ARE YOU COMING, WOODY? [HUNTER GRAY ON THE NEW DUST BOWL -- MAY 4, 2002]
Note by Hunterbear:
This concerns a great big piece of turf in what's called the United States:
the Great Plains.
When we visited some of my mother's relatives back in Kansas and Oklahoma in the late 1930s, I saw -- as a very small child indeed -- the skies filled
with gritty dust for days and the blowing soil drifting like high snow
along the fence lines. I can remember, in that setting, water-soaked
handkerchiefs being placed over my nose and lower face.
A good part of my home town of Flagstaff, Arizona -- on Highway 66 -- wound
up being populated by refugees from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma, western
Arkansas, much of Kansas. Some initially stopped in that cool, high pine
timber country and others, blocked by California gunmen on the Colorado
River state border well to the west of Flag, turned east again and stopped
to live and work in the lumber woods of our Northern Arizona setting. Many
of the kids who went to school with me were "Okies" -- a broad term covering
Looks like it could all being coming again -- via extremely extensive
drought and high winds. And it's coming in the wake of years of economic
malfunction and corporate greed that have seen many thousands of ranchers
and farmers in, say, the Dakotas lose their land in the last twenty years.
[I have many of my mother's kin in North Dakota -- as well as many friends
there in my own right -- and keep up with that situation pretty well. So far
they haven't been that dry -- but anything can happen and much of Eastern
Montana is in bad shape.]
Here in Idaho, we've had more than two years of really tough drought. Fires
have played hell. Game has either been pushed far up into the very high
country where it generally rains even if it doesn't anywhere else -- or 'way
down and practically into town. However, this past winter -- which started
in earnest in early November and saw snow here as recently as two days
ago -- was heavy and wet and persistent enough to lead to my very frequent
4WD Jeep use.
So, maybe, the weather cards are breaking well for us here in this part of the
Inter-Mountain West. Maybe. But the Plains are something else again at this
point -- something that's beginning to look as dark and foreboding as the
skies I saw when I was five years old.
Hunter Gray [Hunterbear]
May 3, 2002
Dry High Plains Are Blowing Away, Again
By TIMOTHY EGAN
New York Times Correspondent
LAMAR, Colo. - A hypnotist was the featured guest at the soil conservation
district's annual meeting here a few weeks ago, a fitting diversion for a
place where it has not rained for nearly a year and the land seems to be in a hard trance.
Across the state line from this southeastern Colorado town, in Syracuse,
Kan., a crowd packed into the school gym to hear Dusty Dowd, a crop-duster, lead a prayer for rain. "Lord, we ask that you might again bless us with the
general, beneficial rains that are so vital to our crops and our lives," the prayer
The soil is on the move again in the High Plains, drifting over a swath of
the American midsection calcified by drought. For some, it is reviving memories of a time when the world seemed to blow away. There have been serious droughts here before, some as fierce as the dry spells of the 1930's. But this drought is among the worst, and in some counties, particularly in the northern plains, it is the most devastating in more than a century.
In eastern Montana, more than a thousand wheat farmers have called it quits
rather than try to coax another crop out of ground that has received less
rain over the last 12 months than many deserts get in a year. Blinding dust
storms have forced drivers off the road, dozens of businesses have folded in
withered communities, and the entire state has been declared a federal disaster area for farmers.
Wyoming is much the same. Here in southeastern Colorado, in the heart of the
old Dust Bowl, the ground is so dry that agriculture officials say most of
this state will not even produce a wheat crop.
"We've had severe drought before, but never four years in a row of terrible
drought," said Jesse Aber, who directs Montana's drought task force.
John Stulp, a farmer from this flat, wind-chipped corner of Colorado, added:
"It's drier around here than it has been for a hundred years. We've chiseled
up the ground on land where we usually have wheat coming up, just to bring dirt clods up to hold the soil down."
Drought is no stranger to much of the country this year, with 29 states
suffering through a prolonged dry spell. The East, from Maine to Georgia,
has been particularly hard hit.
But what makes the drought stand out in the western Plains is the blowing
dust, a haunt of the Dirty Thirties when brown blizzards carried sand all the way to the Atlantic Ocean and prompted more than three million people to leave their homes.
While the storms this year have not been nearly as epic or debilitating as
the brown clouds that rolled over the flatlands during the Depression, they have been fierce - and they have come as something of a surprise for people who believed the land had been stabilized.
