to largely allow farmers to ignore traditional soil stewardship techniques developed in the wake of the Dust Bowl, largely in favor of chemical inputs to agricultural systems. Additionally, industrial farms had the needed capital to drill the very deep wells needed to allow farming in the semi-arid region. While it would be unfair to simply say that industrial farming is a direct result of the Dust Bowl, it is reasonable to say that the economic and environmental fallout from the Dust Bowl set the stage for the agricultural conditions that we have today.

Related link: How You Can Help the Environment from Your Home

About the Authors

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. He writes about leadership, management and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.

Danny Welsch, Ph.D., is the Associate Dean of the School of STEM at American Public University. He holds a B.S. in Environmental Analysis and Planning from Frostburg State University, an M.S. in Environmental and Resource Engineering from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and a Ph.D. in Environmental Sciences from the University of Virginia.

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