Uprooting FDR’s ‘Great Wall of Trees’

Read the full story from the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

Surely the end was nigh. Up and down the Great Plains, from the Texas panhandle to the Dakota prairies, dust stripped the paint from their barns, the wheat from their fields, the money — what pitiful amount was left — from their pockets. “Today is just common hell, death and destruction to every growing thing,” wrote Donald Hartwell, a Nebraska farmer, in his journal. “God in his infinite wisdom might have made a more discouraging place than Webster County, Nebraska, but so far as I know God never did.”

The dust starved their cattle and choked their friends, their neighbors, swallowed a young schoolboy in Hays, Kansas, just a quarter-mile from his house. The roiling “black blizzards” veiled their homes in darkness, left their creaking floors rippled with silt, caked the bed sheets they soaked in kerosene and stretched across their windows. Like bandits, they tied handkerchiefs around their faces — only they were the victims, held hostage by the billions of tons of topsoil they’d plowed under over the previous half-century. They greased their nostrils with Vaseline. They swept. They prayed. They swept again. And often, finally, they left.

But FDR, long fascinated by forestry, had a plan to curb the Dust Bowl. On July 11, 1934, he issued an executive order for what he called on multiple occasions “my baby,” allocating $15 million for “the planting of forest protection strips in the Plains Region as a means of ameliorating drought conditions.”

Over the next seven years, the United States Forest Service — in conjunction with local farmers, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration — would plant more than 220 million trees as part of the Prairie States Forestry Project, developing 18,000 miles of windbreaks on 33,000 Great Plains farms and helping curtail one of the largest man-made ecological disasters in history.

Three-quarters of a century later, climate change now threatens the Plains with a new era of prolonged drought and other extreme weather events. So the question stands: will FDR’s visionary experiment still be here to cope with it?

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