Of Shelterbelts and Sagebrush

The windswept plains of western Oklahoma during dust-bowl days and the skies over war-torn Japan in 1945 may not appear to have much in common, but appearances can be deceiving. A small group of U. S. Forest Service personnel helped conquer both challenges; this is their story.

You’ve seen pictures of the “black blizzards” that rolled over the entire Great Plains area — some 625,000 square miles reaching from the Canadian border to the Rio Grande — and even darkened the skies over Washington, DC, and New York City in the early 1930s. However, unless you actually experienced them you cannot know how they affected almost everyone. Darkness at noon with only ten-foot visibility is terrifying. In 1934, it became a national problem that outranked (if only briefly) the Great Depression.

During his presidential campaign in 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt had proposed creating a “shelter belt” of trees to protect the Great Plains from its ever-present winds. However, attempts to stem the problems of the Depression took priority, and the proposal became somewhat sidetracked.

In April of 1934, however, a huge dust storm brought the idea back to the front burner. On July 21 of that year, the Forest Service got the green light to proceed with the idea. Paul H. Roberts, a lifelong employee who had risen through the ranks to the top echelons of the service, got the job of making it happen.

As always, a chorus of nay-sayers arose, condemning the idea as a huge boondoggle doomed to failure. The original plan called for the federal government to lease land from farmers throughout the area, with options to buy, and plant rows of trees to block prevailing winds. Opponents of the idea seemed to believe that the plan was to re-create the original forestlands of the Mississippi Valley, in the much more arid Plains region. They insisted that it would be a huge waste, since no trees would grow large enough to support a timber industry.

Of course, they had missed the entire point. The idea was not to re-create a forest, but to provide windbreaks at frequent intervals that would protect crop lands from the blowing dust — and incidentally reduce the wind strength at ground level, reducing the amount of dust in the air.

Roberts, a native Nebraskan, established his headquarters in Lincoln, NE, and set out to organize the effort. States taking part in the project were North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Only the westernmost counties of Oklahoma — Beckham, Custer, Dewey, Ellis, Greer, Harmon, Jackson, Major, Roger Mills, Washita, Woods, and Woodward — were originally included, but others including the Panhandle were added several years later.

Roberts named an assistant forester from Texas to be the Oklahoma state director for the project. John R. “Jack” Nelson was a native of Arizona who, like Roberts, had risen through the ranks of the Forest Service. He set up the state office in Oklahoma City, eventually occupying the entire fourth floor of the Key Building at NW 3 and Harvey. District offices were located in Elk City, El Reno, Mangum, and Enid. And on March 18, 1935, the first Shelterbelt tree in the nation was planted on a farm near Mangum.

At this time, my father was a field representative for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the federal agency that “plowed little pigs under” during depression years to provide at least a little income to impoverished farm families. His job involved travel throughout Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, delivering payments to the farmers. When he learned of the Forest Service’s “Prairie States Forestry Project” he immediately applied for transfer to it, and in early 1935 was named area director for the Elk City office. His initial salary was approximately $2,000 annually — a huge amount for that time and place.

His primary duty, originally, was to recruit farmers to take part in the project. Since I was only four years old when we moved to Elk City, I don’t remember any details except that he was away from home from sun-up to sundown every day except Sunday. However he must have had fair success, since his area planted more miles of windbreak than most of the others in the state.

I do have one clear memory from that year, though. In mid-August of 1935, I was listening to a radio show from Oklahoma City’s WKY when an announcer interrupted the broadcast to report that Will Rogers and Wiley Post had died in an airplane crash in Alaska. While little else from those years remains clear, the shock of hearing that remains vivid today.

Each shelterbelt consisted of several rows of trees, selected from various species so that tallest growth would be in the middle rows, with progressively shorter trees toward the edges. Total width of a planting ranged from 100 to 165 feet, varying with the quality of the soil in each location. Varieties included black locust, catalpa, Chinese elm, cottonwood, green ash, hackberry, honey locust, mulberry, Osage orange, pecan, plum, Russian olive, red cedar, and walnut.

