In 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated the New Deal’s Prairie States Forestry Project to create “shelterbelts” of newly planted trees to mitigate the effects of the Dust Bowl in America’s Great Plains. The project stretched from North Dakota to Texas and helped stabilize soil and rejuvenate farm communities affected by the dust storms and erosion of topsoil. In this visionary project, previously unexamined as a form of landscape infrastructure, Sarah Thomas Karle and David Karle present a case study for designers, historians, and environmentalist of how to design and initiate a resilient, agricultural system on a national scale.
When Roosevelt came to office, the Great Plains and other regions were suffering from what would become an almost decade-long period of economic, environmental, and social crisis. Several large-scale factors led to the environmental devastation of the Dust Bowl and contributed to the economic hardships of the Great Depression. As president, Roosevelt used conservation projects as a job-creation tool against the Great Depression, and within months of becoming president, he devised the Prairie States Forestry Project (1935–1942). The project, based to some degree on Roosevelt’s personal experience with forestry management, was proposed as an ambitious “Great Wall of Trees.” Despite a general lack of scientific and Congressional support, the United States Forestry Service worked across six states employing thousands of local farmers, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the Works Progress Administration to plant over 220 million trees, creating more than 18,000 miles of windbreaks on 33,000 Plains farms.
This important environmental segment of the Great Depression era has remained largely unexplored. Through archival research, contemporary mapping, and aerial photography, Sarah Thomas Karle and David Karle shed new light on this important environmental precedent and offer a narrative about a forgotten landscape at risk of being destroyed. In Conserving the Dust Bowl, the authors propose that current-day policymakers, environmental designers, and grassroots activists will be inspired by Roosevelt’s bold initiative to seek solutions for the national environmental challenges of our time that are as bold, imaginative, and innovative as the programs of Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Sarah Thomas Karle, recipient of the Norman T. Newton Prize from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, is an assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
David Karle, assistant professor of architecture at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, holds a masters degree from Michigan State University.