Lecture #14: Planning Against Disaster

Suggested Readings:

Erwin Hargrove & Paul Conkin, eds., TVA: Fifty Years of Grass-roots Bureaucracy (1983)
Harry L. Henderson & David B. Woolner, eds., FDR and the Environment (2005)
Paul Sutter, Let Us Now Praise Famous Gullies: Providence Canyon and the Soils of the South (2015)
Ronald C. Tobey, Saving the Prairies: The Life Cycle of the Founding School of American Plant Ecology, 1895-1955 (1981) (on Clements & grassland ecology)
Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (1979)
Pare Lorentz, Plow That Broke the Plains (1936): classic 25-minute documentary film, well worth viewing, available online at: http://archive.org/details/plow_that_broke_the_plains
Geoff Cunfer, On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment (2005)
Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River (1995)
Neil M. Maher, Nature's New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement (2007)


I. TVA: Conservation and the Vision of Regional Planning

Tennessee River: watershed receives some of highest amounts of rainfall in the East. Muscle Shoals in northern Alabama is second only to Niagara in the volume of water flowing over this rapids.

National Defense Act of 1916 provided federal funding to support construction of a nitrate plant at Muscle Shoals, operated by the American Cyanimid Copmany, to manufacture explosives for World War I, and agricultural fertilizer thereafter. No explosives were manufactured until just after World War I was already over, but the Wilson Dam was completed at this site in 1925 with funding from the act.

The linkage of inexpensive hydroelectricity with energy-intensive industries (nitrates, aluminum, nuclear) became common during this period, with government funding for dam construction justified as a form of military expenditure during wartime. Muscle Shoals and the Wilson Dam were boosted in the South as a source fertilizer and electricity for urban-industrial development, with the federal government providing investment capital for infrastructure.

The Haber-Bosch process for nitrogen fixation converts atmospheric nitrogen (N2) to ammonia to ammonia (NH3), but requires very large amounts of energy to sustain; Fritz Haber won 1918 Nobel Prize for this. It revolutionized twentieth-century agriculture, and also the manufacture of explosives (many of which rely on the unstable chemical bonds of nitrogen compounds). For more information, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haber_process

The Wilson Dam became the occasion for what has come to be known as the Muscle Shoals controversy of the 1920s: an extended political debate about what should be done with this federally funded dam. At stake were issues like the following:

  • Should power be generated by the government, or by private companies? (cf the argument during Hetch Hetchy controversy over whether San Francisco should control its own water supply)
  • Should this dam be sold or leased to a private company, or run by the government?
  • Should power be used to promote local development in northern Alabama, or a larger region?
  • Should such federal dams be built on a case-by-case basis, or as part of integrated regional development?

Nebraska Senator George Norris (progressive Republican) was one of nation's most vigorous promoters of federal investment in hydropower development, authoring numerous bills and compromises to try to achieve that goal.

Key factions in this debate: northern Democrats and western and midwestern Republicans generally supported public power; northeaster Republicans generally opposed government competition with private companies financed with private capital.

Republican presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover all opposed public intervention, even though Hoover otherwise had quite a strong record as a Republican conservationist (NB: Teddy Roosevelt had of course launched the conservation movement as a Republican president).

Franklin Delano Roosevelt's election broke this political deadlock in the Tennessee Valley, broadening the mandate for large-scale regional planning there. FDR derived his enthusiasm for regional planning from numerous sources: his uncle Frederick Delano, who had been active in promoting urban and regional planning in New York and the Northeast; sociologist Howard Odum's regional studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Odum's sons Eugene and Howard Jr. would go on to be among the leading ecological scientists of the post-World War II era); and general enthusiasm for state intervention in economy that was characteristic of the 1930s in countries as different as Italy, Germany, USSR, and US.

1933: FDR signed into law the Tennessee Valley Authority Act, creating the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) with mandate for region-wide planning, including dams, highways, rural electrification, agricultural improvement, erosion control, managed forests, parks, etc.

The original constitutional basis for federal involvement with rivers and harbors--navigation, flood control00now broadened to include hydropower development regionwide, and with it planning to address rural poverty and other social interventions.

TVA was designed to modernize a depressed farming region of eroded hill country: federally funded county agents educated farm families about anti-erosion contour plowing; construction of better, more modern houses; new electrical tools and appliances; business management techniques for farms; wage labor in construction; highways; links to urban areas; promotion of tourism.

