Hugh Bennett returned to Washington, DC believing that the Great Plains could be restored. Congress approved a plan “to reverse the flow of water under the Continental Divide,” a kind of “hydraulic savior.” Others thought the solution was to drill into the Ogallala Aquifer. Meanwhile, four million acres of farmland were empty, with no takers, not even among the Resettlement agency whose responsibility it was to buy back land.
Despite Bennett’s conservation efforts, the presence of millions of acres of unoccupied farmland, coupled with the existence of an underground reservoir, made it inevitable that farmers would retake the plains and try, once again, to install industrial farming.
Hugh Bennett proposed saving the land through contour plowing, crop rotation, and soil conservation districts. The crisis had already cost tax payers five hundred million dollars in 1933 for remedial land projects, grants, loans, and relief. Before spending any more money, Roosevelt wanted to know if the plains could be saved, and how. Also, had homesteading been a mistake? The report of the Great Plains Drought Area Committee was delivered to the president on August 27, 1936, and said that the climate had not changed, but that the plains were in the first years of “a hundred-year cycle of change.” There was also simply not enough rainfall to raise crops. The problem of the Great Plains was not the product of a single act of nature, it declared, but of “a single year or even a series of exceptionally bad years” caused by mistaken public policies, particularly a misguided homesteading policy.
The homesteaders were not singularly at fault for their shortsightedness and greed. They had been encouraged to settle the land without being taught how to manage it. The realtors tempted them with advertising that told them how easy it would be to dry farm the plains, but the syndicate did not tell them that the soil would require care. The syndicate also told people that they would not need much rain to raise their crops, which was a lie. The settlement of the High Plains was not exactly a mistake, but it had been settled in the wrong way, with a focus on adapting the land to the people’s needs instead of the people adapting to the land’s needs.
The report also described how the disaster occurred. A chart showed how quickly the grass was overturned. Ten million acres were plowed in 1879. Still, Bennett and his team did not blame the settlers, since the nesters lacked the knowledge to be aware of their mistakes. Instead, they were misled by the Federal homestead policy. There would be no easy solution to the problem of 80 percent of the Great Plains being in a state of erosion.
Though Bennett blamed the government instead of the settlers, policy makers’ initial inaction in response to excessive plowing, and their encouragement to dig up as much land as possible, indicated that they understood the soil as little as the nesters did.
Roosevelt was worried, but during one of his radio broadcast “fireside chats,” he tried to encourage people to hold on. He remained extremely popular. Meanwhile, things in Europe were tense, and Hitler’s power was growing. In the next election, the Republicans ran the Kansan Governor Alf Landon, who said that Roosevelt had no idea how to fix the plains and “was taking the country in a radical direction.” Most Americans disagreed, and Roosevelt was re-elected in a landslide. Later, Landon himself would say that the New Deal saved American society.
The New Deal is one of few pieces of legislation in American history toward which most Americans, across partisan lines, have a positive view. Though there may be some ideological disagreement with Roosevelt’s use of government to solve so many problems, few can deny that the policy worked and provided desperately needed relief.
Bennett’s agency was ready to start planting the first new sections of sod, but he was worried about its survival in a land prone to drought. They planted a mixture of weeds, grass from Africa, blue grama, bluestem, buffalo grass, and other flora. It might take fifty years before a large swath of turf was rooted in place. Roosevelt still wanted to build his trees from North Dakota’s Canadian border to an area just south of Amarillo, Texas, and the Forest Service was saying that it could be done. Trees could not stop dust, but “they could provide shelter from black blizzards.”
The flora that Bennett planned to install in the barren soil was foreign to the land, but capable of survival. Interestingly, he designed a carpet of grass that would be more diverse than what had originally existed. Still, it was unclear how long it would take before the plains resembled what it had once been. It had taken hardly any time to dig up the grass, but it would take countless years for it to grow back fully.
A tree-planting crew was sent to Oklahoma, just east of No Man’s Land. The tree planters were CCC crews. The goal was to plant 180,000 acres per year, mostly on private land. The owner would then care for the trees, and farming would continue between the strips. Roosevelt ignored Bennett and others who said that one could not alter “the basic nature of the Great Plains.” He would have his trees, “from the top of the plains to the bottom.”
Both Bennett and Roosevelt wanted to transform the Great Plains, just as the wheat farmers had, but they wanted to do it in a way that would be beneficial for the region in the long-term. Their efforts were proof that humans could impact the land in both negative and positive ways.