FDR’s ‘Great Wall of Trees’ Continues to Provide Lessons

FDR’s ‘Great Wall of Trees’ Continues to Provide Lessons

In the 1930s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States, initiated an ambitious project known as the “Great Wall of Trees.” Aimed at mitigating wind erosion that led to the devastating Dust Bowl, this project involved the planting of over 220 million trees spanning 1,300 miles across the Great Plains, from Canada to Texas. Today, over 40 years later, two Nebraska researchers are conducting the first comprehensive analysis of this monumental endeavor. Their study sheds light on the potential lessons and guidance it offers for addressing our current environmental and climate challenges.

Roosevelt’s Conservation Politics

Headquartered in Nebraska, FDR’s grand shelterbelt project became the heart of this ambitious undertaking. The National Agroforestry Center, located on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, houses the archives of this monumental project, providing an invaluable resource for researchers Sarah Thomas Karle, an assistant professor of landscape architecture, and David Karle, an assistant professor of architecture. By utilizing aerial photography and digital maps, they aim to track the remaining shelterbelts and gain insights into FDR’s approach to conservation politics.

A Historical Ecological Disaster

The Dust Bowl is widely regarded as one of history’s most significant ecological disasters. Decades of environmentally destructive agricultural practices by Plains farmers led to massive dust storms that reached as far as Washington, D.C. and even ships at sea in the Atlantic Ocean. FDR, an experienced forester, recognized the severity of the crisis and approached it from both economic and national security standpoints. In response, he employed unemployed workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to plant trees and create shelterbelts.

The Plains State Forestry Project

Between 1935 and 1942, the Plains State Forestry Project produced nearly 19,000 miles of shelterbelts on 33,000 separate farms. Originally envisioned as a publicly owned windbreak program with a budget of $100 million, it transformed into a cooperative effort between private landowners and the government due to insufficient funding from Congress. Despite being a subject of debate, the shelterbelt plan prevailed and showcased cutting-edge forestry science in action.

Ecological and Economic Benefits

While the primary purpose of the shelterbelts was to combat wind erosion, they provided numerous additional benefits. By buffering the winds, the trees allowed Plains residents to add more doors and windows to their homes, reducing the need for barns to protect livestock. These forest-like shelterbelts, often over 100 feet wide and featuring up to 17 rows of trees, also created habitats for game birds and other wildlife. During winter, they protected highways and railroad tracks from drifting snow.

Preserving the Legacy

Although many shelterbelts have been demolished or reduced in size to make way for agriculture expansion, a significant number still survive. However, as the surviving trees reach around 80 years old, the landowners and policymakers face critical decisions regarding their future. With restoration efforts being costly, it is necessary to weigh the potential environmental benefits against the economic costs. The disappearance of these trees is not only a concern for landowners but for the general public as well. President Roosevelt’s understanding of the social interest component of private property continues to resonate and serves as a valuable lesson today.

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