Conservation & the New Deal
A lover of nature and rural life, FDR had a keen interest in conservation. He made it a major focus of his presidency.
Roosevelt's conservation vision emphasized government planning in the development and preservation of natural resources. This was reflected in his approach to public power, which emphasized flood control and reducing soil erosion along with the production of cheap electricity. Land management was another concern. Prior to the New Deal, poor agricultural practices had contributed to soil depletion and decreased yields. FDR attacked this problem on several fronts. The Soil Conservation Service helped farmers enrich their soil and stem erosion. The Taylor Grazing Act regulated grazing on overused public ranges. And Roosevelt added millions of acres to America's national forests.
Though the New Deal helped spread interest in natural resource preservation, some New Deal policies had unintended negative effects. In particular, the damming of rivers and construction of fire roads and public structures in natural landscapes was intrusive and destructive.
The Dust Bowl
"I have just come through Eastern Colorado and Western Kansas - parts of our national dust bowl - where...swirling clouds of dust show the erosion which years of man's neglect have wrought in the soil."
- Franklin Roosevelt, Address at Kansas City, Missouri, October 13, 1936
The New Deal's greatest environmental challenge unfolded on the Great Plains.
Decades of intensive farming and inattention to soil conservation had left this vast region ecologically vulnerable. A long drought in the early 1930s triggered disaster. The winds that sweep across the plains began carrying off its dry, depleted topsoil in enormous "dust storms." In the hardest hit area - nicknamed the "Dust Bowl" - hundreds of thousands of people abandoned the land. Many migrated to California, picking crops for low wages amid squalid living conditions.
The New Deal's Farm Security Administration assisted migrant workers by operating clean residential camps that became islands of stability for migrants enduring grinding poverty. The FSA also promoted soil conservation and improved farmland ravaged by erosion. FDR's Shelterbelt Program fought wind erosion by planting over 200 million trees in a belt running from Canada to Texas. This immense windbreak moderated the Dust Bowl's destructive winds.