The College of Architecture from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) is pleased to announce assistant professors Sarah Thomas Karle and David Karle have published a book with Louisiana State University Press entitled “Conserving the Dust Bowl: The New Deal's Prairie States Forestry Project”.
In 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) initiated the New Deal’s Prairie States Forestry Project to create “shelterbelts” of newly planted trees to mitigate the effects of the Dust Bowl in America’s Great Plains. The project stretched from North Dakota to Texas and helped stabilize soil and rejuvenate farm communities affected by the dust storms and erosion of topsoil. In this visionary project, previously unexamined as a form of landscape infrastructure, Sarah Thomas Karle and David Karle are shedding light on the Great Plains’ shelterbelts and their potential disappearance.
When FDR came to office, the Great Plains and other regions were suffering from what would become an almost decade-long period of economic, environmental and social crises. Several large-scale factors led to the environmental devastation of the Dust Bowl and contributed to the economic hardships of the Great Depression, leading to the social upheavals that followed. Within months of becoming president, FDR used conservation projects as a job-creation tool against the Great Depression including the creation of the Prairie States Forestry Project. The project, based to some degree on Roosevelt’s personal experience with forestry management, was proposed as an ambitious “Great Wall of Trees” using shelterbelts across the Great Plains to reduce soil wind erosion, retain moisture and improve farming conditions. The plan engaged scientific knowledge with shifting political ideals, including regionalism and the role of government in the conservation of private land.
Though seemingly beneficial, the Forestry Project was ridiculed from its inception. Some professional foresters expressed doubts about its chances of success, while the general public perceived it as an out-dated scheme of dubious credibility to “make rain”. Despite a general lack of scientific and congressional support, the United States Forestry Service worked across six states with local farmers, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration to plant over 220 million trees, creating more than 18,000 miles of windbreaks on 33,000 Plains farms. At the height of the Great Depression, the project employed thousands of residents, notably both men and women, of the Plains states and CCC members from around the country. The program officially ended in 1942 but by 1944, scarcely a decade after its inception, environmental and economic benefits from these shelterbelts, including land management practices, control of wind erosion, soil conservation, cover for game birds and the creation of snow traps along highways, were already apparent. Today the rows of shelterbelt plantings, while diminished by subsequent changes in agricultural policies and practices, continue to communicate culturally recognized signs of human intervention and interaction with the landscape. This important environmental segment of the Great Depression era has remained largely unexplored. Through archival research, contemporary mapping and aerial photography, Sarah Thomas Karle and David Karle shed new light on this important environmental precedent and offer a narrative about a landscape that is widely forgotten and at risk of being destroyed.
What has happened to the original shelterbelts? To address this basic research question, Karle and Karle initiated research collaboration with experts across the UNL campus to translate depression era handwritten notes into a geo-referenced database documenting the current state of the historic project as well as cataloguing hundreds of historic project photographs. Through the University’s UCARE program, architecture and landscape architecture undergraduate students joined the collaboration along with scientist from the USDA Agroforestry Center located on East Campus, the former Shelterbelt program headquarters. The team plans to partner with UNL’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities to make the archival information digitally available to the public.
“Conserving the Dust Bowl: The New Deal's Prairie States Forestry Project” is part of book series entitled Reading the American Landscape, Lake Douglas, Series Editor.
USDA National Agroforestry Center:
Richard Straight, Lead Agroforester
Richard Carman, Research Tech
Michele M. Schoeneberger, Research Program Lead & Soil Scientist
Scott Drickey, Scott Drickey Photography
Architecture: Allison Fejfar, Bryan Perez
Landscape Architecture: Kaylyn Neverve, Kenneth Brandl, Cory Galen
Funding: Publication of this book is made possible in part by support from The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, College of Architecture, Scott Killinger Professorship; the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Research Council; and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Undergraduate Creative Activities and Research Experience.
by Kerry Vondrak, Sarah Thomas Karle and David Karle