- Historic Sites
The wheels of westering settlers moved through an ocean of grass. It was a rich natural heritage, but within a century we almost destroyed it
April 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 3
Drought struck in the 1890’s, and again in 1900, in 1910, and in 1917. But the World War I years were good for the wheat farmer, and he survived. By 1924, in spite of the dry spells, Plains farmers were growing seventeen million more acres of wheat than they had grown in 1909. Arid, short-grass regions of Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Montana, where plow should never have furrowed a sod, were being farmed.
The day of reckoning had to come.
The story of the Dust Bowl is well known. There had been dust storms in the Plains before, but never anything like those that began to darken the sky in the early nineteen thirties. Black clouds of prairie soil were blown as far eastward as Washington, D.C. And farther: the dust was visible two hundred miles at sea.
The grass was gone, and there was nothing to prevent the dust from blowing. Farmers and cowboys, trying to work in dust, got only failed crops, thin and dying cattle, and mounting debts. Nearly four and a half million people lived in the Plains in the early nineteen thirties before the drought; within five years, forty thousand families moved out, leaving vast areas of the land not only denuded but uninhabited.
Finally, where individuals had failed, Washington took a hand. With the Bankhead-Jories Act of 1937, the federal government reacquired some of the lands that had been vacated, and made loans to farmers who stayed on, to begin soil conservation measures.
Biologists like F. W. Albertson and ecologists like T. E. Weaver now began to help in the study of what had been ignored, for the most part, all along: the grasses themselves. Many of the recommendations in the Great Plains report of 1936 were aimed at one end: restoring the grasses. But that was a big job: nature had taken ages to put them there. Scientists—and the Department of Agriculture, with its Soil Conservation Service and Forest Service—set to work. First, surveys were made. Next, the government acquired large areas of range and granted use of them, under rules of controlled grazing, to permittees. Water resources were developed through a series of dams and irrigation projects. Finally, Washington sought the co-operation of local governments and private owners in projects to control erosion and promote proper grazing.
The program put into motion by the government—and by the private agencies and individual landowners whose co-operation it enlisted—had three objectives: converting essentially nonarable cropland back to range or natural grassland; re-establishing the native grasses on depleted and killed-out range areas or on worked-out farm land that had simply been allowed to go back to whatever vegetation developed; and encouraging the people of the region to adopt improved methods of land management.
For the conversion and re-establishment processes the first requirement, of course, was a supply of seeds. In special Plant Materials Centers set up by the Soil Conservation Service throughout the Great Plains, various strains of native grasses—such as the gramas, bluestems, switchgrass, and indiangrass—were produced. The process was far from simple: strains of little biuestem which thrived in Texas, for example, might not survive in the Dakotas. The Agriculture Department’s Agricultural Research Service, notably the center under the direction of Dr. L. C. Newell at the University of Nebraska, made a major contribution in discovering which grasses would grow best in various Plains areas. Then, special machines were developed to plant the seed.
Finally, farmers were encouraged to stop plowing land that was not meant to be plowed, and to put it to its proper use: grazing. The Soil Conservation Service also suggested to them—and to ranchers as well—how the land ought to be grazed: rotationally, with grazing deferred on some grasses until early summer so that they could get a good spring start. Typically, a conservation plan for an entire farm or ranch would be developed, with the government sharing the costs of re-establishing the grasses.
The recovery of the Great Plains and the bringing back of the grass were not accomplished by human measures alone. Nature herself helped out. Beginning in 1941 with the coming of wet years again, the land itself began to go through its almost miraculous, ageold cycle. Weaver and Albertson observed and documented this recovery of the native grasses: first the primeval weeds came back—goosefoot, tumbleweed, and common sunflower; then a second weed stage began—little barley, peppergrass, and stickseeds; thereafter, early native grasses began to return—sand dropseed, western wheat grass, false buffalo grass; finally, the mature native grasses—the gramas, buffalo grass, three-awns—were seen again.