PROTECTING THE PLANET

Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change

ISBN: 978-1-63388-225-1

by Budd Titlow

http://www.buddtitlow.com

The Homestead Act—A Precursor of Environmental Disaster

Owing in large part to the Homestead Act of 1862—which provided each family with 160 acres of land to plow and farm as they saw fit—westward expansion spread steadily—like a soaking ink blot—across the American landscape. Access to virgin prairie was so easy that intrepid settlers tended to plow, plant, and harvest until they depleted the fertility of the land through a combination of soil erosion (no control devices) and poor farming practices (no crop rotation). They knew that when the land became unproductive, they could just pack their families up, move further west, claim more land, and start all over again.

In a situation with an eerie similarity to today’s climate-change crisis, the major faux pas of the pioneering farm families was believing that their resources were boundless and—because of this—doing nothing to protect the resources they were using. Seventy years later—in 1932—these same laissez-faire attitudes created the worst environmental disaster the United States had ever experienced—the Great Dust Bowl.

The Great Dust Bowl—Occurrence of Unprecedented Natural Disaster

Dust Bowl storm rolling into Rolla, Kansas.

During the 1930s, nowhere was the concept of “nature strikes back” more evident than on the soil-ravaged and agriculturally pillaged plains of the United States and Canada. The Great Dust Bowl occurred because poor farming practices caused huge portions of what had been luscious and golden prairie grasslands to dry up and blow away with the wind.

Eager settlers had moved west to the prairies, lured by advertisements promising a Garden of Eden. They brought with them farming techniques that had worked in the Northeast but that were incompatible with the prairie ecology. In what was called “the Great Plow Up,” settlers dug deeply into the virgin topsoil and pulled up the thickly rooted native grasses that had held the soil in place and trapped moisture through periods of severe drought. Recent rapid advancements in farming equipment in the early twentieth century—notably gasoline-powered tractors and massive combine harvesters—allowed more and more of these arid, native grasslands to be converted to wheat fields.

When drought came and the crops dried up, the unanchored soil turned to dust and blew away—forming huge dark clouds that blackened the sky for miles around. These choking billows of dust—named “black blizzards”—also traveled cross-country, reaching as far as New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC.

The Dust Bowl covered 300,000 square miles of territory located in Kansas, Texas, western Oklahoma, eastern Colorado, and New Mexico. In the hardest-hit areas, agriculture virtually ceased. With successive storms, the wind and the flying dust cut off wheat stalks at ground level and tore out the roots. Blowing dirt shifted from one field to another, burying crops not yet carried away by the wind. Cattle tried to eat the dust-laden grass and filled their stomachs with fatal “mud balls.” 

The dust banked against houses and farm buildings like snow, and buried fences up to the post tops. Dirt penetrated into automobile engines and clogged the vital parts. Housewives fought vainly to keep it out of their homes, but it seeped in through cracks and crevices, through wet blankets hung over windows, through oiled cloths and tape, covering everything with grit. Hospitals reported hundreds of patients suffering from “dust pneumonia.” The black blizzards struck so suddenly that many farmers became lost in their own fields and suffocated, some literally within yards of shelter. More than 350,000 people fled the Great Plains during the 1930s. These “Okies” loaded their meager household goods and struck out along famous highway Route 66 for California.

Bankrupt and forced to abandon their homes and farms to foreclosure due to loss of crops, these desperate migrants arrived at their destinations with great hope, only to find situations that were little better than those they had left. In the minds of many, the Dust Bowl still ranks as the worst and most prolonged natural disaster the United States has ever experienced. In his 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck painted a poignant image of what it was like to experience the Dust Bowl:

“Carloads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless—restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do—to lift, to push, to pull, to pick, to cut—anything, any burden to bear, for food.”

Federal Government to the Rescue—Creation of the Soil Conservation Service

In response to the social and environmental horrors of the Dust Bowl, Congress passed two significant pieces of legislation. First, the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 defined designated areas where livestock grazing could occur on federal lands—thus minimizing the rampant overgrazing that was occurring. Next—and most importantly in April 1935—the Soil Conservation Act led to the establishment of the Soil Conservation Service (SCS)—now called the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS)—a federal agency tasked with advocating good farming practices that would minimize the potential for future wind and water erosion of farming topsoil.

The SCS’s raison d’etre declared that the federal government bore permanent responsibility for reducing water and wind erosion of the Nation’s soils. The SCS included more than ten thousand permanent and part-time employees, and utilized the labor of some 450 Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) units. The SCS also operated twenty-three research stations, where it studied the causes, extent, and prevention of soil erosion.

The SCS addressed the problem of soil erosion by creating “demonstration projects” in which the agency cooperated with landowners to implement conservation measures. The SCS assisted farmers in devising and implementing soil conservation plans for their land. In exchange for the landowner’s agreement to cooperate for a five-year period and to contribute his labor, the SCS supplied technical advice, materials, and additional labor. The Service urged farmers and ranchers voluntarily to plant ground cover vegetation to protect vulnerable soils, to rotate crops and allow fields to occasionally lie fallow, to build terraces and use contour plowing to retain soil moisture, and to refrain from planting crops on highly erodible land.

Although more than fifty thousand farmers participated in SCS demonstration projects, attacking the widespread problem of soil erosion one farm at a time was costly and inefficient. In 1936, therefore, the SCS published a model statute that would enable farmers to create a soil conservation district in their vicinity, which could stipulate land use practices within the district. Many state governments passed laws permitting farmers to form soil conservation districts, but many farmers and state legislators were reluctant to grant districts the power to require landowners to comply with district regulations, and soil conservation efforts remained largely voluntary.

Today, more than 3,000 Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD’s) serve throughout the Nation, providing watershed planning, flood prevention, erosion control plan reviews on agricultural land, control of non-point source pollution, wildlife habitat preservation, conservation education, and youth work. These SWCD’s work very closely with the federal Natural Resource Conservation Service (nee SCS), originally founded—as described above—in response to the Dust Bowl disaster of the 1930’s.

Text excerpted from book:          PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change written by Budd Titlow and Mariah Tinger, published by Prometheus Books. Photo caption & credit:       Dust Bowl storm in Rolla, Kansas. Copyright Everett Historical/Shutterstock.

Author’s bio:     For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.

Author: Budd Titlow

BS, Biology-Chemistry, Florida State University, 1970 MS, Wildlife Ecology-Fisheries Science, Virginia Tech, 1973 btitlow@aol.com / www.agpix.com/titlow / www.buddtitlow.com For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place within nature’s beauty, before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. Protecting the Planet, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental champions among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — Coming Full Circle — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: