By Mark Tercek, The Nature Conservancy
This month marked the anniversary of one of the worst man-made disasters ever to hit the United States.
On May 9, 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. Find out how you can speak up for this important bill.
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.”