A dust storm envelopes a house in Stratford, TX. Image © Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Conservation Lessons of the Dust Bowl

Mark Tercek is the president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy. You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkTercek and find more of his writing on The Huffington Post.

This Wednesday, May 9, will mark the anniversary of one of the worst man-made disasters ever to hit the United States.

On that date in 1934, massive clouds of dust and top soil blew from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and other Great Plains states all the way to cities as far as New York, Atlanta and Washington, DC. In Chicago, 12 million pounds of soil was dumped on the city.

It marked the peak of the American Dust Bowl, a nine-year period that destroyed farmlands, blackened skies and left millions homeless.

The Dust Bowl resulted from years of unsustainable agriculture that eroded soils and destroyed native grasslands that held the earth in place. The region had been plowed from 1914 and 1920 to meet demand for wheat generated by World War I. When droughts hit, topsoil dried up and blew away.

The devastation was a wake-up call to lawmakers who began taking action to save the nation’s agriculture industry and usher in a new era of land preservation. Congress created a new agency – now known as the Natural Resources Conservation Service – to address land erosion and provide financial incentives for farmers to take lands unsuited for agriculture out of crop production, and turn them into permanent pastures or forests.

Many of the same initiatives continue today as part of the U.S. Farm Bill, which provides the single largest source of federal funding for conservation. Congress is now debating the bill’s reauthorization, and funding for it could be decided this year.

While other droughts have hit the Great Plains over the past 70 years – some worse than the one that launched the Dust Bowl – the nation has been spared the devastation that occurred in the 1930s.

Tom Christensen, Regional Conservationist for the Natural Resource Conservation Service, reports that “The conservation measures and practices put in place as a result of the Dust Bowl have helped prevent similar catastrophic events.”

The lessons learned from the Dust Bowl are as important today as they were in the 1930s. As the world’s population continues to grow, so does the demand for food and fiber. For example, we expect that food production will need to double by 2050 to keep up with these demands.

If we are to meet those demands – without creating another natural disaster – it is critical to keep our lands and waters healthy and productive. Conservation cannot be viewed as an afterthought or a luxury. It is an essential tool to ensure the long term productivity of agriculture and forestry, and to sustain the economic viability of rural families and communities.

We should be proud that our nation has been able to avoid another Dust Bowl thanks to well-designed conservation programs that assist farmers to retire unproductive lands, protect the soils and water sources farmers rely upon for their livelihoods, and preserve natural habitat in rural landscapes.

The results of these conservation activities have multiple benefits for every region of America. Not only have we been able to feed growing populations, but we’ve also protected rural economies. Farming and farm-related employment supports about 24 million jobs across the United States. Hunting, angling and wildlife-dependent recreation contribute $122 billion annually to our national economy. Natural resources-based products represent a significant proportion of the export sector so essential to our economic health. Indeed, U.S. agricultural exports exceeded $137 billion and accounted for a $42 billion farm trade surplus in 2011, one of the bright spots in the American economy last year.

Seventy years ago, the Dust Bowl taught our nation the importance of conservation. We learned a very important lesson. Our economies, our security and our livelihoods continue to depend on healthy lands and waters.

Click here to read more about the Dust Bowl and the conservation policies it sparked, and see as slide show of the impact it had across the country.

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  1. Being smart about how precious natural resources are used makes even more sense today than this Dust Bowl example highlights. Being more efficient with those resources is a priority in the landscapes we design, build or take care of for companies across the country. In fact, water is just about the top topic of every conversation we have with customers. If you are interested in learning why using non-potable water helps to achieve conservation goals on a property I’d recommend checking out Richard Restuccia’s recent water blog post on the future of non-potable water use: http://valleycresttakeson.com/watermanagement/technology/the-future-of-non-potable-water-use/

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