Lessons from the Dust Bowl

I'm as big a football fan as most folks, but last night, I was riveted to my television watching the first part of Ken Burns’ documentary on the Dust Bowl. It’s encouraging to see this important period in our nation’s history being reexamined for a broad audience.

The Dust Bowl and the Great Depression drove ecological and human tragedy on a broad scale. Millions of Americans were left destitute by the destruction of the land and the concurrent economic collapse. Our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents faced what must have seemed to them like the end of the world, including dust storms lasting weeks on end, stripping topsoil and destroying the foundations of both natural and human "ecosystems."

Dust BowlDust buried farms and equipment, killed livestock, and caused human death and misery during the height of the Dust Bowl years. Credit: NOAA

But while re-creating a bleak vision of the past, the series also offers hope for the future.

Visionaries like Ding Darling, Aldo Leopold and J. Clark Salyer refused to give in to hopelessness, or to listen to the many people who told them that nothing could be done. Along with millions of conservation-minded hunters and anglers, they stepped up and advocated for increased investment in land and water protection. They shepherded the development and approval of landmark legislation creating the Federal Duck Stamp and the Wildlife Restoration Act. Funds generated by sportsmen through these Acts contributed to the establishment of 142 wildlife refuges across the nation in that decade alone.

Today, we see trends and challenges that eerily echo the Dust Bowl – but on a global scale.  The enormous destruction recently wrought by Hurricane Sandy, while not solely attributable to the effects of human-induced climate change, offers just one stark reminder of the increasing risks we incur by failing to address greenhouse gas emissions.  It seems an impossible and improbable task to help wildlife and natural systems cope with these disruptions. But just as it would have been easy to give in to despair 80 years ago – to simply retreat and try to survive the whirlwind – we all need to be optimistic and dedicate ourselves to finding solutions.

Hurricane SandyMore than 75 percent of North Dune Trail at Cape May National Wildlife Refuge's Two Mile Beach unit was underwater after Sandy (some areas knee-deep). Credit: Davis Bocanegra/USFWS

America has always found a way to enrich her conservation legacy despite difficult times. This must be one of those times. The legacy of a century of conservation is on the line.

We’ve gotten some good news in the past week. The Senate is on the brink of passing the Sportsmen’s Act, containing approval to increase the price of the Duck Stamp and reauthorizing the North American Waterfowl Conservation Act. In addition, BP’s settlement of claims stemming from the Deepwater Horizon Oil spill will direct more than $4 billion to help the Service and its partners restore the Gulf. But the amount of money we have to work with is only part of the issue.

We need to be more effective and efficient with whatever funding we receive, leveraging our resources and directing our efforts where they can provide measurable biological outcomes for multiple species and ecosystems. That’s why we’re pushing forward with our partners to identify surrogate species and implement strategic habitat conservation across the nation. Right now, we are also working within the Service to develop an Operational Plan that identifies and implements efficiencies that will save millions of dollars.

So take some time to watch PBS tonight and see the conservation legacy the Service’s predecessors created out of the ashes of the Dust Bowl. Together we can sustain and expand those accomplishments for future generations.

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Last updated: August 31, 2011