Captions of photos shown in lecture suggest the values at work here:

  • "Engineer, Enemy of Error"
  • "Power to Develop the Latent Resources of the Area

Remember the photo of county agent gesturing at the far hillside of a farm, holding up a vision of how the farm and the land could be improved with modern technologies and methods.

TVA built on the tradition of USDA agricultural extension supported by Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which created cooperative extension services whereby land-grant universities made their knowledge widely available to rural areas. (UW-Madison's "Wisconsin Idea" was an early leader in efforts like these.)

Another New Deal agency, the Rural Electrifiction Authority (REA, created in 1935), played a vital role in providing capital to extend electrical lines in rural areas where the rate of return on such investments was not high enough for private capital to risk the investments or for farmers to pay the rates that would have been necessary to incentivize those investments. Electrification became a powerful symbol of "modernization" during this period, with hydropower dams among the most visible expressions of that symbol.

To learn more about TVA, you can start with Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tennessee_Valley_Authority and the TVA's own history page at https://www.tva.gov/About-TVA/Our-History which has many period photos and traces the organization across the twentieth century. You might also enjoy viewing Pare Lorentz's classic 1938 documentary "The River" about flood control on the Mississippi River, which uses TVA as the solution to such problems. It's available free online at

https://archive.org/details/TheRiverByPareLorentz along with a later propaganda film about TVA at

II. CCC: Conservation and the Army of Unemployed

A key ally of TVA and other federal conservation agencies was Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), created in 1933.

It recruited young men, ages 17-23, in an effort to fight unemployment during the Depression by supplying inexpensive labor for conservation measures, using military leadership, order, and discipline. The "CCC Boys" earned $30/month, room, board, with camps around the country working on anti-erosion projects, tree planting, dam construction, road building, fire fighting, park renovations, etc. CCC essentially provided mass construction employment at a time when such jobs were very scarce.

The UW Arboretum was in part a CCC project, and there are still remnants of the CCC camp behind the McKay Center there: https://arboretum.wisc.edu/news/naturalists-notes/civilian-conservation-corps/

By 1939, CCC had contributed 8.5 million man-days to conservation, employing 2.18 million men (more like 300-500,000 at anyone time); planting 1.575 billion trees; building 140,000 miles roads and trails.

CCC was an example of scientific management and planning applied to social and economic problems, but also, almost incidentally, a crucial labor force promoting conservation throughout nation. When you visit national, state, and local parks today, many of the older structures you'll see there were built with CCC labor.

III. Erosion and Communal Disaster: Soil Conservation

Yet another key conservation agency created in the early years of the New Deal was the Soil Conservation Service, created in 1935. Hugh Hammond Bennett became its first head, remaining in that position until he retired in 1951, and authoring the nation's first major textbook on the subject in in 1939.

Erosion became a ruling metaphor for not just for ecological disaster, threatening the nation's agricultural future, but equally a sign of economic and social failure, waste, and poverty.

Many different forms of erosion: sheet erosion, gully erosion, wind erosion, etc. Erosion was also linked in people's minds with the great floods of the 1920s (especially the 1927 Mississippi River flood), which were attributed to deforestation and erosion at the headwaters of rivers, following the thinking of George Perkins Marsh. On the 1927 flood, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Mississippi_Flood_of_1927, as well as Pare Lorentz's great documentary The River, already cited above as an argument for TVA: https://archive.org/details/TheRiverByPareLorentz

Astonishingly rapid and severe gully erosion in Stewart County, Georgia, became a kind of poster child for the severity of erosion problems, especially in the South: nicknamed Georgia’s “Little Grand Canyon,” it is now Providence Canyon State Park.

Alexandre Hogue (1898-1994) was an important regionalist/realist painter in late 1930s who specialized in dramatizing the environmental, social, and moral threat represented by erosion. The Great Plains and southwestern deserts were his chief subjects. Using overtly religious symbolism (Hogue's father was a Presbyterian minister), he depicted a crucified landscape raped by the plow. See his Wikipedia entry at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexandre_Hogue, then try a Google Image search for his name to peruse a number of his paintings.

IV. Rise and Fall of the Grassland School of Ecology

Concerns about the environmental changes wrought by human activities especially in arid and grassland landscapes were supported by the rise of ecology as a new science in the U.S. in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Among the most important early centers for ecological research was the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Charles Bessey's botany classes there in the 1880s-90s attracted a star group of students. Actively opposed to the sentimentality of nature study, Bessey sought to promote rigorous scientific training, authoring what became the classic botany text for a generation, Botany for High Schools & Colleges (1880), to promote serious high school science. His emphasis was on plant anatomy, pursuing scientific research in the laboratory, not in the field. He opposed to non-laboratory botany as non-rigorous, too descriptive, too much like natural history.