Two weeks ago, Herb Homsher pulled his car over by the side of the road in
the midst of a dust storm near the Colorado-Oklahoma border. It was the kind of duster Mr. Homsher had not experienced in years. "You couldn't see the end
of your car," he said.
In Montana, heavy dust this year caused a similar brownout, resulting in a
traffic pileup that killed two television reporters.
According to the latest assessment by federal officials, half of Montana,
all of Wyoming, nearly two-thirds of Colorado, half of Kansas, a third of Texas
and most of New Mexico are in the midst of a drought labeled severe to extreme. Wildfires are racing through the eastern front of Colorado. With 280 fires already this year, Colorado has had four times as many fires as normal.
On much of the High Plains, the prairie grass was long ago plowed under to
grow dry land wheat, a grain that depends entirely on what falls from the sky,
with no help from irrigation.
"My father was born in 1918 and all my life he's been talking about how we
should be careful, we could have another 1930's," said Lochiel Edwards, a
wheat farmer from near Havre, Mont. "Well, now it's as dire as I've seen in my
life, and my father just the other day said it's as bad as 1936."
The aridity may be worse than it was in the 1930's, but the dust storms do
not compare. Up to 10 million acres lost at least the upper five inches of
topsoil in those years, according to federal surveys. During one storm in 1934, more than 350 tons of airborne dust was galloping across the prairie. Wheat was never replanted on much of the land, which was reseeded with native prairie grass. Now the government pays thousands of farmers to keep the ground untilled, as part of the conservation reserve program.
Without the last half-century of federally directed soil conservation, much
of the old Dust Bowl would be windblown again, many officials and farmers say. Even so, Mr. Edwards said, many of his neighbors have lost topsoil to the
new dust storms. "Their land has gotten away from them, and I don't think it's
their fault," he said. "This drought is just a killer."
To counties already hit by declining population and depressed farm prices,
the days without rain are just one more piece of bad luck. In much of eastern
Montana, Wyoming and Colorado, less than an inch of rain has fallen since
last June. The soil is dry down to two feet in some areas.
"It's a cumulative thing," Mr. Aber of Montana's task force said. "Four
years without much rain at all. Even during the 30's, there were some fairly
normal rainfall years, so this is almost unprecedented."
Bridges cross over dry beds labeled rivers. Fields that usually turn green
with the first spring rains are as brown as the skin of a baked potato. Rivers
that drain snowmelt from the Rockies and flow east - like the Platte and the
Arkansas - are running thin, and are so overtaxed that in some places only
people with water rights dating to the 19th century are likely to get their
Some small towns, like Melstone, Mont., have lost their municipal water
supplies, the first time anyone can remember this happening. River rafting
companies on the Front Range, where the prairie meets the mountains, talk
about "what water" instead of white water. Fishing guides worry that the winter's snow will not bring nearly enough water to make for a successful year on the region's trout streams.
"Everyone knows it's dry here, but it is the extreme, prolonged dry times
that makes this such a disaster," said Jeff Tranel, an agronomist with Colorado
Prowers County, where Lamar is, is already a federal disaster area, making
farmers eligible for subsidized loans because of the weather. This week,
Gov. Bill Owens of Colorado asked the federal government to declare the entire
state a disaster area. But few people want to take on more debt.
"We're in trouble," said Steve Wertz, who has 3,000 acres in wheat and corn
near this town on the old Santa Fe wagon trail. "I've been farming for 25
years and never seen it like this."
The quirks of global agriculture are such that even though dry land wheat,
the crop that first brought white settlers here to break the prairie sod, is in
trouble, grain prices remain depressed because of a worldwide glut. Senators
from the region are pressing for $2.4 billion in disaster payments for
farmers who will not be able to grow a crop this year. But with so many subsidies already directed at failing agricultural operations, a new payment for
drought-related losses faces stiff opposition in Congress.
Looking to the white sky, farmers shrug and wonder if a new Dust Bowl will
soon be upon them.
"The attitude out here is bad," said Mr. Edwards, the third-generation
Montana wheat farmer. "It's just a depressing time to be on the prairie."
A joke making the rounds has it that the ducks who live in the
cotton-mouthed counties in eastern Montana have yet to learn to swim. Most people say the line with a straight face.
Copyright 2002 The New York Times