Tree Facts: America’s number one shelterbelt

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Farm Forum

March 18, 2015 will be the 80th anniversary of the planting of the first shelterbelt in the United States. It was planted under FDR’s “Shelterbelt Project,” a tree planting program created in response to the “Dust Bowl” that was ravaging the Great Plains in the 1930s. It is known as the “Number One Shelterbelt” and was planted on the Horace E. Curtis farm in Greer County in southwestern Oklahoma in 1935.

During the 1930s, dust storms, drought, farm foreclosures and bank failures happened throughout the Great Plains. In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace had the idea of planting extensive strips of trees across the Great Plains to tame the winds in order to end and prevent future dust storms. The original plan was to plant forest strips, 100 feet wide and not more than one mile apart, in a 100-mile wide belt from the Canada to Mexico.

President Roosevelt’s goal was to provide funding for the project for the permanent benefit and protection of the Great Plains. The “Shelterbelt Project” was approved as part of a larger Plains Forestry Project and was authorized by President Roosevelt by executive order providing federal funding for drought relief in 1935. The public reacted to it with both praise and criticism. Even professional foresters differed in their views and questioned whether the projects would be successful. Eventually, much of the public and most of the foresters, especially those in the Great Plains became avid supporters as they saw most of the plantings flourish in spite of drought.

The “Number One Shelterbelt” was planted with much fanfare. State Forester George R. Phillips, planted the first tree, an Austrian pine. From 1935 to 1942, the project planted about 20 million trees in 3,000 miles of shelterbelts in Oklahoma alone. A bulletin was put together titled “Possibilities of Shelterbelt Planting in the Plains Region,” and became the “Bible” for the Shelterbelt Project. The bulletin recommended that shelterbelts consisted of 17 to 21 rows but that was later reduced to10 rows and in some instances to 7 rows.

The most serious problem faced by the project was the unreliable funding. In 1936, the project was almost ended but it was saved by an allocation from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the name was changed to the Prairie States Forestry Project. The project continued thru the WPA was transferred to the Soil Conservation Service and came to an end 1942.

A survey was done in 1954 to determine how many of the shelterbelts planted by the Prairie States Forestry Project were still in place and it found that three-quarters of the original shelterbelts were in fair or better condition. Since then many shelterbelts have been removed, partially or entirely, but most of them continue to function as originally intended.

Farmers and ranchers of today still plant shelterbelts. Shelterbelts planted today like the ones of yesteryear provide an invaluable service in protecting crops and livestock throughout the plains. Oklahoma is very proud of being the home of America’s “Number One Shelterbelt.” Conservation districts stand ready to help landowners with renovation of old and to plant new ones in order to maintain the shelterbelt legacy for future generations.

My source for this news release was the Southern Group of State Foresters. If you would like more information about “America’s Number One Shelterbelt,” contact Bob Drown @605-244-5222 Extension 109 or by e-mail at robert.drown@sd.nacdnet.net.