The Dust Bowl may be long gone, but wind continues to erode an average 1.3 tons of topsoil each year from every one of Kansas’ 1.8 million acres of cropland.
That’s well beyond tolerable limits, according to the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service.
“Clearly, windbreaks continue to have important roles to play in the Great Plains. They can affect everything from crop yields to rural home comfort. Given what people like you and I can see from the road, however, this living resource has long been in a decline, perhaps for up to six decades,” said Bob Atchison, rural forestry coordinator for the Kansas Forest Service (KFS).
Little “good science” has charted the changes since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president, he said.
But, the KFS and Kansas State University Research and Extension will be conducting an inventory of the state’s windbreaks this year from May 26 to Aug. 11. USDA’s Forest Service is helping fund the project. The KFS is already contacting landowners to get permission for a research crew to access their property.
In Kansas, windbreaks are basically an artifact of the drought and dust storms that plagued the Great Plains during the 1930s, Atchison said. In response to such farm-wrecking conditions, the U.S. government invested close to $14 million dollars between 1935 and 1942 to plant more than 200 million trees and shrubs in shelterbelts. (It stopped short of FDR’s dream of windbreaks from Canada to Mexico.)
“For best management from here on, Kansas needs an accurate assessment of the size and condition of the plantings we’ve got now. This summer’s inventory will provide that. It also will help us assess the number of ash trees in the state that will be at risk if the emerald ash borer spreads further west,” the forester said.
The emerald ash borer is an exotic (non-native), invasive Asian beetle, first discovered in the United States in 2002 near Detroit, Mich. It since has spread to infest and kill millions of ash trees in 10 states, officially reaching Missouri in July 2008.
This year’s two-person Kansas inventory crews will be measuring 189 randomly selected, one-sixth-acre plots throughout the state. Crews in Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota will be doing similar research. During their three- to four-hour examinations of each site, the crews will record tree species, diameter, height and age, as well as the overall windbreak’s function, width and condition.