FORESTRY ON THE GREAT PLAINS, 1902-1942

R. Douglas Hurt

Iowa State University


The men and women who settled the Great Plains confronted a harsh, semi-arid environment far different from the sub-humid eastern United States. With precipitation sparse and the native grasses short, they attempted to remake the environment based on the best empirical evidence available. Both scientists and settlers assumed the Great Plains environment could be altered to increase precipitation and improve their chances for agricultural success, because they believed that trees caused rainfall. Trees did so by drawing moisture from deep beneath the surface of the earth which then evaporated from the leaves. As the moisture passed from the subsoil to the atmosphere through the intermediary of the trees, it condensed and fell to the earth as rain. Consequently, by planting trees on the Great Plains the environment could be altered. The environment of the Great Plains, however, proved more difficult to change in reality than in theory. Although settlers planted trees, rainfall did not increase and without irrigation from a nearby stream, the trees died by the score.1

Although plains residents failed to change the environment by planting trees and cultivating the soil, not everyone believed defeat inevitable. In 1891, after persistent urging from Charles Edwin Bessey, a botanist at the University of Nebraska, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) began an experimental tree-planting project in the Nebraska Sand Hills, an area occupying approximately 20,000 square miles north of the Platte River that includes about one-forth of the land area of the state. Primarily located west of the 100th meridian, the Sand Hills receive less than twenty-two inches of precipitation annually. With its moist spring weather, however, Bessey believed the area was well-suited for coniferous trees. The USDA, however, had resisted Bessey's requests to establish a forest in the Sand Hills during the 1880s. Agency officials did not believe that tree planting in western Nebraska would succeed, and ranchers opposed Bessey's idea because they wanted to continue using those federal lands for grazing, while farmers saw possibilities for homesteading in the area. Indeed, both ranchers and farmers as well as local politicians were "belligerent" at best about Bessey's recommendation.2

In 1890, however, Bernhard E. Fernow, head of the Division of Forestry in the USDA, visited Nebraska and told the state board of agriculture: "I believe that forest planting is one of the necessary requisites to permanently reclaiming this vast domain; I believe that reforesting this large area, deforested by fire, buffalo, and consequent desiccation is not impossible." This change in federal policy was due to the newly created division's need to make its mark, and Fernow hoped to do so by using trees to help control the environment of Nebraska rather than to perpetuate any lingering belief that trees could change nature on the Great Plains. Fernow preferred for the federal government to direct any forestry project in Nebraska, but he believed the State could also provide leadership. For Fernow government direction was essential because "success can be forced only by cooperation, by a well-conducted army, attacking the enemy under a comprehensive plan, systematically and methodically carried out by generalship, commanding knowledge, men, and power, such as government alone, be it State or General government, can command."3

Bessey and Fernow discussed the possibility of planting trees in the Sand Hills and scheduled an experimental project for the spring of 1891. The Division of Forestry would provide the trees and planting instructions, but Bessey had to furnish the land. Fortunately, Edgar G. Brunner, a colleague of Bessey's, owned land with his brothers in southwestern Holt County. Their property included Sand Hills land, and they agreed to provide four one-acre plots for experimental purposes. Although Bessey and the Brunner brothers prepared the land and planted Ponderosa or western yellow pine along with Jack and Scotch pine and Douglas fir trees according to the instructions of the Division of Forestry, enthusiasm for the project soon waned, because many of the trees died by the end of the year. As a result, the Brunner brothers and the foresters began giving their attention to other matters. Although Bessey continued to believe in the viability of forestry in the Sand Hills, the trees were abandoned and the project almost immediately forgotten.4

A decade later, Gifford Pinchot, chief of the Bureau of Forestry, sent a group of foresters to investigate the potential for tree planting in the Sand Hills, primarily because the USDA had recently upgraded forestry from division to bureau status, and he too needed to show that it could make an important contribution to the growing conservation movement in the nation. To their amazement the group found pine trees growing twenty feet tall on the old experimental plots, and a "dense thicket" with "forest conditions" established on the site, in part, because the trees prevented the grass from growing and thereby lessened the danger of loss from prairie fires. When William Hall, who led the group, reported its findings, he recommended the renewal of the experimental plantings.5

Hall's report encouraged Pinchot to pursue the matter further, and he sent another reconnaissance team to the Nebraska Sand Hills in July to make a thorough survey regarding tree planting. This "Sand Hills Reconnaissance Survey" team reported to Pinchot late in 1901. It recommended the creation of two forest reserves in the Nebraska Sand Hills. Pinchot and President Theodore Roosevelt agreed that the creation of a forest would instrumentally improve the environment by conserving the soil, but it would also help control the environment by serving as a nursery for farmers who needed trees for windbreaks to protect their fields, livestock, and homes from the nearly constant winds that scorched their fields in the summer and piled the snow in drifts during the winter. In time the forest would improve soil humus so that "extensive agriculture" would be possible. Moreover, a forest would help the Sand Hills store water for irrigation, hold the sand, and prevent the encroachment of the dunes to the east. Pinchot and Roosevelt also believed that the creation of a forest in the Nebraska Sand Hills would "ameliorate the dryness of the atmosphere" so that the agricultural land to the east would receive a greater amount of precipitation.6

Accordingly, on April 16, 1902, Roosevelt, by executive order, created the Dismal River Forest Reserve between the Middle Loup and Dismal rivers west of Halsey in Thomas County and the Niobrara Forest Reserve between the Niobrara and Snake rivers south of Nenzel in Cherry County. These reserves became collectively known as the Nebraska National Forest in 1907. It was national forest of 208,902 acres, mostly without trees.7

The task of planting a forest required both time and resources, particularly seedlings. Although the Forest Service had much of the former, it had little of the latter, but it quickly went about clearing forty acres for a nursery near the Dismal River Reserve headquarters in Halsey. Forest Service employees also acquired about 70,000 Jack pine seedlings from Minnesota and approximately 30,000 Ponderosa pine seedlings from the Black Hills, which they planted during the spring of 1903. By 1906, the foresters had learned by the "trial-and-error" method that the one- or two-year-old seedlings raised at the nursery proved heartier and more adaptable to transplanting than trees acquired from other areas. Thereafter no plantings were made from field collections. The foresters also quickly learned that the native red cedar would be an important species for any forestation of the Sand Hills.8

