Book, Features, Greenspace, film November 15, 2012 By Jordan Sayle

According to the writer Timothy Egan, the High Plains never fully recovered and much of the land purchased by the government as part of its conservation efforts hasn’t been restored.  What kind of lasting legacy did the Dust Bowl have in its aftermath?

One result of the Dust Bowl was the federal government buying back land from dusted out farmers and then hiring people to knock down the sand dunes and replant grasses instead of cash crops. Those are the National Grasslands – about four million acres of them, I think – that are administered by the Department of Agriculture. They are leased now for cattle grazing and in general represent a good effort to stabilize permanently much of the most marginal lands. That’s one legacy.

Whenever you see a farmer using contours, or leaving stubble on a harvested field, or doing other conservation techniques advocated by Howard Finnell and the Soil Conservation Service, or when you see that a Soil Conservation District has been set up, that’s another legacy. When you hear the stories of the people who, against all conceivable odds, somehow managed to hold onto the land that was their home, land that they loved and wanted to pass on to the next generation – that incredible grittiness and toughness and love are a legacy of the Dust Bowl, too.  

I suppose another legacy is the readiness of people to tap into the ancient Ogallala Aquifer to irrigate their crops. If you’ve been through a Dust Bowl, it would be very human to want to look to the seemingly endless water supply underground instead of the clouds above for your water. But that aquifer won’t last forever, so I hope we can learn to be a little more prudent on how we use that precious resource. Otherwise, when the Ogallala dries up, we’re headed for another disaster.

[The Dust Bowl airs on PBS beginning this Sunday. The book is now available.]

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