77 Years After the Dust Bowl, National Wildlife Refuges Still Reclaiming Land
This year marks the 77th anniversary of “Black Sunday” – April 10, 1935, when the worst dust storms of the Dust Bowl era stripped the topsoil off the Central Plains, darkening skies as far east as Chicago and Washington, DC, and uprooting hundreds of thousands of Americans.
“The Dust Bowl,” a new documentary by acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns, has been called a morality tale about our relationship to the land. It premieres November 18 and 19, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET on PBS, including interviews with 26 survivors as well as original photographs and movie footage.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt named J.N. “Ding” Darling as chief of the Biological Survey (the predecessor to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) in 1934. Darling devoted himself to reversing the effects of the Dust Bowl, in part by establishing national wildlife refuges along the nation’s four major flyways. Almost 2.5 million young men with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) worked to restore natural wetlands and habitats.
During the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era, more than 63 national wildlife refuges were established, dedicated to wildlife habitat development and the reversal of environmental degradation. Together, these refuges play an important role in reclaiming ravaged lands by filling drainage ditches, stabilizing the soil with deep-rooted plants, improving water quality, reducing floods and protecting habitat for migratory birds. The Dust Bowl became a catalyst for visionary conservation programs.
The Dust Bowl was the era’s worst man-made environmental crisis. Today, as climate change presents another man-made environmental crisis, wildlife refuges established in the 1930s offer lessons. Here are a few Dust Bowl era refuges that are still improving Plains ecology:
Audubon National Wildlife Refuge, North Dakota The refuge encompasses more than 14,000 acres of native prairie, grasslands and wetlands managed to provide habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds. Water management ensures adequate water in drought years. Controlled burns increase soil nutrients and stimulate plant growth.
Devils Lake Wetland Management District, North Dakota:
Fergus Falls Wetland Management District, Minnesota:
J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge, North Dakota:
Lake Alice National Wildlife Refuge, North Dakota: This 12,100-acre refuge in North Dakota restored former cropland into grasslands; the deep roots of the grasses penetrate and hold the valuable Prairie Pothole region soils. Refuge managers and biologists have also restored and managed wetlands to reverse the effects of drought and improve habitat for waterfowl, colonial nesting birds and wading birds.