Uprooting FDR’s ‘Great Wall of Trees’

Planted after the Dust Bowl. Cut down in the climate change era.

Surely the end was nigh. Up and down the Great Plains, from the Texas panhandle to the Dakota prairies, dust stripped the paint from their barns, the wheat from their fields, the money — what pitiful amount was left — from their pockets. “Today is just common hell, death and destruction to every growing thing,” wrote Donald Hartwell, a Nebraska farmer, in his journal. “God in his infinite wisdom might have made a more discouraging place than Webster County, Nebraska, but so far as I know God never did.”

The dust starved their cattle and choked their friends, their neighbors, swallowed a young schoolboy in Hays, Kansas, just a quarter-mile from his house. The roiling “black blizzards” veiled their homes in darkness, left their creaking floors rippled with silt, caked the bed sheets they soaked in kerosene and stretched across their windows. Like bandits, they tied handkerchiefs around their faces — only they were the victims, held hostage by the billions of tons of topsoil they’d plowed under over the previous half-century. They greased their nostrils with Vaseline. They swept. They prayed. They swept again. And often, finally, they left.

But FDR, long fascinated by forestry, had a plan to curb the Dust Bowl. On July 11, 1934, he issued an executive order for what he called on multiple occasions “my baby,” allocating $15 million for “the planting of forest protection strips in the Plains Region as a means of ameliorating drought conditions.”

Over the next seven years, the United States Forest Service — in conjunction with local farmers, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration — would plant more than 220 million trees as part of the Prairie States Forestry Project, developing 18,000 miles of windbreaks on 33,000 Great Plains farms and helping curtail one of the largest man-made ecological disasters in history.

A road sign in Orchard, Nebraska, still points visitors in the direction of an historical marker about a mile and a half north of the town. The marker, which once indicated the location of a nearly century-old shelterbelt, was removed along with the trees in May 2017.

Three-quarters of a century later, climate change now threatens the Plains with a new era of prolonged drought and other extreme weather events. So the question stands: will FDR’s visionary experiment still be here to cope with it?

Today, due to improved agricultural technology, a subsidized marketplace that incentivizes fencerow-to-fencerow planting, and a waning conservation ethic among Plains farmers, many if not most of those shelterbelts have been systematically removed: cut, burned, and buried where they stood. In Nebraska alone, 57 percent of the original PSFP plantings have been cut back or lost altogether. To many, “FDR’s trees” are simply no longer necessary.

Yet many agroforestry officials, noting a bleak climate-change forecast for the Plains and the ongoing conversion of prairie to cropland, worry farmers may be tearing out their last line of defense when they need it most.

“My big concern is that we’ve got all these wonderful new technologies like no-till systems and cover crops that should ideally provide us a lot of protection against an extended drought like the great Dust Bowl,” says John Duplissis, rural forestry program leader for the Nebraska Forest Service. “But if we get an extended drought again like the Dust Bowl, you’re not planting cover crops, your no-till is drying up and blowing away, and we’ll be back to that bare-soil situation that was so much of those dust storms that occurred during the 30s. Trees really still need to be part of that system.”

A shelterbelt south of Orchard, Nebraska.

Private Property
The calls trickled in as rumors of the slated demolition of Nebraska’s first PSFP shelterbelt near the small town of Orchard circulated about Antelope County. But during the week of May 10, 2017, as bulldozers toppled the grand old cottonwood trees, and later still, as workers doused them with gasoline and set them aflame just yards from the official state historical marker, the main line at the Nebraska State Historical Society “was ringing off the hook,” says Jill Dolberg, deputy state historic preservation officer — all of them locals hoping to somehow halt the destruction.

“They were so sweetly distressed about this loss of history, but there was nothing we could do for them,” Dolberg says. “We don’t have any control over private property rights.”

Last April, a farmer named Brian Smith purchased the land. With no legal obligation to the state, he tore out Nebraska’s most celebrated shelterbelt to put a few more acres into production. Today, despite highway signs still indicating an historical site one and a half miles north of Orchard, visitors will find little more than a newly planted wheat field, green despite a summer of intense drought. Like most farmers, Smith irrigates the land. When reached for comment, he hung up the phone.

