Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 21, No. 3, Summer 2001, pp. 193-210.
Drive the remote highways of the Great Plains and you will find signs marking US Forest Service property in the midst of the nation's vast interior grassland, a place where it could be miles to the next tree, let alone a forest. In fact, the Forest Service (USFS) manages several million acres of land in the Great Plains, public land designated "National Grasslands" and committed to grazing by private cattle ranchers. The National Grasslands are remnants of the Great Plains past, their story rooted in pioneer homesteads and in the drought and depression of the 1930s. USFS brochures explain the history of these parcels of public land in the midst of an overwhelmingly private and treeless Great Plains:
[Nlew settlers, called "sodbusters" by some, attempted intensive agriculture, by raising cultivated crops rather than livestock .... Between 1905 and 1915 as a great number of "sodbusters" came, the less desirable areas were homesteaded .... During the mid- 1920's, rainfall became less and less frequent .... With little or no rain, crops did not mature and homesteaders had nothing to harvest. ... The soil, once held in place by the roots of native grasses and later by the cultivated crops during the years of good moisture, was now free to move, and move it did! Thus began the black blizzards which plagued the western plains for nearly a decade.1
Beginning in 1934 the federal government repurchased 11 million acres of land from private owners and created large, federally managed grazing lands under the auspices of the Land Utilization Program (LUP). Government managers, so the story continues, reformed land use by revegetating cropland and converting it to pasture. Grazing was better suited to the natural environment, and it conserved soil and grass resources, reduced wind erosion, and improved the quality of life for remaining families:
Hundreds of thousands of acres were reclaimed during this lO-year period. Most were reseeded to crested wheat-grass, a plant introduced from Russia. In 1945, at the end of World War II, these lands were once again as productive as many of those that had never been farmed.2
This is an attractive story of tragedy and salvation. It has a bitter foe in the region's harsh and unpredictable climate; it has victims needing rescue-destitute farmers and a fragile natural landscape; it has heroes-federal agencies including the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) and the Forest Service. And it has a happy ending-a rescued grassland and prosperous ranchers.3