19 November, 2010
When you consider the disaster of the American Dust Bowl of the Dirty Thirties on the Great Plains, no wonder Stephen Long of 1821 concluded that the American West was “almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence.”1 It seems that Timothy Egan’s book, The Worst Hard Times, hit the nail right on the head as to the cause of the worst natural disaster that the United States has ever experienced. The great dusters of the Dirty Thirties occurred because of the United States Government’s encouragement to over-farm the Great Plains during the early twentieth century, particularly during the Great War and the 1920’s. When you take into account this foolhardy encouragement to the homesteaders and their family farms it is only natural that the homesteaders share in the blame. For it is through their ecological destruction, neglect of the land and greed during this era that known, natural occurrences of high winds, low annual precipitation, and occasional drought were worsened and tossed the land to the skies and rained it back down on them in unimaginable ways. It is apparent that they did consider the long term consequences of over-farming the “Great American Desert,” or more now commonly called the Great Plains. As Lawrence Svobodia, a Kansas wheat farmer who kept track of the slow decline of his farm stated: “The area seems doomed to become in dreary reality the Great American Desert shown on early maps.”2 It does not seem reasonable that the US government could have forgotten Stephen Long’s report, the conclusions of John Wesley Powell, and many others about this arid land.3 However, history shows again and again the short memories of humankind. As history teaches, when we ignore the lessons of the past we are doomed to relive them in the future. What started out to be great progress in the farming industry of the Great Plains ended in great decline. As these homesteaders and tenant farmers steadily moved into the American West (because of the Homestead Acts of 1862 and 1909) they began tilling up the grasslands of the Great Plains. This massive tilling and overturning of the grass turned the land of the Great Plains into one mammoth strip of dirt stretching from the US-Canadian border to nearly the US-Mexican border. This destruction of ground cover was a time bomb waiting to explode, and it did. In 1932 it went straight up into the air after years of over-farming and neglect. These grasslands were and are vital to the sustainability of the Great Plains of the Central United States because of the extreme climate conditions that exist there. Once they were tilled up there was no grass left covering the land, this allowed the winds of the prairie to blow as they usually did, but this time being allowed to gather the dirt up and turn it into the form of massive dust clouds that no one had ever seen before. The weather men had never studied this weather phenomenon before because of its non-existence before the 1930s. These dust clouds would then blow fiercely across the Great Plains and dump tons of dust on Great Plain’s farms, towns, the open prairies and at some points, the eastern United States (as far as Washington D.C., New York City, and Boston and even out into the Atlantic Ocean). They severely destroyed everything in their path; the ecosystem, cattle, prairie chickens, horses, sheep, buildings, automobiles, crops, and especially, human life. When you get down to the gritty facts it truly does not seem that this land was meant to be farmed, at least not to the extent that the homesteaders did in the twenties, then the forties, and even still to this day. Long’s prophecy of the American West was coming true; this land was too arid to support subsistence farming, let alone just living on the land itself.4 The American West was and is not stable enough to support droves of people without water being pumped up from deep within the earth; or being diverted from lakes or mountain sources, or dams being built like Hoover Dam in Nevada that supplies places like Las Vegas with the waters of Lake Mead. The American West is an extreme land to live in especially in terms of terrain and climate, which brings us to why these storms were so grave. The summation that Egan offers here as to the acuteness of these storms seems to be a combination of things. The dust storms and low aggregate rainfall were normal in the Great Plains and beyond. Droughts were even known to happen. However, this drought would be more severe than most known before because of the excessive heat. In Kansas, the temperature soared to 108 degrees for weeks on end at one point during this tragedy.5 So when the drought struck, the temperatures soared and the winds picked up and began to blow the soil away. One Kansas County that produced 3.4 million bushels of wheat in 1931 only harvested 89,000 bushels in 1933.6 The Plains had always been an arid, inhospitable environment but with such high temperatures it baked the already overturned soil to the point of almost being completely devoid of moisture. As Egan points out, the Plains had a covering of tough grass and roots, called buffalo grass, in the XIT lands of Texas and sod to the north in states like Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and elsewhere. These tough grasses allowed the ground to maintain moisture and support the necessary vegetation to hold it down. However, during World War I there was a huge demand for wheat for our military forces and allies overseas in France. Hence, the government encouraged the farmers of the plains to grow huge surpluses of wheat to support their need for feeding our servicemen overseas in France as well as other parts of the world, as Russia became unable to supply the demand needed for global consumption.7 Therefore, this huge demand for wheat contributed to another reason for such grave weather never before seen on the Plains: complete and total destruction of the grasslands by gasoline powered tractors. The tractor and combine allowed the Plains’ farmers to plow large swaths of land for the first time since farming started on the prairie lands. In cooperation with the government’s demand for more wheat and with the incentive of two dollars per bushel of wheat, the sodbusters were eager to plow up every piece of