Despite the outcry, Smith’s decision to remove the shelterbelt has become a regular occurrence in the Great Plains, if not the status quo. And though it’s easy to vilify the landowner, the picture isn’t as black and white as it may seem.

Just a few miles southwest, 30-year-old Taylor Schwager reclines in a black swivel chair behind his desk, fingers clasped behind his head. Once a computer science major at a nearby community college — “Got kind of bored with it and realized I didn’t want to be inside all day,” he says — he’s converted a garage on the family farm to an air-conditioned office. The monitor beside him shows an aerial photo of his land, several major shelterbelts still in place, captured by his drone.

“Brian’s a good friend of mine, so I don’t know if I want to say anything good or bad,” he says, planting his feet back on the ground and weaving an unlit cigarette between his fingers. “I hate to see that shelterbelt go, because it was one of the oldest. And it’s north of me, so it’s surely doing me some good somewhere down the road. But the big scheme of it is, for a kid my age, 30 years old, to go out and borrow a million dollars to buy a quarter of ground — if you don’t farm every acre that you’re buying, we barely stand a chance of getting it paid for to begin with.”

He lets the idea settle a beat before pulling an old calculator from the drawer.

A shelterbelt is removed on a farmstead along Highway 20, east of Orchard, Nebraska.

“You’re talking 160 acres times — let’s say he bought it for $6,150 an acre,” he says, punching in the digits. “You’re talking $984,000. If you can get a bank to go on a 30-year term, that’s $33,000 a year without interest, just principal. Right now with corn being $3.50 a bushel, he’d be lucky to make that gross profit, let alone leaving seven acres here and three acres there and what have you. The two or three acres the trees take up doesn’t sound like a lot, but if you’ve got three acres times 200-bushel corn, you’re talking 600 bushels of corn. If corn went to $5 you’re talking an extra $3,000, and that pays your real estate tax or a good portion of it, or a tank of fuel for your inputs. I can see why he did it.”

Once a technology that helped farmers safeguard their land, shelterbelts in the Great Plains today are under siege by nearly every aspect of the agricultural industry, especially when commodity and land prices soar. In 2012, when corn prices briefly topped $8 per bushel, producers scrambled to plant every acre.

Workers for Brandt Excavating remove a shelterbelt near Agnew, Nebraska, to make room for the widening of Highway 79. The company is contracted with the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources to remove the shelterbelt, but replace it with twice as many trees to protect the surrounding wetland after the highway project is completed.

“The current way of thinking is that if you have very high prices for commodities like we did half a dozen years ago, well that becomes an incentive to rip out the nonproductive land,” says Dave Wedin, an ecosystem ecologist at the University of Nebraska. “But they’re still ripping them out, and corn is low again. Now the argument changes and they say, ‘Yeah, but I’m struggling to make ends meet. I need those extra acres.’ Either way.”

Beyond the crude calculus of Schwager’s scenario, farmers face pressure from their ag lenders, who often encourage them to remove their shelterbelts for additional cropland, looking for a quicker return on the investment. And they face pressure from their seed salesmen, hoping to sell them more seed, and from their fertilizer salesman, hoping to sell them more fertilizer; and from their tax assessor, who often values the land greater with the trees removed; and from their implement dealers, pushing to sell them a larger piece of equipment.

“You’re going to hear the bankers etcetera say ‘go for it’ one hundred times more in the course of a year than you’re going to hear somebody say, ‘back off,’ or ‘get smaller,’” Schwager says.

But perhaps the biggest culprit is modern agricultural technology, especially center-pivot irrigation and no-till methods. When the PSFP planted its first tree — an Austrian pine — near Mangum, Oklahoma, in March 1935, farming relied entirely on the rain. All farmers were dryland farmers. A summer of drought meant almost total crop failure. Today, however, farmers can essentially produce the rain themselves. Blessed with an abundant supply of groundwater from the Ogallala Aquifer and the means now to pump and spray it evenly across their fields, farmers no longer face immediate economic crisis in a summer of drought, especially when coupled with Federal Crop Insurance and other securities offered through the Farm Bill.

