Fighting prairie winds and U.S. politics, the New Deal created the Prairie States Shelterbelt, which stretched from North Dakota to Texas. The project helped stabilize soil and rejuvenate farm communities that had suffered through the Dust Bowl.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was a tree hugger.
After his father, James, died in December, 1900, the future president began to manage his Hyde Park, New York, family estate with conservation in mind. To counter soil erosion, he planted thousands of trees each year.
Later, as president, FDR used conservation projects as a job-creation tool against the Great Depression. His ambitious plan for forest shelterbelts—windbreaks using trees and shrubs across the Great Plains to reduce soil wind erosion, retain moisture, and improve farming—offers a backstory about a gift that is widely forgotten and being destroyed.
When FDR came to office in 1933, the Great Plains and other regions were already smarting from droughts in 1929 and the early 1930s; the Dust Bowl began in earnest in 1934. The environmental disaster was triggered by policies and markets that promoted massive, unsustainable agricultural expansion in dry lands. Weak farm markets, coupled with the droughts, had caused a crisis for President Herbert Hoover as he tried to mitigate the growing Depression that started in 1929.
FDR began discussing what would become the Plains Shelterbelt Project within weeks of taking office in March, 1933. The idea grew from his experience and federal research that dated to about the 1890s. Passage of the Clarke-McNary Act in 1924 enshrined shelterbelts in forest policy.
Shelterbelts were used the U.S. during the early 1800s and were common in Canada and Russia. According to Agriculture Secretary Arthur M. Hyde’s report to Hoover in 1933, the department cooperated with 37 states and two territories in producing and distributing trees to farm owners for reforestation of farm woodlands and for windbreak and shelterbelt planting.
Roosevelt’s documents show he initially was deeply involved in planning his proposal, along with his secretary of Agriculture, Henry A. Wallace. In a March 1935 letter to Senator Duncan U. Fletcher (D-Florida), FDR notes that shelterbelts were a “subject near to my heart,” and outlines the complicated steps of the plan:
It will be necessary to provide for such things as public acquisition of forest lands, a strengthening of the provisions for making existing national forests and those to be acquired fully productive, and in doing so to afford the opportunity for the relief of unemployment and stabilization of local communities, an authorization of the shelter belt, a well coordinated program of forest research, and finally, comprehensive provision in a variety of fields for stimulating and insuring both State and private activities.
The shelterbelt would stretch from the Dakotas to Texas, an area of wide climate variation and soils. The plan pitted scientific knowledge against shifting political winds, including regionalism and the role of government. Even foresters were divided about growing trees on the dry, windy plains. Later, the idea pitted foresters against soil scientists, who approached the issue differently.
Roosevelt, in a November, 1934, letter to Nelson C. Brown of Syracuse University’s New York State College of Forestry, said he thought the project would evolve as an experiment. His letter was sent in response to Brown’s description of doubt among foresters, especially in the Midwest and Plains states. Roosevelt replied:
I am not at all satisfied with what the Forestry people have done up to now in experimental work in the north to south area where the rainfall is from fifteen to twenty inches a year. They have had lots of money in the past but the experiments have not been pushed…. I may set it up as a separate organization and put more enthusiasts in charge.
Roosevelt’s original concept, as developed by administration officials, was costly, about $15 million. In his request to Congress, he scaled it back to $1 million to increase chances for passage. Even so, Congress rejected his request in 1936; the House reaction was particularly intense. Once the $1-million request was dead, an effort by Rep. Phillip Ferguson (D-Oklahoma) to obtain $180,000 for the program failed by a wide margin. Rep. Lloyd Thurston (R-Iowa) expressed widespread House sentiment when he called the Shelterbelt "one of the most ridiculous and silly proposals that was ever submitted to the American people."
The House agriculture appropriations bill ended up in a conference committee. The final bill provided $170,000 to liquidate the project. By reallocating emergency relief funds with an executive order to create jobs, FDR had been able to launch the program in 1934 before formal congressional approval using work relief funds. After the congressional vote that terminated the project, Secretary of Agriculture Wallace wrote to the President:
… The funds will be inadequate to produce planting stock for the fiscal year 1938, and to take proper care after July 1, 1936, of the plantings made this spring. It means disbanding an organization assembled and given intensive training for shelterbelt work during the past eighteen months.
Rep. Louis Ludlow (D-Indiana) congratulated the House on putting an end to a "wasteful and impossible project" and said it was "not given to men to so reverse the order of Creation" by attempting to grow trees in desert places. The Report of the Chief of the Forest Service, 1937, noted that 81% of the 24 million trees planted by June, 1936, survived their first crucial year.
Passage of the 1937 Norris-Doxey Cooperative Forestry Act included shelterbelts as part of a nationwide forestry program. But Congress fought FDR’s desire to emphasize tree planting in the Great Plains into the 1940s. Meanwhile, shelterbelts in the six Great Plains states grew in popularity. The program worked, and evolving policy emphasized public-private partnerships over federal land acquisition. In 1942, the Soil Conservation Service took the shelterbelt program from the Forest Service and emphasized a county- and farm-level program over a regional approach.
According to Drozer’s Trees, Prairies and People, the shelterbelt program was widely successful. More widespread use of pivot irrigation and other farm technology that required larger fields, especially after the 1960s—along with federal farm policy that ultimately encouraged larger farms after the early 1970s—slowed and then reversed Great Plains tree planting. Many shelterbelts have been left to deteriorate, and many miles of tree lines have been cut and burned to make room for additional cropland.
Recent dust storms have raised concerns about the Great Plains. Experts claim farming practices are much improved over the 1920s and 1930s, but the loss of shelterbelts, uneven weather patterns and declining underground water levels challenge efforts to improve cropping, crops and soil health.
Time has lessened appreciation for FDR’s shelterbelts. Windbreak removal represents a disinvestment in a proven conservation practice with the hope that new technologies will counter harsh conditions that increase agricultural risk in a time of short-term drought and longer-run climate change and global warming.
Rejection of a gift from an earlier generation is at best problematic, and at worst, an invitation to a future disaster.
Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone. He is the proprietor of Then and Now Media and author of Selling the State: Economic Development Policy in Kentucky.