Shelterbelt: Protector or Destroyer of Nature?

In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, the entire country experienced extreme poverty.  In the Midwest, the drought and the dust storms it caused contributed to the suffering.  The Dust Bowl was a result of decades of intensive farming on marginal land that was made possible by atypical years of heavy rain and high commodity prices.  When the drought hit that is more typical of the climate in that region, the crops died and the depleted, sandy soil was free to blow in the wind in what were called “black blizzards.” 

The Dust Bowl
The Dust Bowl

Franklin D. Roosevelt had a lifelong interest in and fondness for trees.  Prior to entering politics, he had forested his property at Hyde Park in New York.  So, when confronted with the Dust Bowl, a tree-based solution came naturally to him while on the campaign trail for the presidency.  He was visiting a desolate town in Montana that had been deforested by mining operations when the idea of a massive windbreak to protect agricultural land from the wind and stabilize the soil came to him. 

This windbreak came to be known as the Shelterbelt.  The story of the planting of the Shelterbelt is one of many interesting stories about American forests told in American Canopy:  Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation. (1)

The idea of windbreaks to protect agricultural lands was not new at the time: 

“For instance, California citrus growers routinely planted stands of fast-growing, imported eucalyptus trees to shield their precious orange trees from gusts coming off the Pacific Ocean.  As a 1908 pamphlet on eucalyptus explained, ‘In unprotected orchards, nearly the entire crop is frequently blown from the trees, or so scarred and bruised that the grade and market value are much reduced.’” (1)

Despite this track record of the value of trees to protect agricultural crops, President Roosevelt met with fierce political resistance to his proposal to create the Shelterbelt.  At every turn, the project was repeatedly starved of the funding needed to complete the project.  The detailed story of that resistance is reminiscent of the political theater we are now witnessing that is attempting to prevent the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. 

Although the Shelterbelt never reached the scale that President Roosevelt had envisioned, much of it was eventually planted in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas:

“A 1954 evaluation of the Shelterbelt determined that over 220 million trees had been planted on thirty thousand farms.  The Forest Service had laid down in total more than 18,600 linear miles of tree strips—and a majority of these, more than 70 percent, survived for decades.  During the 1950s and 1960s many of the original Shelterbelt plantings were reinforced or expanded through the private actions of farmers who had come to appreciate the value of tree windbreaks.”  (1)

Despite the huge scale of that project, only $14 million was spent in the eight years that the project existed.  “An article in American Forests estimated, somewhat optimistically, ‘On a fifty-year basis, the cost to the government of an acre [of agricultural land] protected a year is estimated at four cents.’”  That’s a bargain at ten times that estimated price. 

The description of the trees and how they were planted helps us to appreciate that a windbreak is more than a single row of trees on the perimeter of a field:

“Tree strips in the Shelterbelt typically included ten rows of vegetation.  The outer row contained small trees or shrubs, most commonly chokeberry, lilac, mulberry, Russian olive, and wild plum.  The inner rows featured quick-growing, long-lived, taller trees that had been selected for their tolerance of the unwelcoming climate.  Some tree varieties were native, while others had been discovered abroad, often the result of research first conducted by plant explorers…The most widely planted species were cottonwood, green ash, and Chinese elm, which each appeared in all six participating states.” (1)

After planting, the trees and shrubs had to be protected from grazing animals with fences. 

Drought strikes again

National Public Radio (NPR) recently broadcast an update about the Shelterbelt.  It’s not good news.  The drought in the Midwest that is considered a consequence of climate change is killing the Shelterbelt:

“Now [the] trees [in the Shelterbelt] are dying from drought, leaving some to worry whether another Dust Bowl might swirl up again.” 

A farmer in Oklahoma describes the dying Shelterbelt: 

“He pointed to a line of trees as he drove along the shelterbelt trees that flank his farmhouse.  ‘You can see the tops of those trees?’ he asked.  ‘You see how they’re dying?  You can see how it’s almost deteriorated to nothing.’”

Oklahoma State Forester, Tom Murray, told NPR what the Shelterbelt accomplished there

“’This used to be cotton field, if I remember right, looking back at the history,’ he says.  ‘And it just blew—it’s sand and it blew.  By putting this [windbreak] here, it stopped that south wind from blowing across the field.’”

We wonder if the native plant advocates who are determined to destroy tens of thousands of our non-native trees in the Bay Area understand that those trees are protecting us from the harsh winds that blow in from the ocean. 

Shelterbelt the Destroyer

When we read the story of the creation of the Shelterbelt, we were immediately struck by the irony of its name.  Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, the most widely used sub-contractor for the destruction of non-native plants and trees is named Shelterbelt.  They are responsible for many of the herbicide applications in the so-called “natural areas” in San Francisco.  Here is a description of their organization from their website:

“Shelterbelt Builders was founded in 1978 in Berkeley, CA as a general building and landscaping company completing over 600 commercial and residential projects during the subsequent 15 years…After an exhaustive effort rebuilding residential homes following the 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm, management realized there was no locally available organization specializing in the management, stewardship and restoration of native landscapes in the San Francisco Bay Area.  At that time, Shelterbelt abandoned traditional construction and restructured itself into a specialty contracting company dedicated exclusively to restoration of native landscapes and open land management.  We are now one of the leading companies in California devoted to this task.”

Shelterbelt began the eradication of non-natve vegetation in Glen Canyon in November 2011
Shelterbelt began the eradication of non-natve vegetation in Glen Canyon in November 2011

The Shelterbelt company began as a builder.  Now they are a destroyer of non-native trees and plants.  Their name is now a misnomer in our opinion.  The name, Shelterbelt, was coined in 1935 to describe a massive windbreak composed of non-native and native trees that was responsible for helping to stabilize the agricultural land in the American Midwest and end the era of the Dust Bowl.  To see that name appropriated by a company that actively engages in the destruction and poisoning of non-native vegetation is very sad indeed.  It is also a reminder that ecological “restorations” have become an industry, with vested economic interest in the continuation of the destructive crusade against non-native plants and trees.

Shelterbelt's tools:  chainsaws and equipment to spray herbicides
Shelterbelt’s tools: chainsaws and equipment to spray herbicides


(1)    Eric Rutkow, American Canopy:  Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation, Scribner, 2012

6 thoughts on “Shelterbelt: Protector or Destroyer of Nature?”

  1. About that mid-west shelterbelt. A lot if not all of the trees they planted only live for 70-100 years, so they are now entering the end of their normal life span and dying. These are drought hardy trees, so the current drought may not be the cause of their death.

    Webmaster: It seems likely that age is also a factor in the death of the Shelterbelt, but it wasn’t mentioned in the NPR coverage. If age is the primary cause of the demise of the Shelterbelt, the question becomes, “Why aren’t we proactively reforesting this important asset?”

  2. interesting to me especially since I live in the Oakland Hills where Shelterbelt Builders has many admirers and supporters in the Claremont Canyon Conservancy, an organization devoted to the restoration of native vegetation and the eradication of non-native trees.

  3. One more thing to learn about the eucalyptus trees, “eucalyptus trees to shield their precious orange trees”. They seem to be doing much more good than they were ever credited. Thank you for the update on the Midwest Shelterbelt. Sad news.

  4. From their website – shelterbelt- their case studies – sounds like a lot of tree felling



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