The Shelterbelt “Scheme”: Radical Ecological Forestry and the Production of Climate in the Fight for the Prairie States Forestry Project

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The Shelterbelt “Scheme”: Radical Ecological Forestry and the Production of Climate in the Fight for the Prairie States Forestry Project

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In 1934 the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration announced the creation of the “largest project ever undertaken in the country to modify climate and agricultural conditions.” The Shelterbelt Project, later known as the Prairie States Forestry Project, was designed to alter local climatic conditions around the 100th meridian through the planting of large bands designed to slow the winds and conserve moisture in the soil. The Shelterbelt Project was made possible by the work of radical foresters who were fighting within their field to establish forestry as its own ecological science with a vital role to play in public service. Raphael Zon and his colleagues translated Roosevelt’s broad vision into a technical scientific plan and set themselves apart by embracing forestry as relational and inherently political, acknowledging both that economic drivers contribute to climatic shifts, and that environmental and climatic problems have the potential to be mitigated through political solutions. This project uses archival material and the academic writings of project stakeholders to demonstrate how the spatial ontologies of the Shelterbelt Project’s advocates and critics produced different conceptions of climate. It also traces how their thinking affected the types of science they saw as legitimate and the policy solutions they fought for. Though some academic geographers involved with the debate around the Shelterbelt Project wrote explicitly about space, for others, understanding their view of space comes from examining how they viewed the relationship between society, politics, and the environment. Geographers Carl Sauer, Isaiah Bowman, and Ellsworth Huntington fundamentally disagreed with Zon and other ecological foresters about the best way to combat climatic instability because their own spatial ontologies always predicated human geography (including political and social solutions) on top of what they saw as an unchanging set of naturally occurring environmental conditions. Focusing on land-use policy and population resettlement as the solution to climatic instability, these geographers ignored the ways in which economic systems were exacerbating environmental differences, casting changes as naturally-occurring in order to remove environmental solutions from the realm of political debate and to insert their own political expertise after the fact as a solution. These actions amounted to a geographical production of climate through the logic of regional and deterministic geography.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. January 2019. Major: Geography. Advisor: Roderick Squires. 1 computer file (PDF); x, 218 pages.

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Snow, Meagan. (2019). The Shelterbelt “Scheme”: Radical Ecological Forestry and the Production of Climate in the Fight for the Prairie States Forestry Project. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

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