The Trees of Our Fathers, Part I

  • July 14, 2014
  • Posted by James J. Crumpler, III

Revving up a chainsaw in the morning at a local park to cut down yet another Russian Olive tree, a twisted invasive specie of tree that has four-inch thorns, I turned to our sponsor and harangued him.  Russian Olive trees are a pain to remove.  They do not grow straight up, but tend to twist and turn and curve in ways that can pinch a saw into place, or make dropping a branch on your head almost inevitable.  Whoever planted these trees deserved a long slow death, and should have removed this tree long before we ever arrived on the scene to correct the situation with chainsaws and some not too subtle curses.  The sponsor then turned his old grey head, he was one of those old ranger types with stooped shoulders and a low careless lilt to his voice that sounded like he had done this work for a long time, and mentioned that it was probably the old Civilian Conservation Corps, CCC, that had planted these trees in the first place.  That shut me up.

The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 was a signal that Americans had radically re-thought the role of the government in economic activity.  Previously, the federal government was only a facilitator of job creation, but by 1932 it elected Roosevelt on the hope that the government would enter the market and create jobs when no one was hiring.  Federal programs cropped up everywhere to help people get back to work.  The CCC, within the first two months of its creation, had employed 250,000 men.  It built trails, bridges, roads, and of course planted trees. 
          “American Experience: TV’s Most-watched History     Series.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 12 July 2014.

During a period of ten years known as “The Great Plow-Up,” the central plains of the United States underwent drastic environmental change.  The region went from being known as “The Great American Desert” to the breadbasket of the world.  When it rained during this plow-up period, the wheat harvest was immense.  This created an over-saturated wheat market causing prices to fall.  Farmers, seeing the falling wheat price could reach only one conclusion, to plant more wheat.  It was a trap.  The central plains went from being grassland to farmland, for which it was never suited.  So long as it rained the wheat would grow, prices would fall, and more land would be turned under the plow. When the rains stopped in the 30s, with no moisture or grasses to hold the soil in place, the winds blew what remained of the topsoil away in massive dust storms.  It was an environmental catastrophe for the land, and for the farmers that had worked so hard to make a better life.  The CCC, working in Montana and many other central states, was tasked with saving these farmers and trying to restore what was left of the land.

Among the more ambitious of the CCC projects was to create shelterbelts all along the Great Plains states to keep the winds from blowing the soil onto and away from arable land. 
Shelterbelts ranged from 100 to 165 feet wide and varied in length. Trees were planted in rows 10 feet apart, with tall trees in center rows, short ones along the sides and shrubs on the margins.  Black Locust, Catalpa, Honey Locust, Mulberry, Osage Orange, Pecan, Plum, Russian Olive, Red Ceder, and Walnut varieties were the most commonly planted…on the day the project closed (on June 30, 1942), the shelterbelt experiment left behind 145 million trees.  Growing in a zone that reached across 100 miles and more, they ran all the way from the Brazos River in Texas to the U.S.- Canadian border, a distance of 18,600 miles.
          Goins, Charles R., and Danny Goble. “Historical Atlas of Oklahoma.” Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 July 2014.

Montana was a prime location for these shelterbelts.  The jet stream, moving from west to east, comes down from Canada into the central states.  Montana is perfectly situated as the first state where these winds enter the United States.  However, it is not a state known for its rainfall.  The Russian Olive tree is suited to these conditions.

The Russian olive is simply a very adaptive tree and tends to be an initial colonizer post-disturbance.  It is very widespread in riparian zones and is found growing along floodplains, riverbanks, streams and marshes.  The Russian olive can tolerate large amounts of salinity and can grow well in a variety of soil combinations from sand to heavy clay.  It can also survive a unique range of temperature (from –50 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit) and can tolerate shade well, allowing it to withstand competition from other trees and shrubs.  The Russian olive can also absorb nitrogen into its roots, thereby having the ability to grow on bare, mineral surfaces and dominate other riparian vegetation where old growth trees once survived.
            Collins, Emily. “Invasion Biology Introduced Species Summary Project - Columbia University.” Invasion Biology Introduced Species Summary Project - Columbia University. Columbia University, 6 Mar. 2002. Web. 14 July 2014.

In the desire and necessity to protect farmers and create jobs during the Great Depression, a tree has become a modern scourge.

The prolific reproduction rate of the Russian Olive trees over the past century sent my crew into the Charles M. Russel National Wildlife Refuge.  It is a hot, and humid region in July.  Gnats are everywhere, along with Russian Olive trees that grow in the Cottonwood groves along the banks of the Missouri River.  Courtney, carrying a chainsaw, and slightly stooped from the 16 lbs weight, turned and asked “Where is everyone?” We could not see through the dense undergrowth.  I was suffering from the heat and humidity and responded harshly, “How the hell should I know?  We can either go this way,” indicating our right, “or over there,” pointing to our left.  We had become turned around and I just did not care any more.  Presently, our situation was remedied by the sound of a chainsaw off to our right, towards the river.  With a resigned shrug, Courtney marched in that direction.  With gnats somehow getting behind the space in my glasses, I trudged along cutting some limbs from the path we were taking with my ax.  We worked in pairs, the sawyer who operated the chainsaw, and a “swamper” who removed smaller limbs with an ax and rescued the sawyer if he or she needed an extra hand to remove a branch or rescue a pinched saw.  Eventually, we resumed our place in the rough line we had established and kept working down the Missouri River.  As it happens, a keen interest of mine is the history of the Lewis and Clark expedition; they must have passed through this region.  It is a pretty area, but too many gnats and mosquitoes by half.  At least they were on the river where it is a bit cooler.  I kept my thoughts to myself; no one particularly cares about past travelers of the region when there was so much work to do.  The day ended when Tessa, my crew leader, called down the line to stop the saws.

The hike back to the rig was uneventful, just more gnats, more heat, and tall grass that can hide a log that wanted to trip you.  The day only ended after we sharpened the saws and cleaned them out back at camp.  It was a short hitch, a week, but I had enough.  Russian Olive trees are a pain to remove, but they need to be removed.  As helpful as they were in the past, they are now everywhere and the conservation corps of today is left with cutting down the trees that old CCC worked so hard to plant.  The irony of the situation is hard to escape.  The role of the conservation corps movement has definitely changed, but we still do good work.  We just happened to inherit the trees of our fathers. 


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