Bessey's most enthusiastic sudents formed a new "Sem Bot Club" to promote extracurricular botanical research. Among its leading members: Roscoe Pound & Frederic Edward Clements. Clements and Pound were attracted to studying the relations among plant species, so left Bessey's lab to study plant communities, while still seeking to apply Bessey's rigorous quantitative scientific techniques to their work in the field. The two went on to produce a joint doctoral dissertation in 1898 on The Phytogeography of Nebraska. Pound then went on to a career in law and legal education, becoming one of the most influential deans of the Harvard Law School, but Clements continued to work in botany and biogeography, becoming one of the leading plant ecologists of his generation.

In 1905, Clements authored Research Methods in Ecology to promote rigorous new techniques for ecological analysis: the transect, bisect (roots), and quadrat to map co-occurrence of species. These led to a more quantitative approach to ecological research.

Clements argued that the essential ecological unit of vegetation was formation, a super-organism with an identity apart from the individual species comprising it, with a genuine life cycle of its own, passing through regular phases toward maturity.

This sequence of stages he called succession, culminating in a stable mature stage which was capable of existing indefinitely in the absence of disturbance. This he called theclimax. (Clements' concept of succession concept was anticipated by Eugene Warming in Denmark and Henry C. Cowles at the University of Chicago.)

Clements' notion of plant communities as "super-organisms" was actually a very problematic concept, as later ecologists would demonstrate, inventing the more neutral term "ecosystem" to replace it.

A crisis for Clements' paradigm a stable self-equilibrating climax would come in the 1930s, when extended and very serious drought on the Great Plains succeeded in destroying the supposedly "stable" climax grasslands. The Clementsian school eventually declined, moving toward the science of range management while shedding the original guiding vision of a stable climax.

The scientific techniques of ecology would be among those called into service by New Deal regional planning.

For more on Clements, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederic_Clements

V. Dust Bowl

The Plains drought of the 1930s was among the worst in the nation's history, with 9 years of below average precipitation. 1934 was the worst year ever with only 9" of rain. But what appeared to be an environmental disaster was not merely climatic in origin. Among other causes:

  • overgrazing;
  • land plowed too deep by dry-farming techniques;
  • economic demand for grain during World War I had prompted massive investments in new land, tractors, equipment;
  • end of war saw precipitous decline in prices, but farmers had to meet fixed mortgage payments for land and equipment, so increased production to try to maintain income;
  • subsequent agricultural depression (which began in the 1920s before the stock market collapse of 1929) brought growing numbers of bankruptcies.​

The net result was that land was no longer protected by crop cover, so lay open to the wind. Drought reduced vegetative cover still further, even on lands that hadn't recently been under the plow.

May 1934 ushered in Dust Bowl when storm on May 9 carried 350 million tons to East Coast in single storm. Massive duststorms eroded hundreds of millions tons of soil.

Result was aggressive government intervention typical of the New Deal:

  • shelterbelts of planted trees to break the wind and encourage rain (cf. Marsh's climatic theories);
  • contour plowing to compensate for grid field boundaries;
  • Resettlement Administration sought to relocate farms away from submarginal lands (a reversal of the frontier vision of rural settelent;
  • 1934 Taylor Grazing Act to end homesteading on rangelands;
  • consistent with traditions of Progressive conservation movement, heavy reliance on scientific experts to redirect the social destinies of rural people, communities, and landscapes.

John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, 1939, became the most compelling popular account of the Dust Bowl experience and the “Okie” migrations that followed.

Pare Lorentz’s classic 1936 documentary film, Plow That Broke the Plains, promulgated New Deal interpretation that unwise use of technology had created the Dust Bowl, but led to widespread controversy in Plains states. If you can spare half an hour, you'll definitely benefit from viewing it online: http://archive.org/details/plow_that_broke_the_plains

Alexandre Hogue"s "Mother Earth Laid Bare" (1938) and "The Crucified Land" (1939) became icons of environmental abuse: https://philbrook.org/explore/art/erosion-no-2-–-mother-earth-laid-bare-0

New Deal logic argued new technology was needed to solve a problem created by technology: but what of the underlying social and economic system that had put that technology to use?

The Wikipedia entry for the Dust Bowl is excellent, with many links to other sites and photo collections: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dust_Bowl