The Forest Service soon discovered that prairie fires as well as the semiarid environment proved a major obstacle to creating a human-made forest on the Great Plains, but foresters believed that with the control of fire the forestation of the Sand Hills could be easily accomplished. In 1910, however, they could not contain a prairie fire that began sixty-five miles west of Halsey and swept eastward with such speed and ferocity that it could not be stopped before reaching the forest. When it had passed, only 100 acres of trees remained. It was a devastating setback for the project, but the Forest Service began replanting from its nursery which now produced 1 million seedlings annually.9

By 1913, the Forest Service hailed the Nebraska National Forest as a major conservation success that benefitted both the land and ranchers. Before the foresters stabilized the Sand Hills, the Service reported, cattlemen damaged the land by "excessive grazing," primarily because they overstocked the public range to make up for low returns that averaged only about fifty cents per acre. In time, however, the Service contended that forestry in the Sand Hills would enable a higher return on the land, because trees would protect cropland from wind erosion and add humus to the soil. The Forest Service also championed the concept of multiple use, contending the Nebraska National Forest would also provide a local timber supply, particularly for rough lumber and fence posts.10

Even so, stockmen and farmers continued to object to the removal of so much public domain from grazing or settlement that Congress agreed to adjust the boundaries of the Nebraska National Forest by opening the North Platte Division to entry. This area consisted of 347,170 acres that had been added to the national forest in 1908. Congress made this revision in the land laws under the Kincaid Act, which reduced the forest to 208,902 acres on October 1, 1913. This removal reduced the area of the Nebraska National Forest to approximately 2 percent of the Sand Hills.11

Stockmen, however, had begun to admit that fenced land in the Nebraska National Forest, which the Service had opened to grazing by permit, helped them improve breeding practices by keeping out unwanted bulls. Moreover, controlled grazing permitted a better stand of grass and heavier cattle. In addition, many local residents, who had maintained a "hostile attitude" toward the project in the beginning, had become "friends" of the Forest Service by 1914, because the agency provided seasonal employment for approximately 100 men.12

In 1914, the Society of American Foresters proclaimed that the Nebraska National Forest was an "unqualified success" and noted that "if fires are kept out, exceptional conditions only can bring disaster." By 1927, at the twenty-fifth anniversary of the project and near the return of a prolonged drought, 10,900 acres of trees had been planted in the Bessey Division and 1,200 acres in the Niobrara Division. The Bessey nursery also served as the primary source for trees distributed at cost under the Clarke-McNary Act, and it furnished more than 2.5 million seedlings annually. Planting costs in Nebraska, however, averaged $20.75 per acre from 1916 to 1926. This cost remained higher than at other national forests because the Service held the seedlings in the Bessey nursery longer and planted more trees per acre in the Sand Hills to help ensure success. As a result, between 1902 and 1931, the federal government spent $307,329 to establish and maintain the Nebraska National Forest.13

Although Pinchot reported in 1947 that the Nebraska National Forest "came to be one of the great successful tree-planting projects in the world," nature reclaimed much of the land nearly twenty years later. On May 5, 1965, lightening started a prairie fire that spread to the Dismal Forest Reserve, destroying eleven thousand acres or approximately one-third of the Bessey Division of the Nebraska National Forest. Faced with this catastrophe, the Forest Service decided to replant only the areas where tree growth proved most favorable, which involved about 48 percent of the burned area. The Service seeded the remainder of the land in grass which quickly claimed the rolling hills. Instead of changing the environment, the Nebraska National Forest now provides controlled grazing lands for cattle raisers, a recreation area, and an experimental nursery for the Great Plains. Before the results of the Nebraska National Forest became considerably less or at least different from the original intent, however, Kansas also attempted forestry for the same purpose.14

Buoyed by the potential for tree planting to control the environment with the creation of the Nebraska National Forest, Theodore Roosevelt also set aside 30,000 acres of sand hills south of the Arkansas River on July 25, 1905, for the Garden City Forest Reserve. There, the Forest Service planned to create the Kansas National Forest based on the Nebraska project, with the intent to control the environment and to provide timber for fence and telegraph posts and to encourage settlers to practice timber culture in this essentially treeless region.15

The climatic change would be local, however, rather than regional. Assistant Forester Royal S. Kellogg contended that no one had proven that tree planting and cultivation increased precipitation, and the theory was at best "problematical." But, he argued that trees helped control the environment by modifying the extremes of heat and cold and by preventing the evaporation of moisture from the soil. Specifically, he wrote: "The principal effect of tree planting on the climate of western Kansas will be to check the winds and lessen evaporation in the immediate vicinity of the plantation." And, the Forest Service enthusiastically maintained the Kansas National Forest would also "ameliorate the dryness of the atmosphere" so that the agricultural land to the east may receive a greater amount of precipitation.16

In April 1906, planting began for the Kansas National Forest, with more than 81,000 deciduous trees, such as Osage orange, Russian mulberry, and hackberry, as well as conifers, such as yellow pine and red cedar shipped from the Nebraska National Forest. A year later prairie fire destroyed almost all of the seedlings. Even so, in early April, 1908, the Forest Service extended this reserve to 302,387 acres and officially named it the Kansas National Forest, but only about 1,000 acres had been replanted.17 Although the United States Department of Agriculture claimed that the expansion of the Kansas National Forest resulted from the desires of local residents, who favored reserving the entire sand hills region for forestry, in reality, the Forest Service confronted the same opposition that it encountered in Nebraska. Residents complained the Reserve removed good agricultural land from homesteading, ruined the tax base, and drained money from the area that ranchers paid for grazing permits. The federal government essentially ended these complaints by opening 10,000 acres to homesteading under the provisions of the Forest Homestead Act of 1906 and, in 1908, by returning 10 percent and later 25 percent of the revenues from the national forests to the state treasuries to support road construction and education in the affected counties.18