Past experience had taught that trees had to be raised from locally-grown seed in order to survive. Therefore the project had to establish its own nurseries, where trees were raised from seedlings. They were then moved to the planting sites as saplings. Planting was done by WPA and CCC labor; the farmer was then expected to cultivate and maintain the site.

Since the project was a long-term strategy that would take several years to show significant results, federal emergency funds could not be used. Roosevelt used WPA funding to finance it for the life of the project.

The first few years were rather rocky. Many people firmly believed that trees simply could not grow in the semi-arid area of the plains. Others insisted that it was a total waste of time and money. However a few farmers were willing to give it a try, and the effort proceeded — although nowhere near as rapidly as its originators had hoped.

Nelson tried several organizational structures for his area in efforts to counter the critics. For instance, he moved the Elk City office to Clinton for a short time. However that didn’t work out well, so he moved it back.

One casualty of those years was the word “shelterbelt” itself. It had become so closely identified with the (non-existent) reforestation plan that officials prohibited its public use by project personnel. Nevertheless, the label never went away, and today is more widely used than the official project name.

After the first few years, the project’s success tended to silence many of its critics. Fields protected by the trees showed consistently better crop yields than did neighboring unprotected areas. Applications to participate increased rapidly in number; recruitment was no longer a major problem. Instead, the question of determining whether a location would be suitable began to take precedence.

By 1939, Nelson needed a trouble shooter in the Oklahoma City office who was familiar with the field problems, and my father was tapped for the task. We moved to the City, but Pop didn’t relinquish responsibility for the Elk City area. After 18 months, the problems were mostly solved and we returned to Elk City, where we remained until the project wound down in 1942.

By that time, the project had planted more than ten million trees in Oklahoma alone, and more than 223 million throughout the Great Plains. It was a resounding success. One of the more notable shelterbelts lined both sides of Route 66 for more than a mile just west of Canute (between Elk City and Clinton). However, the ramping up of defense industry and preparation for the obviously impending war had taken priority, so the project came to an end. Its mission transferred to the Soil Conservation Service, and eventually faded out completely.

Today, many of the windbreaks planted in the 1930s are gone. The trees were selected for rapid growth, not for long life, and in many cases the landowners cut them down for lumber or to reclaim the land for cultivation. However the western counties are no longer devoid of trees; the shelterbelts proved that trees could grow there, and despite the end of the federal project, private owners still plant and maintain some.

We were still in Elk City, winding things down, on December 7, 1941. As the PSFP was shutting down, my father left Civil Service and signed on as vocational agriculture instructor at Dibble High School, west of Purcell. My mother and I moved from Elk City to Stillwater, where we had owned a home since before 1930. By the fall of 1942, we had settled down there.

The Japanese conquest of Malaysia, together with the German U-boat interdiction of shipping from South America, had almost shut off our imports of natural rubber, necessary to create tires for aircraft and motor vehicles. While we had a few rather primitive synthetics, they all required “seeding” of natural latex to initiate a batch, and the nation was hurting.

At that point, the Forest Service created a new project, the “Emergency Rubber Project,” to grow a type of sagebrush that contains small amounts of latex which could substitute for the lost supply. Since they still had the framework — and many of the people — from the shelterbelt project, it got the job. Again, Roberts headed the operation and Nelson was one of his top aides.

My father had been teaching at Dibble for only a few weeks when he received a phone call from Jack Nelson, asking him to come back and take on responsibilities in Southern California similar to those he had carried at Elk City. A quick conference with the Dibble School Board resulted, Pop was released from his teaching contract, and by mid-October he was on a train to Los Angeles. My mother and I remained in Stillwater temporarily, until the end of my fall semester in 7th grade.