Furthermore, the design of center-pivot irrigation, popularized in the 1960s, often requires farmers to remove at least a portion of their shelterbelts. As the name implies, center pivots rotate from the center. But cropland has long been divvied up in squares. In order for the pivot to make a full circular rotation, at least a portion of each side of the square must be totally cleared. Many of the shelterbelts remaining in the plains today — originally stretching a half-mile or more along section lines — have been carved apart, a large portion now missing in the middle. More often, however, farmers opt to remove the belt completely. The recent advent of the “swing arm,” an appendage that folds out from the center pivot when rotating around the corners, virtually requires it.

But in the Southern Plains, the aquifer recharges so slowly it is, for all intents and purposes, a finite resource. Assuming the drought conditions forecasted by the National Climate Assessment for the Great Plains come to fruition, “Increased water withdrawals from the Ogallala Aquifer and High Plains Aquifer would accelerate ongoing depletion in the southern parts of the aquifers and limit the ability to irrigate.” And though the northern portion of the Ogallala recharges much faster, it may not recharge fast enough to keep up with the increased demand during periods of intense drought. In such an event, farmers would face restrictions on their water use, especially given the additional demand from urban areas also suffering from drought. In other words, you can’t always irrigate your way out.

“To have that resource not be there, it would get ugly fast,” Schwager says. “And I’m not saying just because you have a row of trees going through your farm that you’re going to make it through and your neighbor’s not, but every little bit you can do to help prevent that (erosion) is good.”

Following the 1985 Farm Bill, no-till farming exploded across the plains. Beyond the subsidies provided, the practice — a way of planting crops into the previous year’s residue instead of stripping the topsoil — helps farmers control erosion through improved moisture retention, and often includes the use of cover crops to control weeds and rejuvenate the soil. According to the most recent Census of Agriculture, nearly 88 million acres of cropland in the United States are under no-till management, with 10.3 million planted with cover crops. But while these and other conservation methods have significantly hampered soil erosion over the last 30 years, many conservationists fear their practicality during a period of prolonged drought — precisely what climate change experts forecast for the Great Plains.

A shelterbelt on Highway 13, south of Plainview, Nebraska.

A 2015 study by researchers at NASA, Columbia University, and Cornell University, published in the journal Science Advances, analyzing more than a thousand years’ worth of climate data, takes the forecast a step further, predicting a generation-spanning “megadrought” sometime between 2050 and 2099, barring serious government intervention. But either way, whether a drought spans a generation or half a decade, if you can’t grow a crop, you won’t have the residue left behind to trap what little moisture might remain in your fields. When no-till and cover crops fail, those old shelterbelts may prove invaluable, the last line in defense against erosion.

“The part of human nature I see being replayed is our dependence on technology — that technology will save us, regardless of what the problem is,” says Richard Straight, technology transfer leader at the National Agroforestry Center, part of the USFS. “But technology has costs. As we are more and more dependent on fertilizers rather than healthy soil, on herbicides rather than other cultural practices, on irrigation rather than managing for drought tolerance, I think we put ourselves at risk.”

Real Benefits
In 1966, Walt Bagley, an assistant professor of forestry who’d previously worked for the US Forest Service, designed and implemented the 500-acre Agroforestry Farm on land granted by the Army to the University of Nebraska for research and education. It remains the only replicated, long-term shelterbelt study in the country. Once a treeless property, Bagley and his team soon planted “six 40-acre windbreak systems, each planted with a tic-tac-toe arrangement of windbreaks to create a set of small crop fields with differing degrees of wind protection,” according to the university website.

Today, though certain alterations have been made to the windbreaks over the last 50 years — primarily the removal of dead cottonwood trees — Bagley’s design remains largely intact and the studies continue, on everything from crop yields to genotype tree trials to avian habitats on agricultural landscapes. Driving east on Highway 66 toward the farm with Jim Brandle and Dave Wedin, the former and current director, respectively, I ask what’s come from all this research, the biggest revelation from the past half-century.

“Depends on who you ask,” Brandle says. “In my opinion, we’ve demonstrated without a doubt that shelterbelts increase crop yields. We typically average about 12-15 percent more in wheat yields, about 15-20 in soybean yields, and about 12 percent in corn yields. Now that doesn’t mean we have that every year. It means that one year you might have zero because of the conditions, and the next year you may have 25 percent because of the conditions. But I think we’ve demonstrated without a doubt that it’s an enhancement.”

