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The apparent declining interest in the environment among Americans was much on my mind as I attended the 21st Annual Southern Plains conference in Lubbock, Texas, recently. Organized by the nonprofit Ogallala Commons, the event focused on a famous date in environmental history. No, it wasn’t the upcoming 40th anniversary of Earth Day, but the 75th anniversary of ‘Black Sunday’ – April 14th, 1935 – when a massive dust cloud arose from the Great Plains like a biblical vision and blew topsoil all the way to Washington, D.C., and out to sea. It was the Dust Bowl, of course – a national calamity of epic proportions that still reverberates today. It was a ‘perfect’ storm of ecological and economic havoc. Massive tilling of prairie topsoil, abetted immensely by the introduction of diesel-powered tractors, followed by a series of unusually dry years in the early 1930s, followed by big winds put hundreds of millions of tons of fertile soil into the air. Nearly one-third of the human population left the area as a result, most never to return. It wasn’t an act of God.

New West, New Dust Bowl?

The apparent declining interest in the environment among Americans was much on my mind as I attended the 21st Annual Southern Plains conference in Lubbock, Texas, recently. Organized by the nonprofit Ogallala Commons, the event focused on a famous date in environmental history. No, it wasn’t the upcoming 40th anniversary of Earth Day, but the 75th anniversary of ‘Black Sunday’ – April 14th, 1935 – when a massive dust cloud arose from the Great Plains like a biblical vision and blew topsoil all the way to Washington, D.C., and out to sea.

It was the Dust Bowl, of course – a national calamity of epic proportions that still reverberates today. It was a ‘perfect’ storm of ecological and economic havoc. Massive tilling of prairie topsoil, abetted immensely by the introduction of diesel-powered tractors, followed by a series of unusually dry years in the early 1930s, followed by big winds put hundreds of millions of tons of fertile soil into the air. Nearly one-third of the human population left the area as a result, most never to return.

It wasn’t an act of God. The 1920s were a period of ‘irrational exuberance’ in the nation, characterized by rapid technological innovation, crazy speculation in real estate markets, a bull run on the stock market, distracted regulators, social excess, widespread consumerism, cheap products, fast deals, and an uncritical faith in Progress. On the land, this translated into the ‘big plow-up’ where nearly every acre of the Great Plains that could be planted to wheat or other grains was planted, whether there was a cloud in the sky or not. In their exuberance, farmers transformed a healthy, functioning prairie ecosystem – fabulous country for herbivores of all stripes – into a tilled-over wasteland. Then they prayed for rain.

Unfortunately, God lost his temper.

“The dust storms that swept across the southern plains in the 1930s,” wrote historian Donald Worster in his seminal book titled The Dust Bowl, “created the most severe environmental catastrophe in the entire history of the white man on this continent. In no other instance was there greater or more sustained damage to the American land, and there have been few times when so much tragedy was visited on its inhabitants. Not even the Depression was more devastating, economically. And in ecological terms we have nothing in the nation’s past, nothing even in the polluted present, that compares.”

Not yet – but it could be coming.

That was the message of the conference, and its keynote speaker, Dr. Worster. He said climate change is on its way to dwarfing the Dust Bowl of the 1930s by an order of magnitude. He noted that according to climate models, one of the worst ‘hot spots’ in the nation for drought sits directly atop the area of the previous Dust Bowl, which means we could lose America’s breadbasket, for good possibly.

That wasn’t all. According to Dr. Kevin Mulligan, a professor of Economics and Geography at Texas Tech, and another speaker at the event, serious trouble lurks underground. His sobering presentation focused on the Ogallala Aquifer, which is a vast underground reservoir of fresh water created over the span of millions of years and which has been drawn down dramatically in less than a century by irrigators up and down the southern Plains. Mulligan and his students have mapped the Aquifer extensively, discovering that not only is it shallower in places than people originally thought, it is also being drawn down (often at a rate of 800 gallons a minute) faster than anticipated.

In fact, they have determined that in many spots industry will run out of useable water (i.e., 30ft of water or less) not by the end of the century, as predicted, but by 2030 – only twenty years from now.

“This will certainly mean the end of pivot irrigation in the region,” he announced calmly to the audience.

