Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The national grasslands were created in the 1930s, when the Great Plains was withered by a long drought and the Great Depression had left farm families destitute. President Franklin Roosevelt approved a radical social program to purchase submarginal Great Plains grasslands and resettle farm families into planned cities and subsistence homestead villages. A portion (3.8 million acres) of the 11.3 million acres purchased became nineteen national grasslands on June 20, 1960. Butte Valley National Grassland in northern California was added in 1991. All but three of the national grasslands are located in the Great Plains, from Texas and New Mexico to North Dakota.

In the 1920s scientists led by L. C. Gray examined the use and abuse of private and public lands in the West and studied land utilization practices for production and soil conservation. A 1929 federal act began the process of removing marginal lands from cultivation, leading to a national land utilization conference in 1931. In 1933 President Herbert Hoover proposed a government leasing program of submarginal land, removing it from production, and this was expanded by Roosevelt.

In December 1933 Roosevelt authorized $25 million in emergency relief funds to start the process to buy 75 million acres. Three different agencies began buying land and planning facilities for resettling farm families, but they were soon replaced by the Resettlement Administration, headed by Rexford G. Tugwell. The Resettlement Administration bought the land through foreclosures, condemnations, and voluntary purchases and constructed hundreds of small homes in scattered subsistence farmstead projects to resettle farm families. This social experiment lasted until political pressures forced Tugwell out after the 1936 election. The Farm Security Administration then took over and, with authorization from the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act, began approving loans to tenants to buy farms and continued federal land purchases. In all, 11.3 million acres were bought for an average of $4.40 per acre in scattered land utilization projects in eleven states.

From 1938 to 1953 the Soil Conservation Service administered the lands, and large portions were distributed to states, Indian reservations, and other federal agencies. The Forest Service took over in 1953 and had control of 5.5 million acres by 1961, with 3.8 million designated as national grasslands. The Plains grasslands and their acreages are Comanche (435,319) and Pawnee (193,060), Colorado; Cimarron (108,175), Kansas; Oglala (94,480), Nebraska; Kiowa (136,417), New Mexico; Cedar River (6,717), Little Missouri (1,028,051), and Sheyenne (70,268), North Dakota; Black Kettle (31,286) and Rita Blanca (92,989), Oklahoma and Texas; Buffalo Gap (595,538), Fort Pierre (115,997), and Grand River (155,075), South Dakota; Caddo (17,784), Lyndon B. Johnson (20,309), and McClelland Creek (1,449), Texas; and Thunder Basin (571,971), Wyoming.

Today, while livestock grazing permits to private ranchers represent the largest use of national grasslands, each also has a multiple use management plan that includes public recreation, wildlife habitat, soil conservation and watershed protection, improved range utilization techniques, and resource protection during mineral operations. Oil and gas leases bring in more than $30 million annually, and grazing permits yield about $2.5 million. The combined annual budgets of the grasslands is about $8.2 million. More than a million people visit the grasslands annually, using twenty-five campgrounds and ten picnic areas.

See also AGRICULTURE: Farm Security Administration.

National Grasslands website.

Francis Moul Chadron State College

Hurt, R. D. "The National Grasslands: Origin and Development in the Dust Bowl." In The History of Soil and Water Conservation, edited by Douglas Helms and Susan L. Flader. Washington DC: Agricultural History Society, 1985.

West, Terry. "USDA Forest Service Management of the National Grasslands." Agricultural History 64 (spring 1990): 86–98.

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