Field Notes: Fall 2010
Trees against the Breeze: Shelterbelt Program Marks 75th Anniversary
by Maura McDermott and Wylie Harris
It made for a great song line, but in the real Oklahoma, “when the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain,” folks don’t always feel like singing.
That was never truer that in the Dust Bowl years, when the wind swept tons of priceless topsoil away with it at every gust - a painful loss for farmers at any time, made all the more so by the economic privations of the Great Depression.
As Franklin Roosevelt’s New Dealers created program after program in efforts to revive the U.S. economy, they sought a way to help save the soil as well, and the “shelterbelt” program resulted.
According to Kurt Atkinson, Assistant Oklahoma State Forester, the federal shelterbelt program promoted conservation while also providing jobs through the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
While the lost topsoil is long gone, many Oklahoma farms still harbor living monuments to that human effort to hang on to as much of it as possible.
In the southwestern part of the state, one such farm holds special historical significance - its soil received the roots of the nation’s “Number One Shelterbelt.”
On March 18, 1935, County Agent W.J. “Bill” Beck planted an Austrian pine to start the very first shelterbelt in the United States, on the Horace E. Curtis farm near Willow, Oklahoma, in Greer County.
The shelterbelt program had its share of skeptics, and didn’t exactly leap out of the starting gate. That same year saw only a total of 14 miles of shelterbelts planted in Oklahoma. Neighboring Kansas did little better, at 25 miles, and Texas managed just two.
Still, as the Depression and the Dust Bowl ground on, shelterbelts began to gain ground.
“The shelterbelt program was somewhat controversial when it began, but it accomplished what it was intended to do - reduce erosion to the benefit of everyone in areas where they were planted,” Atkinson said. “From 1935 to 1942, the program saw about 20 million trees planted on 5,000 Oklahoma farms. That meant about 3,000 miles of shelterbelts planted in Oklahoma.”
In Oklahoma, the original project counties were Beckham, Custer, Dewey, Ellis, Greer, Harmon, Harper, Jackson, Major, Roger Mills, Washita, Woods, and Woodward, but by 1939 the project added Beaver, Blaine, Caddo, Canadian, Comanche, Garfield, Kay, Kingfisher, and Noble.
“Our state forestry leadership was very progressive for the period and pursued this important conservation program aggressively,” Atkinson said.
“Today we continue to see many producers and other landowners planting windbreaks, thanks to our Forest Regeneration Center in Goldsby and the efforts of state and federal conservation agencies.”
In the Right Direction
Between 1982 and 2007, average soil erosion rates dropped from 7.3 to 4.8 tons per acre per year nationwide. In the Southern Plains region (Oklahoma and Texas), the fall was from 12.2 to 8.8 tons per acre per year, preserving the region’s title as the highest-erosion area of the nation.
Seventy per cent of soil lost in the Southern Plains region is due to wind erosion, and that is where the improvements have been made – from 9.9 down to 6.2 tons per acre between 1982 and 2007. Water erosion in the region has remained almost constant, at 2.6 tons per acre, throughout the same period.
Despite the nationwide decline in soil erosion rates, 28% of all cropland is still eroding at rates higher than the soil loss tolerance rate (T) – in effect, losing soil faster than it can be replaced by the weathering of underlying rock. (The figure was 40% in 1982.)
As the Land Stewardship Project’s Brian Devore points out, the 2007 data were gathered too early to reflect any effect on erosion rates that may have been caused by commodity grain price spikes in 2008, and increasing withdrawals of acreage from the Conservation Reserve Program.
These figures on soil erosion come from the USDA-NRCS National Resources Inventory (NRI), a statistical survey of land use and natural resource conditions and trends on U.S. non-Federal lands.
Oklahoma Forestry Services (OFS), a division of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, sells over 30 varieties of trees and shrubs chosen for their ability to meet the challenges of Oklahoma’s tough climate. These include many of the same species planted in the heyday of the shelterbelt program.
Species of improved Southern pines, evergreens, hardwoods, and shrubs are available.
Years of selecting from the best seed sources available for each species and careful growing practices have resulted in seedlings adaptable to a wide range of planting conditions.
Seedlings are distributed as bare-root, one or two years old and 6 to 16 inches in height. A limited number of species are also available as containerized seedlings. OFS grows the seedlings at the Forest Tree Improvement Center (FTIC) in Idabel, and the Albert Engstrom Forest Regeneration Center (FRC) in Goldsby.
The ordering period for seedlings normally begins in September, and seedlings are shipped January through March of each year.
(Bare-root seedlings are generally available from January through April and containerized seedlings are generally available in early March.)
All orders are on a first-come, first-served basis. Seedlings are typically sold in single species bundles of 50. The minimum order is 100 bare-root or 50 containerized seedlings.
In 2009-10, prices ranged from 4 to 65 cents per bare-root seedling, depending on quantity and whether seedlings were shipped or picked up. Containerized seedlings cost 90 cents each, with shipping charges ranging from $8 to $20 depending on quantity.