In spring 1908 with public support and agency confidence that a national forest could be created in western Kansas, the Forest Service sent a "permanent" staff to establish an office in Garden City and a nursery capable to producing 300,000 seedlings annually. The foresters planted 128,000 trees, primarily yellow and Jack pine, in April and hoped for the best. It was not forthcoming. A year later only an estimated 32 percent of the honey locust and 27 percent of the yellow pine seedlings had survived the semiarid climate, with scorching summer temperatures and nearly constant hot winds, even with irrigation.19

Despite this heavy loss, the Forest Service remained optimistic. Thereafter, the foresters planted approximately 125,000 trees annually for the next three years, emphasizing deciduous trees, such as honey and black locust, Osage orange, and cottonwood, from the Garden City nursery, because the Bessey nursery specialized in coniferous species. When drought destroyed the deciduous trees in 1911, however, the Forest Service decided to emphasize evergreens. In 1913, after introducing new nursery and planting techniques, the Kansas foresters optimistically contended "it is certain that only exceptional and unusually damaging conditions can bring failure." Nature rather than the Forest Service, however, prevailed by destroying the trees with continued drought. On October 14, 1915, a decade after Theodore Roosevelt had created the Garden City Forest Reserve, President Woodrow Wilson issued an executive order abolishing the Kansas National Forest.20

While the Forest Service worked to establish the Nebraska and Kansas national forests, it also encouraged farmers in other areas of the Great Plains to plant trees to slow the wind and reduce moisture evaporation from the soil. One forester reported that windbreaks were particularly important in the eastern portion of North and South Dakota where the need for trees was perhaps the greatest in the region. But the Forest Service accomplished little beyond encouraging tree planting and providing information about the best species and cultivation practices for specific areas. On June 7, 1924, however, Congress passed the Clarke-McNary Act which authorized the secretary of agriculture to cooperate with the states for the distribution of trees to establish windbreaks, shelterbelts, and woodlots on denuded or non-forested lands. By providing funds through the extension service, which the states matched, the federal government enabled farmers to receive trees for specific purposes at cost.21

In Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota, the Bessey Nursery furnished the planting stock under the provisions of the Clarke-McNary Act. Farmers used approximately 90 percent of the trees distributed by the extension service for windbreaks. Not all farmers, however, planted their trees or cared for them according to Forest Service directions, and extension agents considered a survival rate of 60 percent a mark of success. Most important, however, tree planting under the auspices of the Clarke-McNary Act kept the idea alive that a combination of government programming and trees could help farmers protect cropland, livestock, and homes and by so doing ameliorate the harsh environment of the Great Plains.22

It did not take long to reaffirm the idea that trees were important to environmental control on the Great Plains. By the summer of 1932, drought together with the plow up of the southern Great Plains created the most severe wind erosion problem in the history of the region. Dust storms swept across the plains, darkening the skies, destroying crops, and drifting soil like snow. Plains residents and federal officials alike, once again, began to think about controlling the environment. Only with environmental control, they believed, could humans live in harmony with nature on the Great Plains.

In March 1933, the Forest Service began new efforts to control nature on the Great Plains after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked Robert Y. Stuart, chief forester, to investigate whether a major tree planting program could substantially reduce wind erosion in the region. Roosevelt and others believed that the early attempts at forestry on the plains provided encouragement and offered a partial solution to the wind erosion problem in the region. Roosevelt had been interested in forestry as governor of New York State prior to conceiving the idea for a major forestry project in the Great Plains during his presidential campaign in 1932. He believed that tree planting would ameliorate drought conditions by slowing the force of the wind and ease economic hardship by saving cropland from ruin by drifting soil. At the same time, the forestation of a major portion of the Great Plains would require a considerable work force, and the federal government could use it as an employment/work relief project as well as a conservation program. While the drought and dust storms dramatized the wind erosion problem on the Great Plains, a large-scale forestry project would also dramatize the human and institutional response to the harsh environment in a region known, in part, as the Dust Bowl.23

Before the project could begin, however, Roosevelt asked the Forest Service to investigate its feasibility. Working at record speed, the Forest Service concluded its preliminary investigation and sent its report to the president on August 15, 1933. In that document Stuart contended that a monumental forestry program for the Great Plains was not only feasible but warranted. In contrast to Roosevelt's suggestion that a one-hundred mile wide forest be planted from the Canadian border to Texas, the Forest Service, however, argued for the planting of a "Shelterbelt Zone." The shelterbelts, planted by local labor, would be spaced one mile apart across a one hundred- mile section of the Great Plains. These shelterbelts would run North and South and check the "prevailing dry winds," protect fields and livestock, reduce evaporation, hold snow, reduce wind erosion, and eliminate dust storms. Edward N. Munns, head of the Division of Silvics also contended that shelterbelts "would probably make some crop production possible on the poorer lands now so exposed to drying winds that the chances of crop losses are too great for agriculture." For many foresters, then, a tree-planting program for the Great Plains offered the solution to periodic wind erosion caused by drought and cultivation.24

But not for everyone. Some foresters, argued that the plan was not only too grandiose but environmentally impossible. Grass not trees grew naturally on the Great Plains and any major forestry program would be doomed to failure by the drought. The result would be great embarrassment to the Forest Service. Other critics considered the project to be an over-simplified conservation plan of the federal government, and they contended that no matter what measures government agents and farmers used to keep the soil from blowing only rain would end the Dust Bowl. Still others believed the project would be too expensive and that it would benefit individuals rather than the general welfare.25

