The Man Who Saved The Plains

In the 1930s, as drought and dust ravaged the Great Plains, many came forward with solutions to the “Dust Bowl” problem.

New Jersey’s Barber Asphalt Company offered to pave over the area for a bargain price of just $5 an acre…for the entire 100 million acres. Similarly, a Pittsburgh steel manufacturer suggested installing some of their wire netting over affected counties. The dust can’t blow if it’s covered up, right?

Another idea came from the so-called concussion theory, a belief that rain follows military battles due to the upset equilibrium caused by artillery exploding in the sky. Rain merchants traveled around, shooting rockets into the sky for a small fee, promising relief from the heavens. In Colorado, one solider even wrote to the government asking for $20 million dollars worth of ammunition so he and 40,000 members of the Civilian Conservation Corps could enact a few fake battles and open up the sky.

The government said no.

Many scientists came together and concluded the Great Plains could not be saved. The Dust Bowl was a result of climate change, and they predicted the current drought was just the beginning. The land would continue to deteriorate and would soon be uninhabitable. In a few decades, the Dust Bowl would become the Great American Desert. The only possible solution, they reasoned, was to give up.

Hugh Hammond Bennett would not let that happen.

The son of a North Carolina cotton farmer, Bennett learned the basics of farming on the steep terrain of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Even on the most vertical of hillsides, his father taught him, the soil would not wash away as long as it was terraced.

As a young man, he attended the University of North Carolina, where he studied soil conservation. After graduation, he was hired by the government to become a part of the first team sent out to do a comprehensive soil survey of the United States. During this time, he also traveled overseas to study how ancient European societies had farmed the same soil for thousands of years without depleting it.

It would prove to be a pivotal point in this life. The practices and attitudes of the Europeans were the exact opposite of what he was hearing from his own government. According to U.S. bulletins at the time, soil was the one “resource that cannot be exhausted.” As early as the 1920s, Bennett began railing against this policy, warning that the Plains were being farmed way too fast and way too much. Disaster was coming, he warned, and it would be on an epic scale.

No one listened…until the rains stopped and the dusters started. Despite the scientists shouts of disapproval from scientists, who believed the cause of the drought to be purely nature-made, President Roosevelt invited Bennett to the White House to hear his theories. If, he countered, this disaster was a result of man, could anything be done to fix it?

In September 1933, Roosevelt created the Soil Erosion Service, naming Bennett as its director. His charge was to offer relief for affected farmers. But as the drought wore on and the dusters increased in intensity, Bennett realized “relief” would not be nearly enough. To save the Plains, it would take an entirely new way of thinking–and some serious government money.

Bennett’s idea was to set up a permanent, well-funded agency to heal the land, not just alleviate the population’s suffering. In his vision was a local branch of the soil conservation agency in every district, helping farmers work with the local ecology, not against it. This, he argued, would set up future success in the area and not merely cover it with a band-aid, as most of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs were currently doing.

He faced stiff resistance. Congress was reluctant to spend any more tax dollars on the Dust Bowl. It was a lost cause. The current programs were enough. They felt sorry for those poor farmers, sure, but if God can’t make it rain, what in the world could the government do?

On Friday, April 19, 1935, Bennett walked into Room 333 of the Senate Office Building. He gave an impassioned speech on soil conservation, his ideas for helping restore the Great Plains, and a report on Black Sunday, the most severe duster to hit the Dust Bowl, which had occurred just five days prior. He even diverged into tales of his youth in North Carolina and pulled out citations from papers he had written in college. His presentation was long and rambling, even longer and more rambling than Bennett’s usual speeches. He seemed to be stalling.

And he was.

In the late afternoon, the sun outside the Senate building vanished. Dust swirled throughout the air, masking our nation’s capital in a brown haze. The remains of Black Sunday had reached Washington, D.C.

Within a day, Bennett had his money and a brand-new permanent agency designated to helping restore the Dust Bowl. The Soil Conservation Service sent over 20,000 people to the Plains, intent on not only helping affected farmers, but also educating them on new tilling techniques, including planting in furrows so the wind would ripple instead of ripping and lifting. A mixture of grasses were replanted in No Man’s Land in an effort to restore the natural landscape and anchor the soil against the prairie wind. It would take years, he cautioned, but this was the best–and only–real solution. Despite the Dust Bowl farmers’ reputation as self-sustaining and wary of any government interference, Bennett encountered little resistance. Tired of hearing how they had broken the land, the idea of restoration–even restoration that they might not see in their lifetime–was a welcome respite.

The Great Plains has never fully recovered from the Dust Bowl. Although the government was successful in re-seeding over 11 million acres of grassland, much of the land is still barren and drifting. Only a handful of farmers still remain active in the area. But the climate change and transition to the “Great American Desert,” as predicted by some scientists, never occurred. Droughts returned to the area in the 1950s, 1970s, and early 2000s, and yet a massive disaster on the scale of the Dust Bowl did not. Why?

Because of Hugh Bennett. Because of determination to see the ecology restored and the agriculture reworked. Because of his emphasis on a long-term solution rather than a short-term fix. And, most of all, during a time when everyone else was ready to quit, because of his belief that the area still had worth and deserved to be saved. As was stated to FDR in a memo entitled The Future of the Great Plains, spearheaded by Bennett, “Nature has established a balance in the Great Plains. The white man has disturbed this balance; he must restore it, or devise a new one of his own.”

Although Roosevelt is often credited with winning the war against the Dust Bowl, it was Bennett who convinced him it was worth the risk to fight.




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