The High Plains never recovered from the Dust Bowl. The land has healed in some places, but in others it is still deeply scarred. The government bought back 11.3 acres to return to grassland. The original goal was 75 million acres. Some animal species are missing or endangered, and the indigenous people never returned, despite New Deal attempts to buy them rangeland. The Comanche live on a small reservation near Lawton, Oklahoma. They still think that the old treaty lands belong to them.
Despite the fact that the Comanche were clearly betrayed, they insist on upholding the honor of their end of the agreement, which declared certain lands their own for grazing. The Anglos had not fulfilled their commitment to restore the grasslands fully, and their neglect had additional environmental consequences.
The trees from Franklin Roosevelt’s arbor dream have mostly disappeared. Around two hundred and twenty trees were planted and cut down in the postwar era, after the regular rain returned in the 1940s. Occasionally, a visitor to the plains sees a row of elms or cottonwoods, but no one seems to remember how they got there.
The willingness to cut down the trees in an effort to create more farmland was an effect of farmers’ belief that the worst was over; the plains would never again be a Dust Bowl, they thought.
Currently, less than one percent of jobs in the U.S. are in agriculture. The farm population on the plains has shrunk by 80 percent. The subsidy system has persisted, however, giving some farmers up to $360,000 per year. However, those subsidies generally go to corporate farms that push small suppliers out of business. Only a handful of farmers still work on homesteads in No Man’s Land and the Texas Panhandle.
The economy has long shifted away from agriculture. During Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, manufacturing became the dominant industry. In the late-20th century, manufacturing was unseated by the service economy as the primary source of jobs. Both manufacturing and service jobs required more people to move to cities.
The Ogallala Aquifer is the nation’s biggest source of underground freshwater, but it is depleting rapidly. It is declining at a rate of 1.1. million acre-feet a day. Though it provides 30 percent of the water used for irrigation in the United States, it may be completely depleted in one hundred years.
Excessive exploitation of the aquifer—a finite water source—is an indication that the lessons of conservation were not effectively passed down, or that they simply do not matter to those who value short-term profits above all.
The dust storms returned in the 1950s after a three-year drought. There were then more droughts from 1974-1976 and 2000-2003. However, this time, the soil did not drift. Hugh Bennett’s soil conservation districts had managed to hold the earth in place, as he said it would. Bennett died in 1960 at the age of 79, and is currently buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His soil conservation legacy is the only New Deal grassroots operation that persists to date.
Bennett’s legacy is not only the prevention of more devastating dust storms, which endangered public health and the sustainability of farms, but also instilling an understanding that seemingly abundant resources are finite and that we can maintain them only through cooperation and regulation.
Dalhart, Texas never recovered its heyday population. At the entrance to the town is a monument dedicated to the XIT cowboys, and every year, the town holds a celebration in their memory. John McCarty never returned, and took up painting in later years—portraying “heroic” dust storms. He died in 1974. Melt White lives with his wife of more than sixty years, Juanita, and worked as a house painter and paperhanger, though he still identifies himself as a cowboy. He keeps a couple of horses near the old XIT.
For McCarty, Dalhart mainly existed in relation to the Classical narrative that he constructed around it. Its people were “Spartans,” and the storms were examples of the ways nature tested the spirits of its people. White, too, has a vision of the town that is somewhat incompatible with what it has become, and one that is also nostalgic for one phase of its history.
Boise City barely survives with three thousand people. The Folkers family still owns its homestead. Hazel Shaw had another child, Jean Beth. Charles died in 1971, while Hazel outlived all of her friends. She died in 2003 at the age of 99. She told her grandchildren that she missed No Man’s Land. Inavale, Nebraska, where Don Hartwell lived, is a ghost town. A neighbor stopped Verna Hartwell from burning her husband’s diary, which was turned over to the Nebraska Historical Society in Lincoln. Ike Osteen remains in Baca County with his wife. He enlisted in the army during World War II and fought on the beach at Normandy on D-Day. His mother died when she was 92. Ike still puts in a full day’s work on chores, and loves life on the High Plains.
Though the population of the High Plains has been depleted because of changes in the economy, which required people to move closer to cities, some, such as Osteen, remained dedicated to the land. Osteen’s war experience may have committed him more deeply to the plains, whose spirit of freedom was threatened during the war. In trying to forget the dusters, which ruined her farm and spoiled her marriage, Verna nearly deprived the nation of a key aspect of history, told by a man who barely survived the wrath of the plains.