Foresters at the Lake States Experiment Station in St. Paul, Minnesota, where the feasibility study had been conducted, however, cogently argued in favor of the project. They contended that large-scale tree planting on the Great Plains was not just a "make-work" project. Rather, a forestry program would ameliorate the local effects of an unfavorable climate. While forestry would not change the climate of the Great Plains, it could help control it by reducing wind erosion. Forestry was not only possible but necessary, and Raphael Zon, station director, believed that "it is absurd for anyone to say that man cannot accomplish this on a considerable scale." These foresters agreed that: "If merely the surface velocity of the wind over a wide territory can be broken and decreased in the slightest degree, soil will be held in place, the moisture of soil will be conserved, havens of shelter will be created for man, beast and bird, and much future suffering and property loss will be averted. Meanwhile, a harassed people will be given new courage and a pittance on which to subsist, without recourse to charity and loss of self-respect."26

Before the project could begin, however, the Forest Service revised the plan and announced on May 28, 1934, that the project should extend one hundred miles wide but it would neither be a solid block of trees nor a systematic string of shelterbelts spaced one mile apart running north and south from Canada to Texas. Rather, the shelterbelts would be planted on an east-west line at the center of each section of land. The western boundary would follow the eighteen-inch line of precipitation and extend from Bismarck, North Dakota to Amarillo, Texas. Drawing on the experimental work at the Nebraska National Forest and the experiment stations in Bismarck, Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Woodward, Oklahoma, where tree-planting experiments had been conducted for a considerable time, the Forest Service selected red cedar, Ponderosa pine, green ash, hackberry, and elm as species that could survive the drought-prone environment. The Forest Service also projected a budget of $60 million to plant 700 million trees across six states in ten years, with nearly half of that budget to cover the cost of land purchases from farmers.27

Based on the advice of the Forest Service, Roosevelt established the Shelterbelt Project by executive order on July 11, 1934. F. A. Silcox, chief of the Forest Service, proclaimed: "This will be the largest project ever undertaken in the country to modify climate and agricultural conditions in an area that is now consistently harassed by winds and drought." Shelterbelts would slow the winds that dried the soil and crops, and modify temperature extremes in the same way that green fields cooled the air. Forester Raphael Zon at the Great Lakes Experiment Station, however, emphasized that the Shelterbelt Project was "only part of a broader plan of water conservation and erosion control for the entire Great Plains region." Shelterbelts alone could not eliminate the black blizzards. The dust storms could only be stopped by a comprehensive soil conservation program that included withdrawal of cropland, reseeding grass, controlled grazing, terracing, strip cropping, and agricultural diversification as well as shelterbelts.28

Although many Great Plains farmers did not think that shelterbelts would end the dust storms, most regional editors favored the project, because trees had proven merits and the project offered the opportunity to experiment with work relief benefits on a major scale across the region. The Amarillo Globe noted that if the Great Plains environment could not be controlled the region would become another semi-arid wasteland like China. Still, opponents remained numerous and vocal. One opponent argued "that only God can make a tree . . . [and] . . . if He had wanted a forest on the wind-scoured prairies of Nebraska and Kansas, He would have put it there . . . and that for FDR to rush in where the Almighty had feared to thread was not only silly, but possibly blasphemous!" In contrast, embarrassing supportive statements came from officials such as C. A. Russell, secretary of Agriculture for South Dakota, who wrote that "the greatest good derived from [the] proposed shelter belt would be [the] tendency to increase rainfall." Similarly, F. C. Conn, state forester in North Dakota, also believed that the Shelterbelt Project would favorably effect the climate beyond the Great Plains. As a result, the Forest Service began making a concerted effort to distance itself from any ideas that the Shelterbelt Project would change the climate and that it was just another "rain-making" scheme. Instead, it worked hard to emphasize the concept of environmental control because trees, properly planted according to a precise plan, would "ameliorate the effects of weather on a large scale," but not change it.29

In August 1934, amidst both criticism and optimism, the Forest Service established field headquarters for the Shelterbelt Project at Lincoln, Nebraska, and state offices in Jamestown, North Dakota; Brookings, South Dakota; Manhattan, Kansas; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Wichita Falls, Texas; and Lincoln. Two months later, the United States Department of Agriculture announced that preliminary work had begun to determine suitable sites in terms of soil conditions and terrain as well as species for 1,000 miles of shelterbelts. The Forest Service intended this work to establish the scientific base for the project. Yet, despite this work and the Forest Service's tree-planting experience on the Great Plains, the agency did not know how to go about forestry on such a grand scale. The foresters knew that if they planted the trees too far to the West the seedlings would die. But, if they planted them too far to the east the trees would not be necessary. Moreover, the Forest Service contended all farmers in the zone had to participate in the project to ensure success.30

The survey work in the autumn of 1934, however, led to the publication of a report entitled Possibilities of Shelterbelt Planting in the Plains Region, prepared by the foresters at the Lake States Forest Experiment Station. In it, the Forest Service again revised the shelterbelt plan. It now advocated a 100-mile-wide belt that would stretch 1,150 miles from the Canadian border through the eastern third of the Dakotas, east-central Nebraska, west-central Kansas, and western Oklahoma, and into northern Texas. The western boundary would skirt the 99th meridian from Devil's Lake, North Dakota, to Abilene, Texas, an area that averaged 16 inches of precipitation in the north to 22 inches in the south and which totaled 114,700 square miles. Shelterbelts, however, would not be planted in continuous strips spaced one mile apart. Rather, the Forest Service now determined that only 56 percent of the projected area proved suitable for trees. If, however, the shelterbelts were planted on the appropriate soils and in the best locations, they would help control wind erosion on nearby fields. Raphael Zon also contended that "highly stabilized control of the land dedicated to the shelterbelts is essential." Moreover, the project might require fifty years before the public recognized its benefit. Consequently, long-term federal control of the land was essential. The Forest Service also believed that shelterbelts ordinarily would be planted on one side of the quarter section lines which served as property boundaries to simplify land acquisition.31

