Conservation Lessons of the Dust Bowl

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.”

The lessons learned from the Dust Bowl are as important today as they were in the 1930s. As the world’s population continues to grow, so does the demand for food and fiber. For example, we expect that food production will need to double by 2050 to keep up with these demands.

If we are to meet those demands – without creating another natural disaster – it is critical to keep our lands and waters healthy and productive. Conservation cannot be viewed as an afterthought or a luxury. It is an essential tool to ensure the long-term productivity of agriculture and forestry, and to sustain the economic viability of rural families and communities.

We should be proud that our nation has been able to avoid another Dust Bowl thanks to well-designed conservation programs that assist farmers to retire unproductive lands, protect the soils and water sources farmers rely upon for their livelihoods, and preserve natural habitat in rural landscapes.

The results of these conservation activities have multiple benefits for every region of America. Not only have we been able to feed growing populations, but we’ve also protected rural economies. Farming and farm-related employment supports about 24 million jobs across the United States. Hunting, angling and wildlife-dependent recreation contribute $122 billion annually to our national economy. Natural resources-based products represent a significant proportion of the export sector so essential to our economic health.

Seventy years ago, the Dust Bowl taught our nation the importance of conservation. We learned a very important lesson. Our economies, our security and our livelihoods continue to depend on healthy lands and waters.

Read more about the Dust Bowl and the conservation policies it sparked, and see a slide show of the impact it had across the country.

Mark Tercek is the president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy.

[Image: A dust storm envelopes a house in Stratford, TX. Image source: Natural Resources Conservation Service]


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Summerannie Moon
Summerannie M5 years ago

Thank you

Kelly Rogers6 years ago

Thanx, for the article

Mike D.
Mike D.6 years ago

Mark is hosting a twitter chat on Thursday. Please ask him more about this or other topics. Here is how:

Christine C.
Chandra C6 years ago

The Grapes of Wrath should still be required reading.

Neil A.
Neil N6 years ago

Soil erosion by over watering is a great problem in some areas, this just washes the best topsoil away, Ploughing is not such a good idea if done at the wrong time(which is almost always) & unnatural

Lost Account
Past Member 6 years ago

What a scary time that was. They need to add that to mainstream history books. I didn't learn about that when I was in school.

Ruth R.
Ruth R6 years ago

Gardening indoor and outdoor is an answer. Each man, and women that is willing, can help to contribute to their own food supply by growing food in their own windows, mini greenhouses, containers, and garden plot -- if they have one. Saving the seeds from year to year will help with seed diversity.

"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."

Read more:

Robert Hardy
Robert Hardy6 years ago

So what will the conservatives find wrong with saving farm land I wonder?

Patricia Garcia Ces
Patricia Ces6 years ago

Thanks a lot for sharing this post!!!

Sandi C.
Sandi C6 years ago

My dad told me about this!