Ken Burns' latest historical documentary "The Dust Bowl" reminds us of a somewhat-forgotten era when poor policies and farming practices helped create the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. One cannot help but notice the similarities between the impact of environmental policies and practices then, which affected a huge region of the United States, and those of today, which affect the entire planet.
In the 1930s, the farmers, the economy, and the government policies of the time all played a part in wreaking havoc on the Great Plains, the "breadbasket" of America. Plowing practices combined with a decade-long drought produced wind erosion the like of which the U.S. had never seen. Once-fertile grassland was turned into a literal desert. Huge sand and dust storms swept all the way to the East Coast, even dusting the halls of Congress and the White House.
Worst were the "black blizzards," huge, rolling storms of black dust that engulfed everything in their path for hundreds of miles. The worst such blizzard occurred on Black Sunday, April 14, 1935, starting in the Plains and blowing east at 60 miles per hour, ending 200 miles out into the Atlantic.
The drought began in the summer of 1931. According to the National Weather Service, the number of regional dust storms increased from 14 in 1932 to a high of 72 in 1937; it wasn't until 1940 that they subsided, with a total of 17 that year. Although all Plains states were affected to some degree, the areas hardest hit were southeast Colorado, northeast New Mexico, southwestern Kansas, and the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles.
What people didn't realize, or realized but ignored, was that the deep-rooted grassland that covered the Plains held the soil in place. That grassland was not only being plowed up to grow wheat, but overstocking of cattle also contributed to the destruction of grassland with overgrazing.
The farming practices of the time were particularly damaging. Between 1925 and 1930, plenty of rain and high demand for wheat, in addition to the use of more modern farming equipment such as gasoline tractors and harvester-combines, led to 33 million acres being completely denuded and vulnerable when the drought hit, allowing the soil to easily be swept away. Plowing was deep, which contributed to soil erosion. Cotton farmers left fields bare over the winter months, when the winds were at their highest, and burned the plant stubble to control weeds, which further removed any anchoring vegetation.
Because most farms were small family-run operations, there was a lack of coordination in conservation efforts, and most farmers resisted them. When the Great Depression hit in 1929 and wheat prices began to plummet, farmers responded by plowing even more land to make up for the loss in price per bushel.
Hugh Hammond Bennett, who came to be known as "the father of soil conservation," led a campaign to reform farming practices with the backing of President Roosevelt. Some of the new methods he introduced included crop rotation, strip farming, contour plowing, terracing, planting cover crops and leaving fallow fields (land that is plowed but not planted). Because of resistance, farmers were actually paid a dollar an acre by the government to practice one of the new farming methods. In addition, the Civilian Conservation Corps was ordered to plant 200 million trees from Canada to Texas to serve as a windbreak and help hold the soil in place.
By the end of the decade, the combination of new farming techniques and the return of the rain ended the era of the Dust Bowl, though the cost is unimaginable: to the people who left, to the people who stayed, to the environment, and to the economy.
After suffering the worst drought in over 50 years in 2012, it's clear that we have learned from the mistakes of the past. Although crop yields were down, higher prices and insurance helped to cover the economic loss, and farmland values have actually risen. But much of the High Plains remains in what is known as an "Exceptional Drought," level D4 according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. This is the highest level, and many areas surrounding this zone are still experiencing extreme and severe drought.
Today, we worry about the effect we have on the environment on a global scale. We worry that the emission of greenhouse gases, depletion of the ozone layer, and other effects of industrialization are wreaking havoc with the gradual warming of the atmosphere. In the 1930s, it took extensive government intervention to turn the tide. While there certainly has been some government intervention in fuel standards, emissions and in other areas in the U.S., as well as interventions in other countries, the tide doesn't appear to be turning.
One only needs to look at the Dust Bowl to realize that at some point, nature will fight back. After enduring unprecedented catastrophes in the U.S. in just the past few years, most recently Hurricane Sandy, one wonders if nature's fury has just begun.