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article number 370
article date 08-19-2014
copyright 2014 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Making the Plains Bloom Again
by ROBERT E. WILLIAMS, Soil Conservation Service

From the 1967 United State Department of Agriculture Yearbook. Robert E. Williams is Head Range Conservationist, Plant Sciences Division, Soil Conservation Service.

ACROSS the rolling hills the “Wagons Ho” of the wagonmaster rings again. The great wheels turn, their steel rims creasing the waving bluestems and the grama grasses.

From a gathering point in Texas a herd of longhorns follows the long dim trail to Dodge City, Kansas.

From New Mexico to North Dakota herds of buffalo, protected now from the ruin that awaited them, graze the green seas of grass where the Blackfoot, the Comanche, and the Sioux once harvested buffalo with flint for food and shelter.

Up and down the vast Plains country has spread a fierce determination to save and honor the meaningful values the pioneers knew, to restore and to conserve the riches and the beauties of the endless expanse the settlers feared, soon respected, and then learned to love.

The return of the cowpokes and cowgals from the towns and cities of America, to ride the wagon trains and follow the cattle trails of long ago, is one of the new recreational benefits of the conservation drive that is laying, carpet-like, a thick and useful matting of grass over lands easy to blister and tear.

* * *

(Article “Side-bar”)

The cry of “Wagons Ho” echoes across the western plains of Kansas as covered wagons move out along the old Butterfield Trail.
Wagons Ho” is a new income-producing recreation project for Frank and Ruth Hefner of Quinter, Kansas. Frank is a supervisor of the Gove County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Guests of the Hefners spend several days and nights on the trail, enjoying many varied activities and the quiet beauty of the Kansas prairie.

Potential pioneers usually arrive at a selected campsite the evening before the trip begins. They get to know one another, while the Hefners explain the activities to come. The next morning, it’s “Wagons Ho!” And the wagon train starts its journey down the trail.

Covered wagons and riders hit the old Butterfield trail in Gove county, Kans., as part of the Wagons Ho Recreation project.
Mr. and Mrs. Frank Hefner, operators of Wagons Ho, dance a pioneer number during a night on the prairie.

(End Article “Side-bar”)

* * *

Nature had designed cover suited to climate and the diverse soils of the Plains.

On the shallow soils and in the drier country were the short buffalograss and blue grama. Midgrasses—little bluestem, wheatgrass, and needlegrass—grew on the loamy uplands; and along the bottoms and on some of the sandier land were the tall grasses—big bluestem, Indiangrass, switchgrass, as tall as a man on horseback at times.

These were the grasses that could ride out the droughts, the heat, and the intense cold. With their bounty in nutrition, they could sustain the vast herds of the buffalo, the means of survival for the red men.

Evidence indicates that in 1830, some 40 million buffalo lived on these grasses. The Indians took about 2 million a year.

Slaughter of the buffalo by the white newcomers—for hides, meat, and as a means for bringing the defiant Plains tribes to heel—opened the way for the longhorns, the leathery, tough offspring of the early Spanish cattle.

These longhorns filled an economic vacuum after the War Between the States. Eastern markets begged for beef. Over 10 million head of longhorns went up the trails from their Texas breeding grounds to shipping points during the two decades following the war.

Prospects of quick fortunes in cattle built a ranching industry in the Plains by 1900. Bad management, bad weather, and the overstocking of the grasslands doomed the industry. Only the hardiest and best managed outfits survived.

The homesteader began his inroads even before 1900, bringing his oxen, his horses, and his plows. He filed his claims on choice parcels of land, often around precious water, and built his fences. It was the end of cattle trailing, the end of the vast cattle enterprises, and the beginning of a big new era in the development of the Plains.

The longhorn was hard on the land, but the plow of the homesteader brought destruction. The plow turned millions of acres of fine grass for the planting of crops. Much of the land was poorly suited to the purpose. Crop stubble and residues, now known to protect and stabilize cropland, were burned and grazed.

By 1930 the scene was set for calamity. Successive years of drought and the usual high winds of winter and spring fashioned the Dust Bowl.

Dust from the Plains blew into every county of the Nation. Crops shriveled. Livestock herds were disposed of before they starved. Communities, like the parched land itself, just dried up.

Live, gaunt cattle walk among the dead cattle during the 1930’s drought.

Farming and ranching practices to cope with the climate and other Plains conditions already were developing. New Government programs dealing with the problems of the land came into being. One of the agencies formed for direct action upon such problems was the Soil Conservation Service, which grouped specialists in the various land and water technologies at locations where landowners could draw promptly on their skills.

Soil conservation districts, formed under State law across the Nation, enabled the Soil Conservation Service to carry on its efforts with the organized cooperation of landowners.

An outgrowth of the drought of the 1950’s—longer, more intense, and more widespread than the one of the 1930’s, but less damaging because of agricultural progress—was the Great Plains Conservation program (Public Law 1021).

This program provided Federal funds to repay the landowner in part for the expense of a thorough job of soil and water conservation, done in a series of scheduled steps with priority help from the technicians of SCS. Special emphasis was on getting the unsuitable cropland back into the kinds of grass that were there in the days of the buffalo.

It was a pilot program—a trial—but in less than 10 years more than 1 million acres of low-grade land had been returned to good grass cover.

Stockwater developments, erosion control, fencing for better management of grazing, brush control, tree windbreaks, and various practices for the conservation of available water were among other practices wrapped into the package. It was evident that the principles of the Great Plains Conservation program were effective in hurrying the soil and the water conservation job in the critical Plains area.

Throughout the vast Plains area—-once known as the Great American Desert—a new attitude toward the land and its related resources has taken over. Landowners, with profound respect now for the conditions prevailing in the area, are using their resources with understanding and availing themselves of the techniques known to deal best with the relentless hazards of the Plains.

Grass is a part of it, grass even better in many cases than the pioneers knew.

Farmer Kenneth Kendrick keeps a carful check on the condition of his young wheat near Stratford, Texas, to avoid overgrazing that would leave the fields subject to wind erosion. Wheat, major cultivated crop in the Southern Plains, supplements native pasture as grazing for livestock during the fall and winter.

Duststorms are less frequent and much less dense. The hazardous lands, more and more of them, are under the kind of grass cover nature designed.

The wounds of the Dust Bowl days have healed for the most part, and across the Plains is the beauty of broad sweeps of grass and the contoured strips of the cultivated lands. The handsome windbreaks of hardy trees adorn the landscape and shelter birds and small animals.

Instead of an agricultural liability, the Great Plains is acknowledged to be a vital source of foodstuffs for a hungry world. The prediction of the Great Plains Committee in its 1936 report is being fulfilled:

“The land may bloom again if man once more makes his peace with Nature.

“- Careful planning will give him back the foothill trees;
- terracing will save lush foothill farms;
- a wise use of the land will restore grass for controlled grazing;
- fewer and larger farms on scientifically selected sites may yield under the plough, a comfortable living;
- dams will hold back the waters from rains and melting snow, giving power and controlling the flow of the life-giving streams;
- springs may be developed, water pumped by windmills to fewer cattle, moisture held in the soil by scientific methods of tillage, by such means the life of man on the land may be made happier, more prosperous, more secure.”

A modern-day longhorn drive from San Antonio to Dodge City, Kansas, crosses the Red River. When riders outnumber cattle, you know the drive is for fun.
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