FDR's Trees Helped Ease Dust Bowl. Now, a New Worry

Farmers are taking them down to increase acreage, a move that could backfire
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 1, 2018 8:35 AM CST
FDR's Trees Helped Ease Dust Bowl. Now, a New Worry
In this 1935 file photo, workers plant a shelterbelt strip of trees on the farm of Dr. A.H. Bungardt, west of Cordell, Okla.   (AP Photo, File)

They're known as FDR's "great wall of trees," explains a feature at the Weather Channel. Back in the 1930s, the US Forest Service planted more than 220 million trees across the Great Plains to mitigate the effects of "one of the largest man-made ecological disasters in history"—the Dust Bowl. The trees, or shelterbelts, worked, helping to stem erosion and reduce the swirling dust storms that decimated countless farms. Flash forward to 2018. Farmers are tearing down these trees at a fast clip to increase their acreage and stay afloat amid the often dire economics associated with farming. Part of the rationale is that modern farming techniques make the shelterbelts obsolete—irrigation systems weren't around when the trees went in, for example—but the story cites an increasing worry that the strategy will backfire in a big way.

"My big concern is that we've got all these wonderful new technologies like no-till systems and cover crops that should ideally provide us a lot of protection against an extended drought like the great Dust Bowl," says John Duplissis of the Nebraska Forest Service. But he warns that such techniques likely wouldn't withstand a drought on the scale of the Dust Bowl, and such a drought is a legitimate worry in the age of climate change. His fear is that "we'll be back to that bare-soil situation that was so much of those dust storms that occurred during the '30s. Trees really still need to be part of that system." The story notes an irony: Highway historical markers still stand to mark one of the earlier shelterbelts in Nebraska—but the farmer who bought the land last April tore out the trees and replaced them with wheat. Click for the full story. (Read more Longform stories.)

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