Remembering What the Dust Bowl Taught Us About the Importance of Conservation

Some readers may recall a blog post I wrote a couple years ago wherein I opined that one of the most transformative events for the future of hunting and fishing in this country occurred in the swirling, dust-choked winds of the southern plains on April 14, 1935.

Your humble scribe wrote...

April 14th marks the 75th anniversary of an event that, while almost completely forgotten today, probably did as much as anything else to improve hunting and fishing in a large part of the country. Everyone, of course, is familiar with the term "Dust Bowl." But it was the unbelievable dust storm that hit the southern plains on April 14, 1935, "Black Sunday", that inspired the term. So where's the connection between hunting, fishing, and Black Sunday? It jarred our national conservation consciousness in a way nothing else ever had.

In fact, the Dust Bowl, in a very real sense, spawned the modern conservation movement (not preservation, but conservation). It spurred the creation of agencies like the Soil Conservation Service and instigated new farming technologies to mitigate wind and water erosion, and in the process create wildlife habitat. Prior to the Dust Bowl things like contour plowing, terraces, shelterbelts and strip disking were unheard of. Additionally, most people - even hunters - don't realize that many of today's national grasslands are actually failed Dust Bowl homesteads bought back by the government and allowed to return to native prairie.

In light of the current political climate in Washington, especially in regard to all those wasteful and unnecessary conservation programs that some want to see eliminated, I had planned on revisiting the Black Sunday topic on this year's anniversary of the event (well, actually, on Friday the 13th, since April 14th fell on a Saturday). Unfortunately, I was unable to do so because I was either kidnapped by North Koreans that day, or I completely forgot to write the blog. I honestly can't remember which.

At any rate, I was perusing the Interweb this morning and noticed this story highlighting a different, yet equally-important Dust Bowl event.

From this story on huffingtonpost.com:

This Wednesday, May 9, will mark the anniversary of one of the worst man-made disasters ever to hit the United States. On that date in 1934, massive clouds of dust and top soil blew from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and other Great Plains states all the way to cities as far as New York, Atlanta and Washington, DC. In Chicago, 12 million pounds of soil was dumped on the city. It marked the peak of the American Dust Bowl, a nine-year period that destroyed farmlands, blackened skies and left millions homeless.

While I will quibble with the writer (Nature Conservancy CEO Mark Tercek) on which event was the "peak" of the Dust Bowl (I still say it was Black Sunday. Any storm that inspires Woody Guthrie to pen a song entitled "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You" qualifies as a peak event in my book), I cannot quibble with Mr. Tercek's plea for us to not repeat the past.

From the story:

_The lessons learned from the Dust Bowl are as important today as they were in the 1930s. As the world's population continues to grow, so does the demand for food and fiber. For example, we expect that food production will need to double by 2050 to keep up with these demands. If we are to meet those demands -- without creating another natural disaster -- it is critical to keep our lands and waters healthy and productive. Conservation cannot be viewed as an afterthought or a luxury. It is an essential tool to ensure the long term productivity of agriculture and forestry, and to sustain the economic viability of rural families and communities.

Hunting, angling and wildlife-dependent recreation contribute $122 billion annually to our national economy. Natural resources-based products represent a significant proportion of the export sector so essential to our economic health: "Indeed, U.S. agricultural exports exceeded $137 billion and accounted for a $42 billion farm trade surplus in 2011, one of the bright spots in the American economy last year." Seventy years ago, the Dust Bowl taught our nation the importance of conservation. We learned a very important lesson. Our economies, our security and our livelihoods continue to depend on healthy lands and waters._

So enjoy this beautiful, exoduster-free spring day (and ponder how lucky you are that "exoduster" isn't even a part of your daily vocabulary). Take a moment to contemplate the wondrous, bountiful, and truly unique-in-all-the-world hunting and fishing opportunities available to us through our treasured North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. But also take a moment to reflect on the conservation lessons and government programs that were born in the aftermath of that dark time. And then ask yourself if we can still "afford" them.