Control of the land seemed important to the Forest Service because, in contrast to planting the Nebraska and Kansas National forests, virtually all of the Shelterbelt Project involved planting on private lands. To ensure the shelterbelts would receive proper care, Zon recommended that the federal government acquire ownership of the land through purchase or donation, grants of perpetual easements, leases, or cooperative agreements between the government and landowners. For the 1935 planting season the Forest Service decided to lease the lands for the shelterbelts; however, the government reserved the right to purchase land at any time during the life of the lease. In November 1934, the Forest Service began negotiating with farmers to acquire land for planting in the spring. The government planned to pay farmers an annual rental fee based on the production value of the land. The contract gave the Forest Service the option to purchase the land or acquire an easement at a stipulated price.32

The Forest Service, however, quickly gave up the idea of purchasing the necessary land from owners. The Service and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) also agreed that land planted in shelterbelts would qualify for the crop reduction program with payments made by the AAA, while Forest Service would pay farmers for cultivating and fencing the shelterbelts. But this procedure caused considerable criticism from those who considered the program a financial extravagance because farmers received payment twice for withdrawing their lands from production. As a result, the Forest Service dropped its rental agreement, and farmers were only to receive payment for withdrawing that acreage under the AAA program, but this plan did not go into effect because the Supreme Court held the AAA unconstitutional on January 6, 1936. As a result, in 1937 the Forest Service made simple cooperative agreements with land owners who furnished their property and fencing and who prepared the land for planting in return for a shelterbelt and the erection of fences and rodent control. By doing so, farmers bore about half of the project costs. The Forest Service received legal authorization for this procedure under the Cooperative Farm Forestry Act.33

Other problems quickly plagued the project. Comptroller J. R. McCarl refused to release funds for the program because money provided by the Emergency Appropriation Act of June 18, 1934 could only be spent for emergency work relief. McCarl interpreted the law to mean those funds could not be spent to purchase land, trees, or supplies. Although Roosevelt succeeded in getting the release of $1 million to begin the project, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) began financing it in 1936. Because 90 percent of WPA funds had to be spent in work relief, however, the Forest Service necessarily gave up any hope of purchasing land for the shelterbelts from the farmers.34

Moreover, the Forest Service received criticism not only from those who considered the program nothing more than financial irresponsibility, but also from the nursery owners on the Great Plains. The Forest Service knew from its experiences planting the Nebraska and Kansas national forests that only trees raised in local beds or seeds gathered in the vicinity would survive. Because they could not purchase seedlings or collect seeds from outside the area with much chance for success, the Forest Service planned to purchase from nurseries in the shelterbelt zone until it could establish its own nurseries. The Forest Service, however, ran into trouble almost immediately. Although several nurseries sold some planting stock to the agency at the beginning of the program in 1935, nursery owners refused to do so thereafter because the federal government could not incur obligations beyond the fiscal year. With trees taking several years to sprout and reach sufficient size for transplant, the nursery operators hesitated to incur expenses that they were not guaranteed to recover through government contracts. As a result, the Forest Service leased private nurseries in order to raise transplant stock. Employees also dug up wild cottonwood trees along creek bottoms, and the experiment station at Woodward, Oklahoma, became a leader in seed collection. By 1936, the federal government operated twenty nurseries on the Great Plains, and saved an estimated $15 million over the life of the project, but nursery men did not like it.35

The Forest Service also struggled in the field. When workers planted the first shelterbelt near Mangum, Oklahoma, on March 19, 1935, for example, few farmers on the Great Plains were convinced that the project had merits. Many believed that drought, poor soils, and unsuitable topography would quickly destroy the trees. In the southern Great Plains, where farmers gave little support to the project, only twenty-five miles of shelterbelts were planted in Kansas, while the foresters planted a scant fourteen miles in Oklahoma and merely two miles in Texas during the first year.36

Despite a slow start in some areas, Forest Service agents, known as "land examiners," continued to hold local meetings to enlist support from community leaders and organizations and provide newspapers and radio stations with news releases. In Kansas, for example, the Forest Service had considerable success working with county farm bureaus, local Granges, and Farmers Union organizations. This public-relations work, together with visual evidence that the shelterbelts reduced wind velocity and soil erosion, gained supporters for the project from other landowners, who then agreed to participate in the program.37

The Forest Service began negotiations with Kansas farmers in January 1935, and Charles A. Scott, state project director, emphasized that the shelterbelt project in Kansas was purely a "farm-development project," in order to limit unreasonable expectations, especially in relation to climatic change. Agents soon began taking leases on land in Pratt and Stafford counties. The state office did not establish boundaries for the project, but it intended to work first from the Harper and Barber county line on the south to northern Russell county and then northwest to Norton County. Scott realized that arbitrary boundaries could cause animosity if deserving landowners were excluded and he informed Kansans that "although I am not authorized to do so I am taking it upon myself to say that this is our eastern line, but there will be no western limit to the shelterbelt so long as I am state director." Essentially, he planned for the eastern boundary to follow the twenty-five inch precipitation line from Nebraska to Oklahoma, with the western boundary extending "as far as possible," but restricted to water courses and lowlands.38

With only enough stock purchased from local and Colorado nurseries and from saplings dug up along the Kansas River, the Forest Service could only plant thirty to thirty-five shelter belts or approximately twenty-five to forty miles in Kansas during 1935. The Forest Service decided the first twenty-five miles would be planted in Stafford, Pratt, Kiowa, Edwards, Pawnee, and Barton counties because the soil moisture in this area would support tree planting, even though this section did not need shelterbelts as much as other areas. Clearly, the Forest Service feared failure, and Scott admitted that "we will not go into a dry section, where the ground is absolutely too dry to hope for any results from planting."39

Scott reiterated in no uncertain terms that: "The shelterbelts will not change the general climate of the entire region." But the shelterbelts would "modify temperature, humidity, and wind velocity on portions of the adjoining farms." Shelterbelts would not prevent drought, but they would lessen its effects. Moreover, shelterbelts would not increase the total amount of rainfall, but they would help conserve the moisture. Simply put, the shelterbelts would help control the environment. Scott, however, also deviated from the announced purpose for the shelterbelt program--to help prevent wind erosion. Although he believed the shelterbelts would check wind erosion and protect croplands, Scott envisioned the project in social as well as environmental terms. He wrote that: "We are doing it to improve living conditions; to improve farm conditions in the western half of the state. We want to make conditions liveable. We want to develop a rural sociability, a rural happiness, a rural contentment which we think such plantings will bring about." Scott contended the shelterbelts would "raise the living conditions in the plains region for thousands of people to a higher level of permanence and stability." The project would also encourage farmers to plant more trees.40

