Apparently inspired by wild weather across the country, from which one can construct his or her own short-term proof to fight a long-term prediction, the anti-climate change folks are guffawing ever more joyfully in print. Climate change is a liberal hoax, some declare, following the current practice of labeling whatever you don't like with a political tag. Their certitude makes me remember Big Hugh Bennett, a fellow who grew up on a farm in my home county in North Carolina. Big Hugh, a man of out-sized build, out-sized intellect, and out-sized showmanship, developed from his youth a life-long devotion to soil. He studied geology and chemistry in college and eventually wound up working for the federal Department of Agriculture.
Long before Hugh Bennett came along, a man much smaller in physical size, General Philip ("Little Phil") Sheridan, famed Union cavalry commander in the Civil War, was General-in-Chief of the U.S. Army. As such, he had a strong voice in advising political leaders. The country was rapidly moving westward, taking over as much of the continent as possible in order to fulfill its "manifest destiny." This meant the plains Indians must be eliminated as a block to western expansion. Sheridan, voicing the opinion of most key military leaders, and one that appealed to many civilians, recommended that the buffalo be wiped out. The buffalo provided the plains tribes with almost everything they needed -- food, clothes, shelter, tools -- to live in reasonable comfort. Without that support, the Indians would have to consent to being herded onto reservations or starve.
Estimates of the number of buffalo on the plains in the mid-1800s range from 30 million to 60 million. The Army could not be expected to eliminate the massive herds that roamed over what would become many states. But the Army could protect and support civilian hunters, and it did. By 1894 the slaughter had ended, and the best estimate for the number of remaining buffalo was 24.
The government encouraged settlement by giving homesteaders a quarter section, 160 acres, of land to plow up and plant in crops. Eventually, in an especially forbidding area of Oklahoma known as No Man's Land, a settler could homestead 320 acres. And then the industrious settlers, living in dug-outs in the ground, or in soddies made of blocks of sod, or in shanties if other materials were available, began to plow up the prairie grass that had existed for thousands of years, roots running deep in the ground. And no need to worry about rain. Promoters insisted, and the government tacitly agreed, that "rain follows the plow." That is, if you plow up the plains, the rain clouds will be encouraged to follow over the millions of plowed-up acres and bring rain. Arrant nonsense, but people wanted to believe.
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The price of wheat soared, especially during World War I. More people rushed in and stripped more of the prairie to plant wheat. Then several things happened together. The Great Depression began. The price of wheat dropped to less than the cost to produce it. Tons of it rotted. And rain over the southern plains stopped almost completely for nearly 10 years. Dust storms of unimaginable proportions rolled through, carrying countless tons of topsoil no longer held down by the prairie grass, killing hundreds with what was known as "dust pneumonia." People died, or half-starved, many reduced to eating boiled tumbleweed.
Dr. Hugh Bennett was appalled. He said this was all the result of idiotic abuse of the soil, and that it could be reversed, if at all, by terracing, controlling run-off, and planting thousands of trees to block and slow the wind. Prominent scientists and the public in general said Bennett was crazy. Only one person wanted to hear his ideas. That person was Franklin D. Roosevelt. He appointed Bennett to head up a soil conservation organization and begin implementing his ideas in the Midwest. He did. It was a long, hard sell, but Big Hugh, with facts and figures in his head and dirt under his fingernails, gradually persuaded farmers to cooperate. Reclaiming of the southern plains began.
I'm proud of Dr. Hugh Hammond Bennett, "the father of soil conservation," a man who ignored the nay-sayers and, almost single-handedly, started reversing the awful effects of what is generally conceded to be the worst man-made environmental disaster in our history.
Sure hope we're not plowing ahead into another, even bigger one.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."