Is the Drought a New Dust Bowl? No, Thanks to the New Deal

By David B. Woolner |

When FDR tackled an environmental crisis, he didn’t just put people to work to fix it in the short-term — he solved it for the long-run.

The severe drought that has afflicted more than half of the country this summer has led some commentators to wonder whether the country might be headed for another Dust Bowl. The consensus among most experts is that the answer is no – and the reasons for this stem in part from the lessons learned and the actions taken by the Roosevelt administration in response to the unprecedented environmental crisis that the nation suffered in the early to mid-1930s.

As those who lived through it will attest, the Dust Bowl was unlike any previous environmental catastrophe the United States had ever experienced. The dust storms it generated buried homes and farm equipment, killed livestock, and on some occasions even darkened cities on the East Coast. The dust storms also represented a serious health risk to humans. At the height of the crisis, for example, physicians across the Midwest reported thousands of cases of what came to be known as “dust pneumonia,” which sometimes resulted in the death of the patient. The Dust Bowl laid bare millions of acres of farmland, left roughly half a million Americans homeless, and forced hundreds of thousands of people off the land. Indeed, between 1932 and 1940 it is estimated that 2.5 million people abandoned the plains for other regions of the country, with an estimated three to four hundred thousand heading to California alone.

In response to this unprecedented social and environmental catastrophe, the Roosevelt administration established a number of programs, such as the Resettlement Administration, that were designed to help those who had been driven off the land by the disaster. But it also recognized that the only way to deal with the crisis over the long term was to attack the root causes. In other words, it had to address the environmental degradation that led to the conditions that helped give rise to the Dust Bowl in the first place. Foremost among these was the state of the soil, which, thanks to over-plowing and grazing, the planting of inappropriate crops, and poor husbandry, was in abysmal shape.

Thanks in part to his experience as an amateur farmer and forester, FDR recognized that the key issue was soil conservation, and he established the Soil Erosion Service within his first six months in office. This initiative, which in 1935 became the Soil Conservation Service and later the Natural Resources Conservation Service, marked the first major federal commitment to the preservation of privately held natural resources. Under the auspices of this program, farmers learned new agricultural techniques, such as contour plowing, that helped preserve and protect the fertility of the soil. Equally significant was FDR’s initiation of the Prairie States Forestry Project in 1935. Here the goal was to create a “shelter belt” from the Texas Panhandle to the Canadian border. This program literally changed the face of the nation. Over the course of the next seven years, the U.S Forestry Service, working in conjunction with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the newly established Works Progress Administration (WPA), and local farmers, planted roughly 220 million trees, creating 18,000 miles of windbreaks on some 30,000 farms.

It is thanks to the New Deal’s establishment of the Soil Conservation Service and the planting of the Great Plains Shelter Belt that we have not experienced another Dust Bowl—even in the face of such severe conditions as this summer’s dry spell or the even more extensive drought the nation experienced in 1956. As was typical of most New Deal infrastructure projects, the programs the government designed to combat this unprecedented environmental disaster were not developed merely as a means to provide jobs and short-term work relief to those who were suffering unemployment. Rather, they were part of a large-scale effort to bring about a long-term solution to a very difficult environmental problem. This emphasis on long-term environmental planning, which recognizes the need create a balance between stewardship and managed exploitation and which sees the federal government as playing a crucial role in establishing the parameters of that balance, is now referred to as sustainable development.

In confronting the terrible conditions of the Dust Bowl, FDR once urged the American people to be ready “to fit and not fight the ways of nature.” Today, as we face the consequences of what the vast majority of scientific opinion recognizes as climate change—whatever its immediate causes—we would do well build on this lesson. If nothing else, this summer’s drought should remind us of our responsibility to ourselves and to our children to protect and preserve both our environment and our natural resources. With the right vision and political will, we too could turn the onset of the Great Drought of 2012 into an opportunity to provide millions of unemployed Americans work in developing green energy while at the same time building a cleaner, more secure future for our children. 

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.


Drought land image via

David B. Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian of the Roosevelt Institute, Senior Fellow of the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College, and Associate Professor of History at Marist College. He most recently published the edited volume Progressivism in America: Past Present and Future.