Skip to main content

Worst Environmental Disasters: the Dust Bowl, CCC New Deal Recovery and Obama

[F]or sheer disruption to human lives, several [experts] could think of no environmental problem in American history quite equaling the calamity known as the Dust Bowl.

“The Dust Bowl is arguably one of the worst ecological blunders in world history,” said Ted Steinberg, a historian at Case Western Reserve University.

Across the High Plains, stretching from the Texas Panhandle to the Dakotas, poor farming practices in the early part of the 20th century stripped away the native grasses that held moisture and soil in place. A drought that began in 1930 exposed the folly.

Boiling clouds of dust whipped up by harsh winds buried homes and cars, destroyed crops, choked farm animals to death and sent children to the hospital with pneumonia. . . .

By the mid-1930s, people started to give up on the region in droves. The Dust Bowl refugees joined a larger stream of migrants displaced by agricultural mechanization, and by 1940 more than two million people had left the Great Plains States. . . .

[T]he Dust Bowl lasted a decade . . . .

Read the rest of the article by Justin Gillis, Where Gulf Spill Might Place on the Roll of Disasters, in the New York Times . . .

The Dust Bowl disaster was overcome in part through the New Deal work of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

The Corps employed 3 million young men, planted 2 billion trees – more than half of all the trees planted in the United States up until that time – and slowed soil erosion on 40 million acres of farmland

Visits to National Parks increased 600 percent from less than 3.5 million people in 1933, to 21 million by 1941. The rise in visitors was due to the increased facilities for recreation afforded by the completion of trails, campgrounds, roads and other projects by the CCC. The CCC developed 800 new state parks.

The work of the CCC appealed to people across the political spectrum and across class lines. The work projects appealed to farmers in the soil-eroed Dust Bowl, foresters in the West, and  easterners who could recreate in new state and national parks. Unemployed urban youths enrolled in the program got paid, and their minds and bodies grew stronger as they learned the benefits of hard work, conservation and recreation. Working-class families received CCC paychecks every month. Business owners sold goods and services to CCC camps and rural families benefited economically from the nearby camps.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt relied on the work relief of the CCC to raise support among the American people, on the local and national levels, and on the political Left and Right, to knit together an ideologically diverse political constituency to support the New Deal.  These are important lessons for President Barack Obama for economic stimulus, saving endangered state parks, and equal justice.

Attached are brief excerpts from the book Nature’s New Deal by Professor Neil Maher.  The book analyzes the impact of the New Deal and the CCC on the economic, social, environmental and political landscape of the United States in the decade from 1933 to 1942 in several areas: (1) land purchases of 20 million acres, (2) soil conservation, (3) forests, (4) parks, (5) the intersection of conservation and recreation, (6) workers, (7) equal justice, and (8) leadership and politics. Click here to download  excerpts from Nature’s New Deal.

Click here to see the Policy Report Economic Stimulus, Green Space, and Equal Justice (The City Project 2009).

Click on the image to learn more about  the campaign to diversify access to and support for the National Parks generally and the San Gabriel Mountains and watershed specifically by The City Project, Robert Bracamontes, Acjachemen Nation, Juaneño Tribe; California Pan Ethnic Health Network; Coastwalk California; Latino Coalition for a Healthy California; and Mujeres de la Tierra.