Of course, Dr. Mulligan’s maps, much like Dr. Worster’s history lessons and climatologists’ prognostications about global warming are disputed by Industry, dismissed by politicians, and ignored by an apathetic public. One local activist I spoke with said this about the future: “When they run out of water, the irrigators will simply leave, and we’ll have a different economy. Again.”

This, of course, is the pattern of New West economies – exploit a resource until it is nearly exhausted and then move on. It doesn’t matter if the resource is pelts, bison, gold, oil, trees, water, scenery, people, or climate – the desire to use until used up is powerful and terrifying. The trouble is we’re beginning to run out of exploitable stuff, such as ancient aquifers. The question now, I believe, is whether the next New West will be a “moving on” to the next exploitable commodity, if one can be found, or something more enduring and resilient.

Courtney White is the executive director and co-founder of the Quivira Coalition and the author of Revolution on the Range: the Rise of a New Ranch in the American West as well as countless articles and essays on the region. His Along the Frontier column runs on NewWest.Net twice a month. Read more from Courtney at his Web site, www.awestthatworks.com.

You can read Courtney’s entire series of columns, which are presented as a sequence, on his New West archive at www.newwest.net/courtneywhite. See the most recent columns below.

The New, Carbon West
Understanding the ‘New’ West: Whither the Public Lands?
The Geography of Hope
After the West’s New Gold Rush
Do We Care Less? Polls Show Decline in Concern for the Environment

About Courtney White

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13 comments

  1. The resource is sustainable. Just dam it.

  2. Does anyone but me get tired of all these doomsday predictions. What difference does a little drought make if Yellowstone is going to blow up. I cant even get a reliable weather report to go fishing the next day and these doofusses keep rantng on living off grants and donations to keep themselves in a job that does nothing. Enough already

  3. OMG. Enough already with your baseless fear mongering! The world is not going to end anytime soon, Puerto Rico is not going to be covered by the sea, and thank God for mankind, technology, industry, pharmaceuticals, and capitalism, because we can now expect to live to 80 instead of the 40-year life expectancy before the Industrial Revolution.

  4. Thanks for a beautifully-written wake-up call, Courtney, even if most of your commenters evidently would prefer to continue to slumber. As with so many issues, how soon we forget; the Dust Bowl was just in my parents’ lifetime, and your recap is a good reminder of how things can change virtually overnight in our country’s seemingly static wide open spaces. I appreciate your insightful articles in the face of so much heads-in-the-sand resistance.

  5. Yes, the Teabaggers believe that we can consume, exhaust and breed our way to a better life. And the current oil spell in the Gulf of Mexico is more liberal hysteria. And all of the garbage in our oceans is more liberal BS including all of the trash scattered about our landscapes. Declining ocean fishieries is more bunk, just ask the fishermen who are working at Wal Mart.. The picture of the church in Iowa that is 8 feet higher than the surrounding landscape depicts the loss of topsoil since the beginning of European farming, yes this is more liberal bunk. Facts, logic and emperical evidence are rejected in favor of mythology! Ask most Teabaggers & they will tell you that the Flintstones is not a cartoon but reality in that humans & dinosaurs were on earth during the same timespan.

  6. About a decade ago I was driving through the Palouse region of eastern Washington, an area of rolling hills that grow bumper wheat crops in the volcanic soil.
    I spotted a miniature mesa by the side of the road, and as I drove closer, I realized it was a small cemetery. I stopped and walked around the little mesa and understood what I was looking at. The top of the mesa was untouched by plow or wind, while all the surrounding land had lost about 7-feet of soil.
    Stooping to pick up a handful of dirt, it was gray powder, a sterile medium for growing wheat with lots of chemical fertilizer needed to make those bumper crops come in, year after year after year.
    Until all the soil blows away. What then?

  7. I have to roll my eyes here.
    Exploitation of available resources is what keeps us all alive — and is in fact mandatory for modernity.
    Would you rather not have drawn the Ogalalla water at all? Never drilled another well after Drake? Never smelted steel in Pittsburgh and moved it to Detroit? Never dug limestone to make concrete? Never invented tilt combines for the Palouse? Never discovered the uses for uranium?
    Granted, the Dust Bowl was a disaster, but it was predicated on lack of knowledge. Never mind that much of the Dust Bowl is still being farmed….it’s not like the Dust Bowl left a crater. Society adjusted, Hitler came along and the Okies built bombers.
    When the aquifer dries up, things will adjust again.
    I suppose a certain amount of angst and guilt is all right, as long as it has us thinking about our resource impacts and keeping in mind to waste not, but this is just too much, Courtney.

