Shelterbelt Project (1934)

Concerned about the wind erosion and dust storms that were plaguing the farms of the Great Plains during the Depression, President Roosevelt asked his Forest Service Chief, Robert Stuart, on August 19, 1933, “what would it cost to put a series of 100-foot shelterbelts on… a small portion of Northern Texas, a small portion of Western Texas, a small portion of Western Oklahoma, across Western Kansas and across Central Nebraska… to be located approximately five miles apart and a total of six belts?” [1].  A year later, after a series of executive orders, rulings, and memos, the Shelterbelt Project began with $1 million in start-up funding [2].  Headquarters were established in Lincoln, Nebraska in August 1934, and offices in North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas soon followed [3].  The Forest Service reported that the first tree of the Shelterbelt Project was planted on March 19, 1935 near Mangum, Oklahoma – “an Austrian pine seedling planted on the farm of H.E. Curtis” [4].

The idea of using trees to create windbreaks for land protection was not new.  The practice dated back to at least the 1850s when settlers in Kansas and Nebraska “soon learned that the planting of groups or belts of trees prevented the wind from blowing away their soils in storms” [5].  Even President Roosevelt’s interest was based partly on a small shelterbelt-type program that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had been operating since 1913 [6].  Still, as might be expected, there was intense debate and disagreement about whether a large-scale tree-planting project was worth funding and, if so, what kind of trees should be planted and where [7].  In addition, the Shelterbelt Project was intended to “provide worth-while work for the unemployed” [8].

Because Roosevelt had trouble securing adequate, permanent funding for the project, “he made the Shelterbelt Project part of the Works Progress Administration” (WPA) in 1937 (though it still operated in conjunction with the Forest Service) [9].  Around this same time, the project was renamed “Prairie States Forestry Project”, but it was still known by the popular name, “Shelterbelt Project”.  With the substantial funds and manpower of the WPA to support it, the Shelterbelt Project flourished.  The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) also played a significant role in the Shelterbelt Project, collecting seeds, operating tree nurseries, and planting [10].

Over the course of its life, the Shelterbelt Project had a huge impact. “By the time of World War II, they had planted 217 million trees on 232,212 acres of land surrounding 30,000 farms” [11].  The tree planting program was good not only for land, farmers, and people in need of jobs, it was beneficial to wildlife by providing habitat, cover and food [12].

On July 1, 1942, the Shelterbelt Project moved from WPA and Forest Service supervision to the Soil Conservation Service, “but the war effort caused its quick demise” [13].  In recent years, there have been some efforts to restore aging sections of the Shelterbelt [14], but in many other areas, trees have been removed, or have died, and there is little interest in restoring them, despite the potential for wind damage, wildlife death, higher home energy costs, etc. [15].

Sources: (1) “Franklin D. Roosevelt and Conservation, Volume 1, Part II,” U.S. General Services Administration and National Park Service, accessed October 22, 2017.  (2) Ibid.  (3) U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Forestry for the Great Plains, 1937, p. 2, accessed October 22, 2017.  (4) Ibid.  (5) Perry H. Merrill, Roosevelt’s Forest Army: A History of the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942, Montpelier, VT: 1981, p. 36.  (6) James S. Olson (ed.), Historical Dictionary of the New Deal: From Inauguration to Preparation for War, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985, pp. 450-451, citing Thomas R. Wessel, “Roosevelt and the Great Plains Shelterbelt,” Great Plains Journal, VIII: 57-73, (January, 1969).  (7) See, e.g., “The ‘No. 1 Shelterbelt’ celebrates 75 years,” Southern Group of State Foresters, 2010, accessed October 22, 2017.  (8) U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, The Prairie States Forestry Project: What it is and what it does, 1940, p. 1, accessed October 22, 2017.  (9) See note 6; and also see: Federal Works Agency, Work Projects Administration, Report on Progress of the WPA Program, June 30, 1939, p. 123.  (10) See note 5, p. 37; and also see “FDR’s Great Wall Of Trees: The Prairie States Forestry Project,” NET: Nebraska’s PBS and NPR Stations, May 24, 2017, accessed October 22, 2017.  (11) See note 6.  (12) See, e.g., “Wildlife Gets Big Break in 1,000 Mile Tree Belt,” Moravia Union newspaper (Iowa), August 23, 1934.  (13) See note 7.  (14) See, e.g., “NRCS Announces Funding to Renovate Shelterbelts and Restore Forested Riparian Areas,” Natural Resources Conservation Service, March 1, 2011, accessed October 22, 2017.  (15) See, e.g., “Dust Bowl Worries Swirl Up As Shelterbelt Buckles,” NPR, September 10, 2013, “Shelterbelts, one of the great soil conservation measures of the 1930s, are being removed,” DakotaFire Media, LLC, February 4, 2013, and “Ashes and sawdust: Historic windbreak toppled and burned,” Lincoln Journal Star, May 19, 2017, all accessed October 22, 2017.