The more relevant question today, he says, is whether or not shelterbelts have the same effect on the yield of new GMO crops, specifically designed for drought tolerance. Though a region-wide study is currently underway, the verdict so far is inconclusive. But either way, he says, the shelterbelt’s role in protecting crops and reducing erosion hasn’t changed, and all of the secondary benefits are still in play.

Beyond improved yields, shelterbelts provide a natural wood supply and thick natural habitat for birds — a crucial check on destructive insects — and other wild game. They trap snow on the fields, increasing soil moisture come planting season, and they protect farmsteads and livestock alike from harsh winter winds, putting a major dent in home fuel needs. And though it’s virtually a non-starter for most plains farmers today, windbreaks also help sequester carbon, an important role in the fight against global warming.

“We know that by controlling the temperature of the soil surface and not having erosion, we can keep organic matter in the soil and we can improve soil quality over time by helping that organic matter develop and stay in the field,” says Craig Derickson, Nebraska state conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. “As carbon sequestration becomes more recognized as a problem, tree plantings on the plains can help us manage excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”

Still, many farmers and ranchers — even when presented with the economics of improved yields and fewer inputs — continue to remove their shelterbelts, disregarding or ignoring the signs of climate change and the threats of another Dust Bowl. Without an ingrained conservation ethic, the benefits appear too abstract, too out of sync with the prevailing attitude toward trees in plains agriculture. In fact, an undergraduate thesis conducted at UNL under Brandle’s supervision compared producer attitudes in Eastern Nebraska toward shelterbelts in 2009 with a similar study conducted in 1982. The percentage of farmers who perceived a definite value in windbreaks dropped from 51 percent to 32 percent, and those who saw no value in windbreaks at all doubled, from 7 percent to 14 percent.

Taylor Schwager understands the mentality, but he doesn’t share it. In coordination with the Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service), his own grandfather planted many of the shelterbelts on their 700-acre farm in the late 1950s, adding to the belts already planted on their property by the Prairie States Forestry Project in the 1930s. His father later planted several smaller belts of his own, and Schwager himself has plans for more.

“I’m probably not going to get a whole helluva lot of use out of them — maybe towards the end — but the next person is,” he says. “You don’t plant a tree to reap the benefits yourself. I think that’s part of why people don’t do it. If it doesn’t scratch your back or benefit you, then why? You’ve gotta kind of have that mentality that you want to see who’s coming next prosper and reap the benefits. Not a lot of people like that left….As long as the checks are coming in that’s their only concern.”

Graham Christensen at the edge of the shelterbelt on his family’s farm in Lyons, Nebraska.

One Farmer’s Feeling
On his father’s farm outside of Oakland, Nebraska, 37-year-old Graham Christensen walks the shelterbelt behind his parents’ home in cargo shorts and dusty white Nikes. Above, clouds like cotton balls drift over an undulating field of knee-high soybeans, rich and green. Eventually, he and his brother will inherit the land. Currently swamped with GC ReVolt, a venture he launched to spur solar and other renewable energy development in Nebraska, Christensen nevertheless has big plans for transitioning the farm to a more regenerative system. He can’t yet reconcile the expense, but he’d eventually like to enclose the whole section with trees, both to curtail the wind and provide a nutrient sink. But all around them, he says, landowners are doing the opposite, most of them ignorant of the benefits they still provide.

Graham’s father Fred Christensen harvests corn near a shelterbelt on their farm in Lyons, Nebraska.

Following Christensen out of town, we pass a hog confinement facility and then, gobsmacking us, more than a dozen piles of downed cottonwood trees, nothing but dirt and weeds in between. More than a century of growth, nullified in weeks.

Christensen steps out of his car without shutting the door. He blocks the sun with his hand.

“We call these ‘Mordor’ piles, like on Lord of the Rings, where Mordor just expands outward,” he says. “Why on God’s green earth would you ever do that?”

You made it this far so we know you appreciate our work. FERN is a non-profit and relies on the generosity of our readers so that we can continue producing incisive reporting like this story. Please consider making a donation to support our work. We appreciate support at any level. Thank you.

Top photo: A shelterbelt on Highway 13, south of Plainview, Nebraska. Produced with FERN, this article first appeared at The Weather Channel. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact [email protected]. Support for FERN’s Midwestern reporting is provided in part by a grant from The McKnight Foundation.