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Ken Burns’ Dust Bowl: How the ‘Dirty Thirties’ Changed Policy in Oklahoma

Filed by KOSU News in State Impact.
November 17, 2012

Arthur Rothstein / Library of Congress

A farmer’s son in 1936, standing amid the Dust Bowl landscape of Cimarron County in Oklahoma’s panhandle.

Ken Burns’ new documentary on the Dust Bowl premieres Sunday, and Oklahoma is the backdrop for much of the two-part, four-hour television epic.

But while the ecological and economic devastation had a profound effect on Oklahoma’s landscape and cultural history, the Dust Bowl’s everyday legacy might be the way it shaped state policy.

A New Form of State Government

One of the most sweeping post-Dust Bowl policy changes in Oklahoma was the Conservation District Enabling Act, which was enacted in April 1937. The state measure was modeled on legislation passed down from the federal government and created the state Conservation Commission, which oversees 88 conservation districts.

The districts were — and remain — independent subdivisions of state government, and each is overseen by a five-member board of directors. The charge of the commission and the districts is to help farmers, ranchers and land managers make better use of Oklahoma’s natural resources.

Much of the focus concerns soil and water issues. The districts organize education and training programs and provide financial assistance for programs that improve soil conservation and water quality.

The Dust Bowl
a film by Ken Burns

Part 1: The Great Plow Up
7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 18

Part 2: Reaping the Whirlwind
7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Monday, Nov. 19

Repeats on OETA on Nov. 20, 21 and 24.

The state chips in some money for projects, but the bulk of the funding is federal and comes from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a U.S. Department of Agriculture agency that evolved out of Dust Bowl-era soil erosion and conservation services.

While most of the funding comes from the federal government, the money pays for “locally led” conservation efforts, says Tom M. Lucas of the USDA-NRCS in Oklahoma. For example, a district might decide that “no-till” farming methods are key to soil conservation in Oklahoma’s panhandle.  The commission and district help train farmers and ranchers on the new technique, wherein residual crop stubble is maintained to help prevent erosion and improve soil quality and water retention. Some farmers and ranchers are also eligible for direct payments from the government if they convert fields to no-till and meet certain benchmarks.  

Districts in other parts of the state might spend money on red cedar eradication, an effort to reduce a fuel rapidly consumed by devastating wildfires

Arthur Rothstein / Library of Congress

A farmer in 1936 fights drought and dust with irrigation in Cimarron County, Okla.

Soil Conservation

The Dust Bowl’s most visible legacy was fueled by erosion and soil degradation, the result of over-cultivation and bad land management. From the devastation came organized education, and a determination to change how Oklahomans used the land itself.

“It would be accurate to say that all soil conservation programs were started as a result of the Dust Bowl,” says Jason Warren, a soil and water conservation specialist and assistant professor at Oklahoma State University.

Soil conservation practices have evolved significantly since the 1930s, says Clay Pope, executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts. Much of the focus now is on converting marginal cropland back to grassland, and in encouraging the use of no-till or strip-till farming. The commission and districts can give farmers and ranchers financial assistance for equipment and programs that improve water quality and reduce the amount of soil disturbance — a key contributor to Dust Bowl dustiness.

“It’s work that’s never done,” Pope says. “We’re constantly learning.”

And Oklahomans have learned, Warren says. Drought played a major role in the “Dirty Thirties,” a term for the era coined for clouds of dust, but the state experienced more extreme drought conditions in the 1950s. And the drought currently gripping much of the nation — especially Oklahoma and Texas — is even more intense, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“But the dust did not return because of the practices implemented to control erosion,” Warren says.

The state still has a long way to go, Pope says. Oklahoma is “20 years behind” other states when it comes to adoption of no-till farming techniques, he says. And reminders of the Dust Bowl days still crop up in modern day Oklahoma.

In mid-October, an immense dust storm blacked-out the sky over portions of northern Oklahoma, causing traffic accidents and forcing authorities to close Interstate 35 near Blackwell. The Blackwell blackout — and a similar storm that charged through Lubbock, Texas in October 2011 — are the direct result of soil erosion in drought conditions, Pope says.

“If you turn your back on this monster,” he says, “it can still reach a claw out from the cage we’ve got it in and grab you.”

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