Imagine stepping outdoors on a Sunday morning and facing a pitch black sky and howling winds. There is no rain, because what's in the sky isn't clouds -- it's dirt.
Tons and tons of dirt.
And it's so thick, it's blocking out the sun.
This is what thousands of Americans faced on April 14, 1935 -- a day now known in many communities as Black Sunday.
When the worst storms of the Dust Bowl era swept across the Central Plains, they darkened the skies from Chicago to Washington, D.C., and almost everywhere in between.
This largely man-made disaster, tied to unsound farming practices aggravated by drought, displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
This weekend, PBS will highlight this disaster and how it forever changed the landscape of our nation, when it airs The Dust Bowl, a documentary by Ken Burns. The film highlights personal stories about the intense devastation and the perserverance of the human spirit.
There were, oddly enough, some positive outcomes, as hard as that may to believe.
One of those was the launch of federal soil and water conservation initiatives and the establishment of many national wildlife refuges.
More than 63 national wildlife refuges in the Plains states owe their existence to the Dust Bowl era, today accounting for more than 1.5 million acres of restored lands and wetlands managed by the National Wildlife Refuge System.
Together these refuges play an important role in reclaiming lands by plugging drainage ditches, stabilizing the soil with deep-rooted plants, improving water quality, reducing floods and protecting habitat for migratory birds. Today, as climate change raises the prospect of a new far-reaching environmental crisis, these refuges have lessons to offer.
Here are a few refuges that are improving ecology in the Plains:
- Lake Alice National Wildlife Refuge: 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.
- Devils Lake Wetland Management District: More than 250 publicly owned waterfowl production areas and 2,700 conservation easements protect 213,000 acres in the Drift Prairie zone of the Prairie Pothole Region. Refuge biologists seed native grasses and restore the prairie wetland resource. This improves wildlife habitat while reducing erosion, improving water quality, alleviating flooding, recharging ground water and enhancing wildlife recreation.
- Fergus Falls Wetland Management District - This five-county region of western Minnesota, prized by 19th-century settlers for its abundant wildlife, was devastated by the drought of the 1930s. Working with the Service's conservation partners, the Fergus Falls Wetland Management District is slowly restoring the landscape’s ability to provide wildlife habitat and many other natural resource benefits. In FY 2008 Fergus Falls restored 54 acres of wetlands and 97 acres of grassland, managed water levels on 48 separate large wetland basins and harvested more than 5,000 pounds of native grass seed to be used for future grassland restoration.
- J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge This 58,700-acre refuge, named for the biologist who bought up many acres of parched land for the National Wildlife Refuge System in the 1930s, has developed into one of the most important duck production areas in the country.
- Audubon National Wildlife Refuge 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.