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Feature Story
Prairie Crossroads
Page 4

New Deal Illusions

Gene Barnard remembers the Depression well. What he recalls most vividly is the isolation. As a boy in the 1930s, Barnard says, he was often left alone on the ranch for weeks at a time while the rest of his family was off building ponds. Franklin Roosevelt's message to New Deal politicians in the West was a simple one: A pond for every farm. Yet this strategy, however well intentioned, brought greater destruction to the region than either the cattlemen or the homesteaders.

The New Deal frequently hired destitute ranchers at good wages to build one-acre reservoirs behind earthen dams that today still dot the open range. These were designed as make-work projects that would also offer relief for drought-plagued ranchers. Barnard is clear about this: His family survived here only because of these New Deal wages.

Photo of the Charles M. Russell National WildlifeThe biggest of FDR's make-work projects was the Fort Peck Dam, which impounds the Missouri River downstream of the Breaks. At the time, it was the largest earth-filled dam ever built. Officially, Fort Peck was designed for flood control, but that rationalization was offered with a wink and a nod. Historians of the New Deal agree it was leaf-raking writ large. To make way for the dam's backwaters, the federal government bought out all the ranchers and farmers on what were ironically the best lands in the area, since they were irrigable. A big chunk of those lands was flooded, but upstream there remained about a million acres that were set aside for wildlife -- something of a miracle at the time. Grazers continued to wrangle over the status of this land until the 1980s, but today it is the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.

Otherwise, the dams that were built during the New Deal were simple impoundments that catch spring runoff, keeping it from the meager creeks that once were the lifelines of this inherently fragile ecosystem. At one time, according to newspaper stories of the day, 1,200 men in Phillips County drew weekly paychecks for building these dams, as well as corrals, fences, and cattle-dipping vats. There are probably fewer than 1,200 employable males in the county today.

Tweaked to display every man-made pond in this near desert, the GIS map of the northern plains becomes almost solid with blotches. There are 4,500 such ponds in the 5,135 square miles of Phillips County. A landscape once dependent on naturally flowing water now has a wholly artificial hydrology.

Photo of a shackDuring the presidential campaign of 1932, Roosevelt received firsthand reports from the plains of children facing subzero winters without adequate clothing in unheated shacks, bare feet turned blue from the cold, real hunger in the land. He swept every state in the West in a landslide, Montana by an especially wide margin, and immediately kicked off the New Deal by acknowledging his political debt. Roosevelt rested much of his program on projects that began right here in the Missouri Breaks, basing his agricultural policy on the signal advice of a broke Montana dry farmer named M. L. Wilson.

Wilson, like Jim Hill before him, had adopted a big idea. It involved buying up the homesteads of destitute farmers, aggregating that land with unoccupied federal land, and slicing it all up into grazing districts that would be leased to the ranchers who remained. The Roosevelt Administration admitted the land could not be plowed for crops, but believed that ranchers could graze cattle on its native grasses. The program that originated in the Breaks was the nucleus of the Resettlement Administration, a major component of the New Deal. Nationwide the program bought back 11.3 million acres of busted homesteads at a cost of $47.5 million. It spent more than double that -- $102.5 million -- "improving" the land with make-work programs like pond building.

All of this added up to much more than just another New Deal program. It was a pivotal point in the nation's way of thinking about agriculture and public lands, the first acknowledgment by the federal government that farming in some places is simply uneconomic. FDR himself laid this out in a speech during a visit to the Breaks in 1934. He said, "It is a fact, however, you and I know there are many families in many states who are trying to make both ends meet without much success, because it has been shown over a period of years that the land that they are using for agriculture ought not, for the best economic purposes, be used for agriculture."

Just beneath the surface lay another key admission. Heretofore, the purpose of public lands had been to encourage settlement by homesteaders. Only the national forests and a couple of national parks were exempt, thanks to Theodore Roosevelt's pioneering idea that some forestlands should be set aside as reserves for the public good. By acquiring prairie acreage, FDR was taking a similar step on unforested lands, saying that the Homestead Act had gone too far. The New Deal, however, did not go far enough. It withdrew these lands from farmers' plows but not from grazing by ranchers. The federal government now owns about 40 percent of the land in the Breaks and, tragically, almost every square inch of it is grazed.

Under the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, the land the government bought back in the early 1930s was combined with land that had never been homesteaded to form large grazing districts. These lands were then leased back to ranchers at below-market rates -- in some cases to the very ranchers who had sold the land to the government during the Depression in the first place.

The "ranching" that developed was actually a sort of hybrid of farming and grazing. Ranchers had sold the government only their most arid lands, retaining holdings along larger streams where they could use floodwater to irrigate crops of hay and wheat and use the hay to feed their cattle in the winter. Soon, however, this hybrid model entered a long, slow decline, cushioned by federal subsidies. Ranchers in the Breaks today lease enough land to support a cow and a calf, about 40 acres, for $1.40 a month, one-tenth the local market rate. The whole business is part of the government's $20-billion-a-year program of agricultural subsidies, rural America's welfare state. Without farm subsidies, Montana's net agricultural income would be zero.

This is not an isolated story. It is the story of the American West. All told, 307 million acres of public lands are leased to grazers in 11 western states. This is 41 percent of the total land area of those states, larger than Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan combined. Because these lands are monumentally unproductive, at least when it comes to cattle, they produce only about 3 percent of the nation's beef.

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Photos: Vern Evans
Map: Small World Maps

OnEarth. Summer 2005
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council