Here’s an excellent piece of history by by Andy Mason and Sarah Karle from the Rendezvous (Rocky Mountain FS retiree newsletter). I particularly liked these photos that show how a few folks with a big dream for improving the environment, almost a hundred years ago, succeeded (after hard work, research and experimentation) succeeded, and is still working today.
Prairie States Forestry Project (1934-1942)
In 1934 President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated the New Deal’s Prairie States Forestry Project to create “shelterbelts” of newly planted trees to mitigate the effects of the Dust Bowl in America’s Great Plains. The project stretched from North Dakota to northern Texas and helped stabilize soil and rejuvenate farm communities affected by the dust storms. Under Roosevelt’s Administration from 1934 to 1942, the program both saved the soil and relieved chronic unemployment in the region. The U.S. Forest Service was responsible for organizing the “Shelterbelt Project,” later known as the “Prairie States Forestry Project.” Paul H. Roberts from the agency’s Research Branch directed the project that was headquartered in Lincoln, Nebraska.
When FDR came to office in 1933, the Great Plains and other regions were suffering from what would become an almost decade-long period of economic, environmental, and social crises. Several large-scale factors led to the environmental devastation of the Dust Bowl and contributed to the economic hardships of the Great Depression, leading to the social upheavals that followed. As president, FDR used conservation projects as a job-creation tool against the Great Depression, and within months of becoming president, he devised the Prairie States Forestry Project. The project, based to some degree on Roosevelt’s personal experience with forest management, was proposed as an ambitious “Great Wall of Trees” using shelterbelts across the Great Plains to reduce soil wind erosion, retain moisture, and improve farming conditions. Trees were typically planted in long strips at 1-mile intervals within a belt 100 miles thick. At the time, it was believed that shelterbelts at this spacing could intercept the prevailing winds and reduce soil and crop damage. The project used many different tree species of varying heights, including oaks and even black walnut. The plan engaged scientific knowledge with shifting political ideals, including regionalism and the role of government in the conservation of private land.
Though seemingly beneficial, the Forestry Project was ridiculed from its inception. Some professional foresters expressed doubts about its chances of success, while the general public perceived it as an outdated scheme of dubious credibility to “make rain.” Despite a general lack of scientific and Congressional support, the Forest Service worked across six states with local farmers, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the Works Progress Administration to plant over 220 million trees, creating more than 18,000 miles of windbreaks on 33,000 Plains farms. Although Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps workers planted the trees and shrubs, landowners were responsible for their long-term care and maintenance. At the height of the Great Depression, the project employed thousands of residents (notably both men and women) of the Plains states and CCC members from around the country.
The program officially ended in 1942, but by 1944 (scarcely a decade after its inception} environmental and economic benefits from these shelterbelts, including land management practices, control of wind erosion, soil conservation, cover for game birds, and the creation of snow traps along highways, were already apparent. Since 1942, tree planting to reduce soil losses and crop damage has been carried out primarily by local soil conservation districts in cooperation with the Soil Conservation Service (now Natural Resources Conservation Service) with help in later years from State forestry agencies aided by U.S. Forest Service programs. Today the rows of shelterbelt plantings, while diminished by subsequent changes in agricultural policies and practices, continue to communicate culturally recognized signs of human intervention and interaction with the landscape.