The project’s purpose was to grow guayule (pronounced wy-YOOL-uh), a variety of sagebrush that’s native to northern Mexico. In the 1920s, Henry Ford had experimented with growing it in Southern California near Hemet, to control his supply of tires for the Model T. However, the time to maturity is so long — 3 to 4 years — and the yield so small that Ford eventually gave up the idea as impractical.

Wartime needs, though, changed the picture. The Emergency Rubber Project set up several large plantations in California, Arizona, and Texas. My father took charge of 1,040 acres that had been planted in barley, located just to the east of Beaumont in Riverside county and some 50 miles west of Palm Springs. The assignment included a spacious ranch house smack in the middle of the almost two-square-mile plot, and in December, 1942, we moved from Stillwater to the Beaumont area.

Pop’s first task was to fill in the huge gullies that criss-crossed the fields. This required using large bulldozers and stripping off the ground cover. When a Santa Anna wind came up in the spring, we had our own home-grown black blizzard as the dry topsoil blew toward the coast! Fortunately the wind lasted only a day or so, and the crews were able to get back into the fields planting the guayule seedlings.

To do the planting, commercial lettuce-planting machines were used. These contraptions, towed behind small tractors, had seats for a half-dozen operators, small plows to open a narrow trench, a wheel with spring clamps, and a blade to close the trench. They somewhat resembled the device used today by telephone line crews to bury cable beneath a lawn. The women operators rode the machine, inserting seedlings into the wheel’s clamps as it moved along. The result was a regularly spaced row of seedlings.

Once the guayule was planted, it had to be watered. We used large tanks with spray nozzles on them. During the rainy season, of course, irrigation wasn’t necessary — but control of the runoff most definitely was. Pop re-invented a device he had first built back in the 1920s as a County Agricultural Agent in Roger Mills county, to create regularly spaced dams in the furrows between rows. It consisted of a metal wheel with a sloped ramp welded to one side of the tread to create a “bumpy ride” effect, a metal frame surrounding the wheel, and a shovel blade mounted to the frame pointing down to the ground. As a tractor pulled the device along the rows, the blade would drag earth ahead of it, leaving a basin dug out of the ground behind it, until the “bump” lifted the blade up to deposit an earthen dam. The blade then descended, starting the cycle over once again.

Unlike the better-known rubber tree, guayule’s latex is stored within the body of the plant. It cannot be tapped; to harvest it, the bush must be pulled from the ground and pulverized. The resulting sawdust-like material then goes into a huge water tank, where the woody parts float to the top while the imbedded “rubber worms” sink to the bottom and are collected. They are then pressed into sheets of natural rubber. The project maintained a processing plant at Salinas, CA, to perform these operations.

Even though the plants were still nowhere near maturity, the needs of the rubber industry required that some of them be harvested and processed almost immediately. This began in late 1943 and continued until the end of the war. We were told, in 1945, that every B-29 that flew took off on tires created by using guayule rubber.

With the coming of peace, the need for guayule to support the tire industry vanished. Germany’s fall gave the western Allies access to synthetic rubber processes that required no seeding of natural latex. Our plantation’s crop, still a full year short of maturity, was bulldozed up and burned.

That’s not the end of the guayule story, though. It seems that many folk are allergic to a protein contained in conventional latex, but that component is absent in the latex of guayule. Thus it’s become commercially viable as a material for hypoallergenic rubber gloves and other products!

With the war over, my father saw a coming need for personnel to assist returning veterans. Himself a partially disabled vet from 1918, when he lost his right index finger to a German machine-gun bullet, he believed that he could help fill that need. He transferred from the Forest Service to the Veterans Administration at the start of 1946. We returned to Oklahoma, settling in Oklahoma City in late summer of 1946.

Jack Nelson retired and returned to his beloved Arizona ranch, located in rugged mountains some 100 miles northwest of Phoenix. Paul Roberts remained with the Forest Service, retiring in 1951. I don’t know what happened to the others involved.

So there’s the connection — a small group of can-do Forest Service folk pulled off not one but two improbable projects. And today, their accomplishments have been almost forgotten.