The "No. 1 Shelterbelt" celebrates 75 years


“He plants trees to benefit another generation.” Cicero

March 18, 2010 marked the 75th anniversary of the planting of the first shelterbelt in the nation under FDR’s “Shelterbelt Project,” a tree planting program designed to tame the dust storms rampant on the Great Plains in the “Dirty Thirties.” The aptly named “Number One Shelterbelt” is located in Greer County, in southwestern Oklahoma. Oklahoma’s first State Forester, George R. Phillips, had the distinction of planting the very first tree in the federal program’s very first shelterbelt in 1935. Although shelterbelt plantings are generally confined to the plains states, their understanding certainly brings a greater appreciation for the diversity of the states and the forests of the southern region.

Drought, dust storms, farm foreclosures and bank failures plagued the Great Plains during the early 1930s but these same catastrophes spawned a conservation project that dramatically changed the landscape of the region.  During an eight-year period, 1935-1942, nearly 223 million trees were planted in 18,599 miles of field windbreaks across the plains states under the Shelterbelt Project.

During these years, unemployment was high and farm income was low or non-existent. In March, 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt became President of the United States. Within a few weeks the President held discussions with Henry Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture, about planting extensive strips of trees across the Great Plains to tame the winds and modify the climate. On August 15, 1933, Wallace forwarded a six-page U.S. Forest Service report to the President titled "Forest Planting Possibilities in the Prairie Region." The report recommended the planting of forest strips, 100 feet wide and not more than one mile apart, in a 100-mile wide belt from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico.

The President proposed spending a million dollars, and on that basis, a plan dated June 18, 1934 was developed "--for the permanent benefit and protection of the Great Plains Belt, but also as an immediate drought relief." On July 11, the Plains Forestry Project was formally authorized by President Roosevelt in an executive order allotting $15,000,000 for drought relief in fiscal year 1935, a million of which the Comptroller-General reluctantly authorized for the first year of the tree project.

On July 21, 1934, a press release announced the program, arousing both praise and criticism. Professional foresters differed in their views. An editorial in the November 1934 Journal of Forestry caused a storm of comments, both pro and con. Eventually, most foresters became supporters, as did much of the public, particularly those who lived in the region and saw most of the plantings flourish in spite of drought.

The first shelterbelt in the nation was planted near Willow, Oklahoma, about 15 miles northeast of Mangum. State Forester George R. Phillips, serving as Oklahoma State Director of the Plains Shelterbelt Project, planted the first tree, an Austrian pine (photo below), on March 18, 1935 in the "Number One Shelterbelt" on      the Horace E. Curtis farm. From 1935 to 1942, the project planted about 20 million trees in 3,000 miles of shelterbelts on 5,000 western Oklahoma farms.

Shelterbelt OK first tree
Shelterbelt OK first tree

A 200-page bulletin was assembled in 1934-35 titled "Possibilities of Shelterbelt Planting in the Plains Region." This became the "Bible" for the project. In 1935, most of the shelterbelts consisted of 17 to 21 rows. In 1936, this was reduced to 10 rows and in some instances to 7 rows.

The most serious problem faced by the project was inconsistent funding. On June 30, 1936, the project was prepared for liquidation after the House of Representatives refused to appropriate money. The program was saved by an allocation from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the name was changed to the Prairie States Forestry Project. From that date to its termination on June 30, 1942, the WPA provided the financing at President Roosevelt's request because Congress would not support this giant "boondoggle."

With the advent of World War II, the WPA was no longer needed. Although the Forest Service transferred the Prairie States Forestry Project to the Soil Conservation Service on July 1, 1942, the war effort caused its quick demise.

A survey of the Prairie States Forestry Project in 1954 determined that about three-quarters of the original shelterbelts were in fair or better condition, and only eight percent had been destroyed. Since 1954, many shelterbelts have been removed, partially or entirely, but most of them continue to function as originally intended.

Shelterbelt OK rennovated
Shelterbelt OK rennovated

Farmers and ranchers of today still plant windbreaks. Although the modern ones are only 2 or 3 rows, they still provide an invaluable service in protecting crops and livestock throughout the plains. Oklahoma is very proud of the “ole number one shelterbelt” (shown above in the 1990s) and we hope landowners continue to renovate the old and plant new ones to maintain the shelterbelt legacy for future generations.

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