Less idealistically, Scott also noted that another important benefit of the project would be the "cash wages" that the federal government would pay farmers for preparing their land for planting and fencing and cultivating the shelterbelts--a "benefit" that could not be underestimated by "anyone familiar with the Middle West in its present condition." Other officials in the Forest Service emphasized, however, that they did not claim that tree planting was a panacea for all of the environmental, social, and economic problems in the Great Plains. But the Forest Service maintained that the Shelterbelt Project offered "the only practicable remedy for some of the fundamental ones."41

By the autumn 1937, the Forest Service had also moved to eliminate the perception that it arbitrarily told landowners where the shelterbelts had to be planted. In Kansas, for example, project officials worked with the county agents in Stafford and Edwards counties to appoint township tree committees. These committees had the responsibility to develop plans that would benefit the local community as well as the farmer. Township tree committees developed and mapped ideal shelterbelt locations and encouraged landowners to participate in the project. By late 1938, 141 township tree committees had been organized in twenty counties, and by the end of 1940, 240 township committees had been formed in Kansas. These committees played an important role in planting 6.4 million trees on 1,286 farms in thirty-four counties during the spring of 1939, the most extensive planting season in the state. Absentee owners of Kansas farmland, who lived in Pennsylvania, Missouri, Illinois, and California, now applied for shelterbelts, because the trees planted in 1935 and 1936 already helped check moving soil. By the end of the decade, landowners in sixty-nine Kansas counties participated in the program and approximately 10.4 million acres had been planted in shelterbelts.42

Despite problems, then the project continued. By late March 1935 Forest Service employees were planting shelterbelts at the rate of 2 miles per day in Collingsworth County, Texas, with 60 miles projected and with shelterbelts also planned for Wheeler and Childress counties. In Oklahoma the Forest Service targeted sixteen counties for 10 miles of shelterbelts. North Dakota had 35 miles planted in shelterbelts, while South Dakota had 28 miles. By the end of 1935, 129 miles of shelterbelts had been planted on 263 Great Plains farms. In the Dust Bowl states the survival rate averaged as high as 70 percent. In 1936, the Forest Service estimated that nearly 1,278 miles of shelterbelts had been planted on 876 farms and that 51 percent survived by September, despite the worst drought year on record. The Forest Service estimated the survival rate for the 1937 plantings at 90 percent by the autumn. This success encouraged the Forest Service to report that the Shelterbelt Project "constitutes complete refutation of the theory that trees will not grow on the Plains." By that time, some of the shelterbelts planted in 1935 allegedly had made a "marked influence" on nearby cropland making production possible where it had been hazardous or impossible before the shelterbelts had been established, a solid indication of the "entire feasibility" of the project. It was a modest but important beginning.43

Because many landowners soon became convinced that shelterbelts could help protect their fields from wind erosion and because farmers outside the shelterbelt zone pressured their congressmen to include them in the program, on May 18, 1937, Congress passed the Norris-Doxey Cooperative Farm Forestry Act which widened the shelterbelt zone to 200 miles. Essentially, this legislation authorized the Forest Service to plant shelterbelts to help control the environment between the 96th and 101st meridians, although some shelterbelts were planted in the Sand Hills country of the Nebraska Panhandle. But this act gave the Prairie States Forestry Project, as it now became known, "functional authorization," but no funding. As a result, the WPA continued to finance the shelterbelt project.44

Because of the expansion of the project and increased precipitation, the Forest Service planted 4,266 miles of shelterbelts during 1938, the peak year for the project. Plantings in the Dust Bowl states of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas totaled 1,050, 1,535, and 1,176 miles respectively, and the per acre cost for the six states only averaged $20.35, about ten dollars less than originally projected. Officials now estimated that one acre of shelterbelt would protect twenty acres of cropland for fifty years. With the survival rate of the trees reaching 80 percent in some of the most drought-stricken and wind-eroded sections of the Great Plains, the foresters believed that the agency had begun to gain control of the environment, and farmers now requested increased plantings.45

As the trees of the Prairie States Forestry Project grew, the shelterbelts shielded wheat fields from the wind and slowed the blowing soil. The success of the Forest Service in reducing wind erosion, however, did not translate into financial support from Congress. The life of the Prairie States Forestry Project continued to rely on the Works Progress Administration for funding, and, with the return of normal precipitation and government concerns about renewed war in Europe, the project received increasingly less attention. By 1940, Harold Smith, director of the Bureau of the Budget urged the USDA to merge the project with the Soil Conservation Service to improve the program's chances for annual funding. Moreover, the soil conservation districts would aid with the planning for the shelterbelts. Roosevelt agreed, and in May preliminary work began for the transfer. When the United States entered the war, work relief projects were no longer needed, and on July 1, 1942, Secretary of Agriculture Claude R. Wickard officially transferred the project to the SCS. By that time, 30,233 shelterbelts containing 220 million trees stretched for 18,600 miles on the Great Plains.46

The SCS, however, considered tree planting as part of its other conservation work, rather than as a major independent activity. SCS officials also preferred to plant smaller windbreaks to protect farmsteads and livestock rather than the larger shelterbelts that primarily were designed to protect crop lands, and it preferred that the initiative for tree planting be assumed by the newly organizing soil conservation districts at the local level. Unfortunately for the Prairie States Forestry Project, however, these districts had been organized across only about 25 percent of the shelterbelt zone. As a result of the war and transfer of the project to the SCS, the Prairie States Forestry Project could not survive. Only 1,750 miles of shelterbelts were planted in 1942, and 65 miles the next year, and the project thereafter ceased to exist.47