grass they could their plows into to make record making profits. Such profits that had never before been realized by the wheat farmers of the Plains. Moreover, the abundant rains of the 1920s produced record breaking yields of grain. The farmers were in their heyday with all this great farming success; not aware that a great demise would be coming their way in just a few short years.8 Additionally, to plant this much wheat they needed bigger and better farm equipment to accomplish this feat of agriculture. As a result, they over-extended themselves and borrowed on credit from the banks to accomplish this great plow-up. Along with the ecological disaster of the early thirties that was about to occur, they had no idea that a stock market crash in 1929 would cause the banks to fail and call in their loans and rob all of the farmers of their life savings. This easy credit that the banks had extended to them (and that they were so willing to take) to buy their new tractors, Model T’s, pianos, and newly built houses would be the ruination of them and their farms.9 They completely ruined the land so much, exacerbated by extreme weather, that when Franklin Delano Roosevelt entered the US presidency in 1932 he eventually had to develop programs of intervention to save the Great Plains from total and utter loss. A while after he had entered office the government was advised and warned by a US Forest Service report that, “Unless something is done…the western Plains will be as arid as the Arabian Desert.” Egan writes, “short of veiling the sun, cuffing the winds, or creating rain from thin air, what could be done?10 The saving grace was Hugh Bennett. FDR brought him in and set him up in charge of a new department in the Interior Department to reclaim the land.11 Bennett believed that the land of the Plains could be saved. He said that, “it did not have to blow away and lose its people” completely.12 He did just that and helped to save the land by planting over 220 million trees to create blockages that prevented the dust from blowing freely. He started and encouraged contour plowing that changed how a row was formed. It created furrows that prevented dust from blowing and creating dunes. This was all accomplished through “Operation Dust Bowl.” The government also bought back, in total, about 11.3 million acres of land that they had given to the farmers through the Homestead Act and replanted it with grass.13 All of these programs did help to partially restore the Great Plains. Egan states in his Epilogue though that “The High Plains never fully recovered from the dust bowl.”14 When you put it all together it seems reasonable to assume that this tragedy could have been avoided. If the government would have heeded the advice of Stephen Long of long ago, and men like Hugh Bennett they would have advised, and perhaps even regulated the amount of grassland that the sodbusters were allowed to plow up. The sodbusters, realizing that the land was very arid to begin with could have proceeded with caution and only plowed up sections of land at a time and rotated those crops lands from year to year. Egan states that even though the government, through FDR’s intervention programs of the New Deal, sought to reclaim the land that the 1930s “deeply scarred and forever changed,” it was never brought back to its original state. In fact, the farmers, in reality never seemed to learn a thing from this great tragedy. When World War II came around the farmers once again tore up the land by ripping out the “shelterbelt” to plant more expansive fields of wheat for the war effort. Today, there are only a fraction of family farmers left on the High Plains and the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, but Egan states that they now have a “vast infrastructure of pumps and pipes…” that “reaches deep into the Ogallala Aquifer.”15 This aquifer is massive in its aggregate water supply. However, the farmers are pumping it so heavily due to their need for constant irrigation that they estimate at “present rates of use” that it will dry up in approximately a hundred years. The daily rate of water that is being pulled up from the aquifer should be mind altering to Americans. They are pulling 1.1 million acre-feet of water a day from the Ogallala. This is equivalent to the depth of one foot of water in one million acres! It does not seem that any real lessons have been learned. During the 1950s another drought came upon the Plains that lasted for three years with a return of the dreaded dust storms that once plagued the region.16 It not only seems that the lessons of this period were not passed on to the current generation but never learned, or perhaps forgotten by the generation that lived through those trying times. I believe the legacy of the Dirty Thirties is something that is so relevant today that our government needs to have another commission to sit down and do the hard work of preventing our natural water supplies from being diminished. They also need to look and see if there are enough shelterbelts and preventative measures in place to prevent another severe drought that would and could cause another dust bowl disaster. If people do not believe it, they need to look no further than Lake Mead in Nevada. This lake provides the Las Vegas area (that has grown to nearly 2 million residents) with more that 90% of it water. The lake is drying up! The health and science section of Time online, partners with CNN reported on 18 October of this year that “the sight of the rocky reservoir filled to the brim has always been a reassuring sign for a town built on luck. But those days are long gone. The past decade has seen a precipitous decline in Lake Mead's water levels, as a stubborn, multi-year drought and continued growth in the Southwest have combined to drain the reservoir.”17 America still has a major problem with water in the west and if society thinks that our technologies will fix the problem they have more than another thing coming! The word of the day here is: sustainability. The supplies of irrigation will not last forever and we still have not figured out how to increase the rain, nor will we. We are going to have to learn to conserve, or the day may come when we have to pay a day’s wages for loaf of wheat bread and a glass of water.