The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Opinion

October 29, 2012

Dust Bowl lesson: Care for and conserve land for future generations

ENID, Okla. — As our national attention turns to Hurricane Sandy this week, we take time to remember a significant weather event from another era.

The Dust Bowl is garnering headlines again as Ken Burns’s new documentary is set to air Nov. 18 on OETA.

Before the era of 24-hour cable TV news, Facebook or Twitter, Woody Guthrie sang about the Dust Bowl. The Okemah native penned ballads while living in the town of Pampa in the Texas Panhandle.

The “black blizzard” hit Guymon on Sunday, April 14, 1935. Through 1938, nature’s severe drought and the Great Depression nearly brought the nation to its knees. Congress declared soil erosion “a national menace.”

Eva McClanahan, a longtime educator in northwest Oklahoma, witnessed the Dust Bowl on a farm two miles north of Drummond.

“You saw a big, dark cloud in the northwest and knew another dust storm was coming,” McClanahan said in Sunday’s front-page story by Robert Barron. “They were very frequent, though not every day.”

Timothy Egan, author of “The Worst Hard Time,” believes the Dust Bowl is about what happens when people push the land and do not properly care for it.

Great Plains farmers let livestock overgraze pastures and failed to plant cover crops in fields that were unused, according to the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

“When the 1932-1939 drought struck, plants shriveled and ever more bare soil was exposed,” according to the institute. “The land was quickly eroded by gigantic dust storms, and farming collapsed. Skies were chronically darkened on and off; in some years, an estimated 770 million metric tons of topsoil were lost, and over the whole time, 3.5 million people were displaced — one of the 20th century’s worst environmental disasters.”

As part of the New Deal, the Soil Conservation Service paid farmers to implement projects such as building dams, terracing fields and planting crops that resisted drought.

Mark Tercek, of the Nature Conservancy, said Congress created a new agency, known now as the Natural Resources Conservation Service, to deal with land erosion. Conservation efforts help farmers retire unproductive fields, protect the land and preserve our natural rural landscapes.

On Oct. 18, our front-page story referenced a massive dust storm swirling reddish-brown clouds over northern Oklahoma and compared it to “Dust Bowl times.”

We hope we’ve learned from the past. And we hope it doesn’t happen again.

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