In 1954 the Forest Service surveyed the area and once again proclaimed success. The shelterbelts, it contended, had reduced moisture evaporation, checked soil erosion, protected farmsteads, livestock and fields, and increased production on protected lands. The Forest Service estimated that 73 percent of the trees had survived, with 42 percent in good to excellent condition while 31 percent rated fair. The return of normal precipitation and improved economic conditions due to high wartime agricultural prices, however, had encouraged many farmers to neglect their shelterbelts. Twenty years after the project began approximately 30 percent of the shelterbelts had been damaged by grazing cattle, particularly on the southern Great Plains, and many farmers gave little attention to cultivation and the replacement of dead trees. In addition, the Forest Service found that all too often the shelterbelts had been planted too close to roads and power and telegraph lines, which caused visibility problems at intersections, interfered with communication and drifted snow across roadways. Farmers also contended that the shelterbelts drained moisture from nearby cropland and provided a haven for insects. With improved power equipment, many Great Plains farmers contended that they had the technology to protect their cropland from wind erosion and that the shelterbelts took too much acreage out of production. Simply put, they believed the shelterbelts had outlived their purpose. Some farmers even began bulldozing their shelterbelts to gain additional acres for crops.48

Overall, however, the shelterbelts helped protect nearby lands from wind erosion and conserved soil moisture by reducing evaporation. The Forest Service never considered the Shelterbelt or Prairie States Forestry Project to be a panacea that would end the dust storms on the Great Plains, but foresters believed that the shelterbelts could effectively reduce wind erosion if combined with a comprehensive conservation program that included terracing, strip cropping, and other soil and water conservation measures. For a time at least, the Forest Service worked to protect the Great Plains from wind erosion by planting trees, and the shelterbelts served their intended, though limited, purpose.49

On a broader scale the work of the Forest Service to establish the Nebraska National Forest together with its failure to create a similar reserve in Kansas as well as its success at planting shelterbelts on the Great Plains shows that the federal government had a long-standing belief that forestry could help control the environment of the Great Plains. Although neither the Nebraska National Forest nor the shelterbelts proved capable of controlling the environment as the Forest Service originally planned, each achieved limited success in helping reduce wind erosion caused by drought and cultivation. Most important the Nebraska National Forest and the shelterbelts reflect an optimistic belief that state planning could achieve environmental control on the Great Plains. As such the Nebraska National Forest and the shelterbelts remain tangible reminders of an age when the concept of environmental control seemed within the grasp of farmers and foresters alike on the Great Plains.


NOTES

  1. Henry Nash Smith, "Rain Follows the Plow: The Notion of Increased Rainfall for the Great Plains, 1844-1880," Huntington Library Quarterly 10 (1947): 174.

  2. Carlos G. Bates and Roy G. Pierce, "Forestation of the Sand Hills of Nebraska and Kansas," United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Bulletin 121, 1913, 8-9, 11; Raymond J. Poole, "Fifty Years of the Nebraska National Forest," Nebraska History 34 (September 1953): 143; John Clark Hunt, "The Forest that Men Made, Part II," American Forests 71 (December 1965): 34.

  3. B. E. Fernow, "What is Forestry?" United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Bulletin 5, 1891, 34-35.

  4. Bates and Pierce, "Forestation of the Sand Hills," 20; Poole, "Fifty Years on the Nebraska National Forest," 145.

  5. John Clark Hunt, "The Forest that Men Made, Part I," American Forests 71 (November 1965): 46; Poole, "Fifty Years on the Nebraska National Forest," 145-46.

  6. Bates and Pierce, "Forestation of the Sand Hills," 19.

  7. Ibid., 22; Poole, "Fifty Years on the Nebraska National Forest," 148-49.

  8. Addison E. Sheldon, "Silver Anniversary of the Nebraska National Forest," Journal of Forestry 25 (December 1927): 1021; Poole, "Fifty Years on the Nebraska National Forest," 157-59; Bates and Pierce, "Forestation of the Sand Hills," 22-23; Seward D. Smith, "Forestation a Success in the Sand Hills of Nebraska," Proceeding of the Society of American Foresters (Washington, D.C.: Judd & Detwiler, Inc., 1914), 389-90.

  9. Bates and Pierce, "Forestation of the Sand Hills," 8.

  10. Ibid., 18-19.

  11. Ibid., 22; Smith, "Forestation a Success in the Sand Hills," 388.

  12. Hunt, "The Forest that Men Made, Part II," 34; Clarence Arthur Johnson, "Forestation in Nebraska," 72; Smith, "Forestation a Success in the Sand Hills," 389.

  13. Smith, "Forestation a Success in the Sand Hills," 394; J. Higgins, "Facts and Figures Regarding the Nebraska Planting Project," Journal of Forestry 25 (December 1927): 1027, 1029; Johnson, "Forestation in Nebraska," 69-70.

  14. Gifford Pinchot, Breaking New Ground (New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1947), 238; Hunt, "The Forest that Men Made, Part II," 48.

  15. Willis Conner Sorensen, "The Kansas National Forest, 1905-1915," Kansas Historical Quarterly 35 (Winter 1969): 388-89.

  16. Bates and Pierce, "Forestation of the Sand Hills," 19; R. S. Kellogg, "Forest Planting in Western Kansas," United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service Circular 161, March 2, 1909, 10, 50; Sorensen, "The Kansas National Forest," 389-90.

  17. Bates and Pierce, "Forestation of the Sand Hills," 22, 38.

  18. Sorensen, "The Kansas National Forest," 392.

  19. Ibid., 390; Bates and Pierce, "Forestation of the Sand Hills," 38.

  20. Sorensen, "The Kansas National Forest," 389-90, 393-394; Bates and Pierce, "Forestation of the Sand Hills," 24, 38.

  21. James M. Fetherolf, "Forest Planting on the Northern Prairies," United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Circular 145, March 20, 1908, 5, 7; Possibilities of Shelterbelt Planting in the Plains Region (Washington, D.C. Government Printing Office, 1935), 52; Johnson, "Forestation in Nebraska," 75-77.