  8. Well now is the climate change going to cause drought or flooding? Evidently Mr. Gore is now in the drought mode since they just bought a new mansion on the ocean front no less. But then maybe he is planning to put ontoons on it so it will float.
    Perhaps only global warming would cause flooding from rising oceans, where as climate change is going to cause flooding from the dust bowls or dust bowls from the floods, turn summer into winter or winter into summer or…………..

  9. I would like to strike a note somewhere between the doom-dayers and the nay-sayers, and point out that while we may not be certain on the science shouldn’t we manage this resource, or any resources, in a long term manner? Capitalism has given us the best quality of life in the history of our species, but also opens the door to over-exploitation (as Dr. Worster pointed out in his book more than three decades ago).

  10. Folks,

    Please refer to our comment policy and make sure you’re engaging in a respectful manner. That includes not making generalizations about others.

  11. I haven’t commented here in a long time, and while continue to refrain after this.

    I enjoyed Courtney’s article. Her style of writing grabs me deep into my soul. Anybody remember her accounts of the fires as they approached the family cabin?

    We are truly blessed to have people like Courtney that open their hearts and reveal their lives. She and her husband work the dirt near Conrad scratching out a living the best they can.

    The Dust Bowl doesn’t have to be repeated. ADAPT to the climate trends. CRP and cattle instead of crops when the trend is dry. Go back to strip farming instead of block.

    Dave is right and Courtney’s concerns are valid. We have the knowledge to make informed choices that put us in harmony with the climate trends.

  12. Courtney is right in supposing that many of us Americans simply neither want to hear or know about potential bad news. We are psychologically set up to experience disaster after disaster without preparation. After such experiences, we look for explanations which take us off the hook.

  13. Stand replacement fires, the megafires, conflagrations, that are becoming so common, ran through a large soils investigation in the Babyfoot Lake NRA in the Siskiyou NF in the Biscuit Fire in 2002. The 500,000 burn and reburn of the 1988 Silver Fire in the Kalmiopsis WA. Fire of several intensities hit most of the soil plots, which had defined enclosures and signage. Temperatures were estimated by the state of the different manmade materials associated with the research soil plots. Extreme, middle and no fire at all was experienced on the several hundred dedicated and long studied plots.

    So post fire, each plot got re-evaluated, remeasured, and examined. In the hottest fire areas, all the organic matter in the soil is lost, as well as up to three inches of the fine mineral material, leaving behind a very coarse sand or pebble type of soil. Vast loss of soil nitrogen, of stored soil carbon (up to ten tons per acre) is the result. It is believed it all leaves in the fire plume that goes stratospheric. That is all in addition to whatever carbon is lost to the fire in burned vegetation, and in addition to the carbon lost as the trees decompose.

    So, by definition, a forest fire is just another dust bowl cloud, with the results every bit as bad. Instead of happening in one fell swoop, we are suffering an incremental dust bowl in smaller losses annually, but the same result over a vast areas of forest land is being experienced. And the same level of environmental degradation.

    The optimist in us could say that there is never a loss of a physical thing in that all that really has happened is that top soil is moved to somewhere else, including the sea floor. On its way there, it does contribute to the marine food chain, just as it does for terrestrial plants when it lands on dry land. The same could be said for the results of wildland fires. The carbon is not lost. Most of it goes into the atmosphere where it is stored and used in warming our landscape. Or it is taken up by plants, a process that produces more oxygen and water. And then stored in animal tissue or goes back to the soil as dead plant material, or becomes fuel for the next fire, all stored in vegetation. Nothing is lost. Not the top soil of the Great Plains, or the chemistry of plants lost in a fire.

    So, we are now watching organic material from Arizona and New Mexico headed skyward, and leaving behind a devastated landscape of dubious aesthetic value for many decades. A mini Dust Bowl every summer. Environmental degradation of a thousand burns. And the history of burns is reburns. And another round of mini Dust Bowls. So much for the “protection” of Federal ownership. So much for the “sustainability” of the old growth forests. Until we have the collected will of the people to remove fuel, which has to be some form of logging, or thinning, or call it anything……until we remove fuel and manage fuel loading, it will all burn while “protected” by Federal land management, by litigation, by committee, and through Congressional neglect and cowardice.