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Published June 09 2012

Finneman: Another Dust Bowl? Shelterbelt removal won’t cause it

Dear Teri,

I have been noticing farmers removing shelterbelts from their land. Last summer, I witnessed the removal of an entire grove of magnificent old (and still healthy) trees.

I could be mistaken, but it looked to me as if the farmer was willing to sacrifice this area for the sake of a few more acres of farmland.

Back in the ’30s and ’40s, when the shelterbelts first were planted, was the planting optional or was it required by federal or state government? I was under the impression that it was a program designed to keep the soil from blowing away and was therefore a benefit to society in general and not just for the benefit of any particular farmer.

Do farmers need permission from someone to remove shelterbelts and old-growth groves?

What will happen if all the farmers decide to remove the trees? Could we have another Dust Bowl?

As a side issue, I wonder, with all the laws about air pollution, why farmers (and I do love farmers) are permitted to burn the ditches, creating plumes of smoke that can be seen for 20 miles?

Sally Hoffman

Grand Forks

Thanks for writing! I sent your questions to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. State Conservationist Mary Podoll, state Forester Craig Stange and state Resource Conservationist Todd Schwagler contributed to the answer:

“All of the conservation work completed by the soil conservation districts and Natural Resources Conservation Service is voluntary. In the 1940s, there were no legal requirements to address erosion. Voluntary conservation programs have been extremely successful over the past 80 years.

“Windbreaks are extremely valuable to preventing wind erosion. Research over the past 100 years also shows that crop yields can be boosted 12 to 15 percent by a well-maintained windbreak.

“Landowners do not need permission to remove shelterbelts. Private property rights are a significant identifier of a democratic nation. There are some taxpayer or societal requirements to addressing erosion and wetland protection in a farmer’s ability to receive USDA payments that became law in 1985. An agriculture producer who participates in USDA programs meets minimum requirements to protect soil from erosion and wetlands from being drained.

“Yes, part of me is sad to see the removal of windbreaks, too. But for every windbreak that I see removed, I also see new ones being planted. Soil conservation districts continue to promote and assist landowners in planting new trees every year. USDA – Natural Resources Conservation Service continues to provide technical and financial assistance for new windbreaks.

“Last year, North Dakota producers participated in Natural Resources Conservation Service voluntary programs at record levels.

“Could we have another Dust Bowl? I’ve been working in the field of conservation for a long time in addition to growing up with parents who experienced the Depression, but this is still just an opinion: Yes, I do believe that conditions could occur allowing wind erosion to again be a concern. Weather conditions, the pressure we place on our soils and other natural resources for production/energy/infra-

structure, and our optimistic human nature could create areas where wind erosion is a problem.

“We might take a little step back in the arena of conservation, but we never go back to where we were.

“In the Dust Bowl era, windbreak planting was encouraged. Federal agencies such as Soil Conservation Service provided planting stock and sometime planting crews. At the peak, almost 3 million acres of North Dakota cropland were protected from wind erosion by field windbreaks.

“Today, in addition to windbreak conservation practices, there are many other agronomic practices to control wind erosion, including no-till, conservation cropping rotations and crop residue management.

“There are several agronomic practices that Natural Resources Conservation Service recommends to avoid the need for burning ditches and wetlands. However, burning is not all bad. North Dakota soils and plant communities formed under frequent wildfire. Proper native vegetation management includes prescribed burning.

“Additionally, seed producers often use burning as a way to reduce the need for pesticides or aggressive tillage that exposes soil to erosive forces. A well-planned prescribed burn often results in much healthier plants … Prescribed burning has also been used to control invasive species.

“Thank you so much for your interest!”

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Email politics@wday.com (Subject: Ask your government).

You may also write to Teri Finneman c/o Forum Communications, Press Room, State Capitol, Bismarck, ND 58505.

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Teri Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.