Dust-to-Dust: Don’t Blame the Drought

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I recently phoned members of my geographically far-flung family to give them Thanksgiving greetings and was struck by a common element of our ensuing conversations. From Iowa and Nebraska to Kentucky and Texas, the report was the same: drought, drought and more drought. I thought about that recently while watching the  new documentary, The Dust Bowl, and reading The Worst Hard Time. Think the erosion we’re experiencing in the Midwest is a natural result of drier than normal weather? That’s what they thought back in the 1930s.

Our moisture situation is going down hill fast. According to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor, which was released today, 62.65 percent of the contiguous U.S. is experiencing at least a “moderate” drought. That’s up from 60.09 percent a week ago.

In Minnesota, 18 percent of the state was in a severe drought last week. In just a week that figure jumped to an astounding 58 percent. Twenty-five percent of Minnesota remains in an extreme drought, a figure that’s held steady for the past month. That area includes a large portion of southwestern and south-central Minnesota and part of the northwest.

But we’re looking downright monsoon-like when compared to the High Plains states like Nebraska, South Dakota and Kansas—in that region almost 58 percent of the land area is in “extreme” or “exceptional” drought, which are the worst categories.

As we’ve reported previously, the amount of erosion we’ve experienced in 2012 is already being compared to the gritty blackouts we had in the Dirty Thirties (the photo below was taken recently in southwest Minnesota; yes, that’s a road ditch full of soil). A viewing of Ken Burns’ Dust Bowl shows we aren’t quite there yet. Kids aren’t dying of dust pneumonia and ships 300 miles out to sea aren’t being coated in wayward topsoil.

But as the worst drought to hit this country in decades stretches through another winter, it’s going to become increasingly easier to blame any excessive erosion on this “Act of God.” This kind of thinking threatens to give monocropping and intense tillage a free pass. It doesn’t hurt that a highly-flawed crop insurance program helps makes farming marginal, drought-prone land less risky that it probably should be.

We shift blame to the weather gods at our own risk. One of the most striking things about The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan’s riveting historical account of “The Big Dust Up,” is how long it took the government, scientists, even residents of the hardest hit areas to accept the inevitable reality: the Dust Bowl of the 1930s was not a natural phenomenon. In fact, as Burns’ PBS film bluntly notes, it was in fact the greatest man-made eco disaster in U.S. history.

The “dusters” which regularly sent a state’s worth of soil into the air, creating midnight at noon, conjuring up enough static electricity to power cities and literally killing children who got lost or came down with dust pneumonia had their roots in the way in which human beings treated the land. As Egan documents, it was a combination of government agricultural policy, hubris and blind boosterism that doomed High Plains communities in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado and Nebraska to a catastrophe of Biblical proportions. When drought hit, the land was primed to be decimated by something that should have been a mere blip in meteorological history.

Egan and Burns tracked down survivors and combed through diaries to bring alive what it was like to see the land that had offered so much promise betray its residents. He also gives a sense of why these people didn’t join John Steinbeck’s Okies in heading to California. Some simply had no way to leave; others felt too rooted in this landscape to imagine living anywhere else.

It turns out we can thank these stubborn High Plains residents for a lot of advances in soil conservation and land stewardship. If it wasn’t for them, American society may have written off the Dust Bowl region completely, dismissing it as an uninhabitable wasteland. But they stuck it out, and their stories got back to Washington, D.C.

What also got back to the government was a convincing argument that humans had played a major part in this problem. As the film and book document, Hugh Hammond Bennett gets a lot of credit for that. Bennett was the founder of the Soil Erosion Service, which later became the Soil Conservation Service. Today it’s called the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

A scientist who had studied soil all over the world, Bennett was convinced that government policies which had promoted intense cultivation of the High Plains were to blame. Sure, a severe drought, or “drouth” as people from the Midwest and West still call it, wasn’t helping matters any, but the region had experienced dry weather in the past and had not collapsed this completely. Removing the grass that had rooted the soil in place for untold years had decimated the ecosystem, argued Bennett.

Despite his practical and academic background, Bennett was dismissed at first. “Some called him a crank. They blamed the withering of the Great Plains on weather, not on farming methods,” writes Egan. “Basic soil science was one thing but talking about the fragile web of life and slapping the face of nature—this kind of early ecology had yet to find a wider audience.” (It’s worth noting the similarities to the lengthy period of time it’s taken policymakers to accept that humans are playing a major role in global climate change.)

Bennett used science, firsthand accounts and a little theatrics (he once timed his testimony before Congress to coincide with the remnants of a massive High Plains duster blowing into Washington) to eventually convince Washington that the Dust Bowl was a manmade disaster, and thus could and should be fixed by human intervention. Bennett got funding and other resources to create major erosion mitigation and prevention efforts, including the development of local soil conservation districts, entities that today are still major players in protecting the landscape.

Severe droughts have hit the High Plains since the 1930s, but catastrophic erosion has not returned. Studies have credited the presence of soil conservation districts for staving off the return of the Dust Bowl.

This is an important point. Earlier this fall, I witnessed firsthand how one soil conservation district in North Dakota is bringing together farmers, scientists and conservationists to naturally build the kind of soil that can engineer its own resiliency and drought resistance. (To read recent articles on the “soil health” initiative in North Dakota’s Burleigh County, check the No. 3 and No. 4 edition of the Land Stewardship Letter. An Ear to the Ground podcast also features this exciting effort.)

While in North Dakota, I was struck at how many people have made the connection between healthy soil, healthy lands and healthy communities. Dry (and wet) times will come and go—but if the soil is healthy, such shifts can become mere weather setbacks in the long span of time, rather than catastrophes that blow entire economies and communities into the ditch. But building soil for the future requires long-term thinking, something that’s often overlooked during a boom grain market—whether it be in 1929 or 2012.

As Dust Bowl survivor Wayne Lewis said in Burns’ film, “If the things we’re doing are going to mess up the future, it wasn’t a good idea. Don’t deal on the moment—take the long term look at things.”

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