  22. Johnson, "Forestation in Nebraska," 75-78.

  23. E. N. Munns and J. H. Stoeckeler, "How Are the Great Plains Shelterbelts," Journal of Forestry 44 (April 1946): 237; Wilmon H. Droze, Trees, Prairies, and People: A History of Tree Planting in the Plains States (Denton, TX: Texas Woman's University, 1977), 61, 71.

  24. Munns and Stoeckeler, "How Are the Great Plains Shelterbelts," 237; "Forestry for the Great Plains," September 15, 1937, Lincoln, Nebraska, September, 1937, Prairie States Forestry Project, National Archives Record Group 114 (hereafter cited as NARG 114); Droze, Trees, Prairies, and People, 63-64.

  25. H. H. Chapman, "The Shelterbelt Tree Planting Project," Journal of Forestry 32 (November 1934): 801; Royal S. Kellogg, "The Shelterbelt Scheme," Journal of Forestry 32 (December 1934): 977; Thomas R. Wessel, "Roosevelt and the Great Plains Shelterbelt," Great Plains Journal 8 (Spring 1969): 58; Johnson, "Forestation in Nebraska," 84-85; W. I. Drummond, "Dust Bowl," Review of Reviews 93 (June 1936): 40; Droze, Trees, Prairies, and People, 97.

  26. Droze, Trees, Prairies, and People, 74; Wessel, "Roosevelt and the Great Plains Shelterbelt," 58-59; Report of the Chief of the Forest Service, 1934, 6.

  27. Droze, Trees, Prairies, and People, 74.

  28. Amarillo Globe, July 22, 1934 and December 28, 1934; Raphael Zon, "Shelterbelts--Futile Dream or Workable Plan," Science 81 (April 26, 1935): 394.

  29. Droze, Trees, Prairies, and People, 86, 96, 98-100; Amarillo Globe, July 22, 1934.

  30. "Forestry for the Great Plains," NARG 114; Report of the Forest Service, 1936, 41; Droze, Trees, Prairies, and People, 102-04.

  31. Possibilities of Shelterbelt Planting in the Plains Region, 5, 17; Report of the Forest Service, 1935, 6- 7; Zon, "Shelterbelts--Futile Dream or Workable Plan," 392; Droze, Trees, Prairies, and People, 115.

  32. Possibilities of Shelterbelt Planting in the Plains Region, 1-9.

  33. Droze, Trees, Prairies, and People, 151, 197-98; Report of the Forest Service, 1937, 29; Wessel, "Roosevelt and the Great Plains Shelterbelt," 59, 61; Report of the Forest Service, 1939, 27; Edgar B. Nixon, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Conservation, 1911-45, Vol. I (Washington, D.C. Government Printing Office, 1957), 335; John N. Ballantyne, "The Prairie States Shelterbelt Project," (Master's thesis, Yale University, 1949): 6.

  34. Wessel, "Roosevelt and the Great Plains Shelterbelt," 58; Droze, Trees, Prairies, and People, 195.

  35. Report of the Forest Service, 1936, 42.

  36. "Forestry for the Great Plains," NARG 114; James B. Lang, "The Shelterbelt Project in the Southern Great Plains--1934-1970--A Geographic Appraisal," (Master's thesis, University of Oklahoma, 1970), 99.

  37. Lang, "The Shelterbelt Project in the Southern Great Plains," 114; Charles A. Scott, "The Plains Shelterbelt Project," Report of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture for the Quarter Ending March 1935, 47.

  38. Vera Carney Alden, "A History of the Shelterbelt Project in Kansas," (Master's thesis, Kansas State College, 1949), 24; Scott, "The Plains Shelterbelt Project," 45-46, 48.

  39. Scott, "The Plains Shelterbelt Project," 48, 53-54.

  40. Ibid., 48-50.

  41. Ibid., 51; "Forestry for the Great Plains," NARG 114.

  42. T. Russell Reitz, "Farm Forestry in Kansas," Thirty-first Biennial Report of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture, 1937-38, 60; Alden, "A History of the Shelterbelt Project in Kansas," 28-29; Progress Report of the Work of the Forest Service in Kansas, July 1, 1937 to June 30, 1938, Box 76, Clifford Hope Collection, Kansas State Historical Society (hereafter cited as KSHS); Progress Report of the Work of the Forest Service in Kansas, July 1, 1938 to December 31, 1938, Box 76, Clifford Hope Collection, KSHS.

  43. Amarillo Globe, March 19, 1935; Dodge City Daily Globe, June 20, 1935; Report of the Chief of the Forest Service, 1937, 29; "Forestry for the Great Plains," NARG 114; Report of the Chief of the Forest Service, 1936, 42; Lang, "The Shelterbelt Project in the Southern Great Plains," 39.

  44. Ballantyne, "The Prairie States Shelterbelt Project," 12; Droze, Trees, Prairie, and People, 210-13; Wessel, "Roosevelt and the Great Plains Shelterbelt," 63.

  45. "Forestry for the Great Plains," NARG 114; D. S. Olson, Memorandum for Acting Director, May 16, 1938, Prairie States Forestry Project, NARG 114; "Shelterbelt Plantings," Journal of Forestry 36 (January 1938): 581; Edwin R. Henson to Milton S. Eisenhower, February 2, 1940, Prairie States Forestry Project, NARG, 114.

  46. Report of the Chief of the Forest Service, 1942, 22; Munns and Stoeckeler, "How Are the Great Plains Shelterbelts," 239; Droze, Trees, Prairies, and People, 222-23.

  47. Droze, Trees, Prairies, and People, 225-27.

  48. Ibid., 245; Ballantyne, "The Prairie States Forestry Project," 5-6, 77, 79; Lang, "The Shelterbelt Project in the Southern Great Plains, 120-21.

  49. Possibilities of Shelterbelt Planting in the Plains Region, 7-9.

Sherow's Homepage
Kansas State University | K-State History Department

Proceedings and Resource Guide: Table of Contents