In the 1930s, eastern Colorado experienced the worst ecological disaster in the state’s history. Unsustainable farming practices and widespread drought transformed the once fertile Great Plains into a barren landscape, inhospitable to both humans and animals. The experience of the Dust Bowl provides Coloradans a prism through which to view humanity’s historic, and often troubled, relationship with the sensitive ecosystems of the Great Plains.
The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed American citizens to claim parcels of 160 acres in the arid West. The promise of free land and above-average rainfall in the 1870s encouraged the rapid settlement of the Great Plains. After setbacks in the dry 1890s, the development of mechanized farming in the 1910s proved to be the final ingredient necessary to turn what was known as the "Great American Desert" into America’s breadbasket. Steam-driven tractors transformed thousands of acres of native prairie grasses into undulating fields of wheat, sugar beets, and other crops. This exponentially increased the productivity and profitability of farming in southeastern Colorado, but it also removed the dense network of grass roots that held down the topsoil, making Colorado’s prairies vulnerable to ecological crisis.
Throughout the 1930s, southeastern Colorado and the Great Plains experienced extreme droughts. Baca, Las Animas, and Prowers Counties were among those areas hit hardest by drought. The region received a meager 126 total inches of moisture between 1930 and 1939, 205 fewer inches than the previous decade. Annual precipitation fell below the eighteen inches needed to grow wheat, which had a devastating effect on the region’s wheat crop. For instance, in 1930 Baca County had 237,000 acres in wheat production; by 1936 that number had fallen to 150 acres. The lack of precipitation meant hundreds of thousands of acres no longer had plants to anchor the soil to the ground.
From Drought to Dust
Dust was not uncommon in the semiarid regions of Colorado when the prairie winds blew, so it was no surprise when a few “dusters”—large dust clouds—appeared in 1931. In 1932 the dusters returned with greater intensity. By 1933 the frequency and intensity of dust storms endangered the health of livestock and people alike. The destructive storms earned the decade the moniker the “dirty thirties.” The storms destroyed millions of farmland acres and induced mental and physical anguish among residents. Towns had to turn on their streetlights during the day and the ubiquitous dust forced people to put wet sheets over doors and windows. Colorado’s farmers ate meals under tablecloths and wore goggles and masks of wet towels when they dared venture outdoors. Cases of dust pneumonia reached epidemic proportions in animals and humans.
On April 14, 1935, a “black duster” overtook Robert E. Geiger, a reporter for the Washington (DC) Evening Star, and photographer Harry G. Eisenhard six miles from Boise City, Oklahoma. Geiger coined the term Dust Bowl when he used it in a subsequent article for the Lubbock (TX) Evening Journal. The Dust Bowl encompassed the entire Great Plains, stretching from southwestern Kansas into southeastern Colorado, northeastern New Mexico, and the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas. Although Baca County experienced the brunt of the Dust Bowl, dust storms occurred as far north as Burlington in Kit Carson County and Julesburg in Sedgwick County. Las Animas and Prowers counties were especially hard hit. Dust covered roads and made them impassable, suffocated livestock, destroyed crops, and laid ruin to the livelihoods of thousands of eastern Coloradans.
During the Dust Bowl, Colorado’s plains also suffered from grasshopper infestations. Grasshoppers thrived in the desiccated prairie soils and first descended upon Colorado in 1934. In 1937 and 1938, swarms of the insects almost blacked out the sun as they consumed entire fields of barley, wheat, and alfalfa. The federal government sent employees from the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) to eradicate the pests by poisoning them. Although some families endured, many residents found it impossible to support themselves and ended up migrating to places like California and Oregon. Baca County, for example, lost 4,363 residents during the 1930s.
The New Deal
Several New Deal programs provided direct relief to Colorado residents in the form of provisions and clothing, while others assisted in long-term economic recovery. New Deal programs provided loans to struggling farmers and businesses, while direct relief to families came in the form of cash payments and food allotments. Relief figures indicate that almost all of Baca County’s residents benefited from New Deal programs. In 1936 more than 50 percent of Baca County residents were on the relief rolls.
The Works Progress Administration (WPA), created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on April 8, 1935, aimed to provide both direct and long-term relief. At its peak in 1938 the WPA provided employment for more than 3 million unemployed men and women. The federal government allocated $1,064,021 to the WPA for public construction projects in Baca County, including the improvement or construction of roads, bridges, schools, and other public and municipal buildings.
Toward an Ethic of Land Use
In 1935 agricultural experts met in Pueblo to discuss how human interaction with Great Plains environments had caused the Dust Bowl. The group estimated that the prairie winds had blown 850 million tons of topsoil off the southern plains in 1935 alone. New Deal programs were designed to combat erosion immediately and educate current and future generations of farmers in appropriate soil conservation techniques to prevent a repeat of the disaster. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the Resettlement Administration (later the Farm Security Administration), and the SCS all addressed the environmental crisis of the Dust Bowl.
Rehabilitating the Land
The Taylor Grazing Act ended the homestead movement when it passed Congress in 1934. The act authorized the US Department of the Interior to establish grazing districts and manage a grazing permit system aimed at curbing destructive grazing practices.
Established in 1934, the Land Utilization Program (LUP) sought to alleviate rural poverty and restore the economic vitality of agriculture. The LUP purchased submarginal and eroded lands, restored them, and converted them to grazing, forestry, wildlife, or recreation areas. According to President Roosevelt, “Many million acres of such land must be returned to grass or trees if we are to prevent a new and man-made Sahara.”
Under the LUP, the federal government purchased more than 4.7 million acres of submarginal farmland in Baca, Otero, and Las Animas counties in Colorado and throughout the West. In 1953 the SCS transferred management of those lands to the US Forest Service (USFS). On June 20, 1960, the USFS established the Comanche National Grasslands in what are now Baca, Otero, and Las Animas counties. Many of the lands purchased from bankrupt farmers during the Dust Bowl had been rehabilitated into the public domain to be enjoyed for their natural splendor.
Adapted from Cindy Nasky, “Depression and the Dust Bowl,” Colorado Preservation, Inc., n.d.