Established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt under executive order on July 21, 1934, the Shelterbelt Project provided for a tree barrier one hundred miles wide extending twelve hundred miles north to south from the Canadian border through the Texas panhandle. It was designed to reduce wind velocity, which had occasioned severe soil erosion across the Midwest and dust storms to the eastern seaboard. When the comptroller general in September objected that Congress had not authorized the project, which would require financing for years into the future, the immediate funding was limited to a million dollars allotted under legislative appropriation for relief in the drought-stricken states. The value of the project as a relief program was to be one of its important accomplishments. Congress was reluctant to approve the work, and throughout its history the labor was carried out primarily through use of relief appropriations.
As originally conceived and as it was popularly viewed, the belt was to consist of north to south bands of woodland, each seven rods wide, one mile apart, over a zone one hundred miles wide and twelve hundred miles long. Newspapers and periodicals publicized these details with maps of a continuous zone. Although frequently characterized as a Plains project, it was, in fact, confined to the east of the fifteen-inch line of average annual precipitation. Average annual precipitation in the proposed zone varied from eighteen inches in the north to twenty-two inches in the south, where higher temperatures and higher rates of transpiration prevailed.
While enthusiasm for the proposal was reportedly widespread, there was also much skeptical criticism. Professional foresters realized that unsuitable terrain and soils would necessitate breaks in the belts. Some also deplored the expenditure for woodlands that might provide farm fence posts and woodlots but not commercial timber. Many commentators recalled the widespread failure that had characterized settlement under the Timber Culture Homestead Act of 1873. Others objected to diversion of prairie farmland, the so-called bread basket of the nation under normal weather. Not a few critics were merely opposed politically to President Roosevelt, who had been long identified with forest conservation.
The administration assigned direction of the project to the Lake States Forest Experiment Station of the Forest Service, which drew upon a wide range of research facilities and devoted the first year to thorough preparation. Analysts studied previous experiences under comparable conditions in Canada, Denmark, Russia, and Hungary, as well as at United States experiment stations in Montana, North Dakota, Kansas, and Nebraska. The Dryland Experiment Station at Mandan, North Dakota, somewhat west of the proposed shelterbelt, had been testing the use of windbreaks since 1914, and Canada had been planting trees in the Prairie Provinces since 1901. Surveys were made of the regional terrain, the effect of varying soil conditions, the most suitable tree varieties, the availability of acclimated forest stock, spacing of trees, the structure of planting for most effective wind lift, the requisite cultivation and protection of young trees, and the effect of windbreaks on adjacent land area. The need for adapted seedlings was so great that thirteen nurseries were established and seven others temporarily leased.
Approximately 6.5 million trees were planted in 1935, two-thirds of which survived. The work thus far had been carried out under authority of the Clarke-McNary Act of 1924, which had provided for distribution of tree-planting stock to farmers under a cooperative program with states nationwide. After extended debate in the spring of 1936, the 74th Congress approved only $70,579 for distribution of forest seeds and plants for shelterbelts and called for liquidation of the project. That year proved the driest of the prolonged drought period, yet the survival rate for the tree plantings remained over 50 percent. In May 1937 the 75th Congress adopted a Cooperative Farm Forestry Act that allotted up to $2.5 million annually for the program, with the proviso that cooperators must make the land available without charge.
Renamed the Prairie States Forestry Project, the program was continued with little change. Farmers donated the land, prepared it for planting, and agreed to fence the strips against damage by livestock and to provide cultivation as needed during the first two to four years. The Forest Service supplied the trees, arranged for their planting, and provided expertise on site and species selection, planting methods, and subsequent care.
As late as 1942, the Works Projects Administration (WPA) still provided $600,000 for tree planting, but wartime labor shortages led to termination of both the WPA and the Prairie States Forestry Project the following year. Over 190 million trees had been planted in nearly nineteen thousand miles of belts on thirty-three thousand farms. The survival rate had increased to 82 percent.
Surveying the results in 1944, forestry officials estimated that well-tended trees would survive for thirty to sixty years. In view of the benefits, they termed the Shelterbelt Project a success.
Dahl, Jerome. "Progress and Development of the Prairie States Forest Project." Journal of Forestry. 38 (1940): 301–306.
Lake States Experiment Station, U. S. Forest Service. Possibilities of Shelterbelt Planting in the Plains. 1935.
Munns, E. N., and Joseph H. Stoeckeler. "How Are the Great Plains Shelterbelts?" Journal of Forestry. 44 (1946): 237–257.
Pates, C. G. "The Plains Shelterbelt Project." Journal ofForestry. 32 (1934): 978–991.
Tinker, E. N. "What's Happened to the Shelterbelt?" American Forestry. 44 (1938): 7–8, 48.
Work Projects Administration, Division of Information. "Shelterbelt Winning Battle of Wind and Dust." Journal of Forestry 40 (1942): 345–346.
Zon, Raphael. "Shelterbelts—Futile Dream or Workable Plan." Science. 81 (1935): 391–394.
Mary W. M. Hargreaves