Washington — While many US agriculture experts have expressed concern about soil erosion, federal officials in memorial-bedecked Washington have been trying to decide the best memorial for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Noting renewed interest in an FDR memorial coinciding with the three-term President's centenary, Monitor correspondent Richard Strout offers a possible approach to easing both problems, a ''living'' memorial: the maintenance of the shelter belt program FDR started.
That's how tall the cottonwoods the Hauch family helped plant one September morning 40 years ago have grown. They are quick-growing trees with a short life span, and some of them ought to be replaced. The Hauch family got up early that morning, for the shelter belt was coming. Magnus Hauch had signed up for a section of it earlier. He promised to fence, tend, and cultivate it. It sounded like a promise of marriage.
The other children roamed about and helped their father. . . . Greta Hauch didn't say anything but kicked the side of her crib. Dogs barked and the excitement even got down to Schwartze the cat. Where the Hauches live the clouds float across the sky like galleons. They sail to the end of the world and beyond , their shadows moving across the Plains.
Geologists say the Plains used to be forested, but the buffalo, fires, Indians, and settlers finished that. There came the moldboard plow that broke the Plains. The tough turf that held it all together came apart, so then came the dust bowl. This was so terrible that there had to be jokes about it. A farmer, seen flying through the murk, was reported to have said that he was following his farm to Mexico.
A presidential candidate making his whistle-stop campaign across the Plains in 1932 experienced the dust storms. The candidate was Franklin D. Roosevelt. He won the election, and when he came to Washington he started to do all sorts of surprising things with alphabetical names. One of them was to encourage the establishment of a ''shelter belt'' by the Soil Conservation Service (SCS).
There was plenty of cheap labor in those days. One man in 4 was out of a job in 1933, and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) boys were brought from city slums to wide-open spaces where the incongruity of their experience and their reactions became legendary.
Mr. Hauch and his neighbors made their application for participation in the Shelter Belt program in 1940, and the Weekly Argus (postage-free in the county) noted it. They agreed to prepare the land and keep it cultivated three to five years if necessary, to fence it from livestock, and provide rodent control. Next the young forester arrived in a gray-green uniform. He gave Lena Hauch a penny. He analyzed the Hauches' soil, looked in the well and got the water table, and examined the place where the belt would go. Everybody waited. He approved. . . .
Dust rises on the gravel road miles away, and long before the truck pulls in at the red barn the family is out in welcome. Mrs. Hauch has her new pies in reserve. It's a big truck and 13 men pile out of it. They are WPA workers. Raw-boned Abe and Ike Hauch, the sons, give a shy greeting. The dogs bark. Each man has a long-handled shovel in one hand and a metal basket in the other. The baskets are open at the side and twigs project: There are 50 ''trees'' in each basket. This is the baby forest as delivered.
Magnus leads the way over to the side of the wheat field. The government won't part with its trees to make a shelter for ordinary grazing land. Magnus has already made 10 long, deep, parallel gashes in the sod, 10 feet apart, with the subsoiler he borrowed from the Forestry Service (it pulls a plowlike hook through the soil). Now a man starts to plant at each end and a couple of extra men work on the side. It is a new ceremony on the prairie - new like so many things under this bewildering ''New Deal.'' It is reminiscent of the merry, old-fashioned harvest turnout that passed away with the coming of the combine.
The belt is 10 lines of parallel shrubs and trees - each tree living 10 feet from the one beside it and with the tallest-growing trees in the center. The wind is always blowing here. It blows across the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. It howls down in winter from the northern reaches of Canada. Trees could be a factor on some of these homesteads where there is a delicate balance between success and failure in the grain crops.
Trees have another value. Man loves trees. They satisfy something inside. Unless you have moved away from the New England pine groves, or the maple-aisled farms of Ohio and Indiana, or maybe remember hearing your grandparents tell about the forests in Germany, Sweden, and Russia, and then have come out on the treeless prairie and can see 20 miles ahead to the next flour mill, you do not know the longing to have a limit here and there on the horizon.
The 10 rows of trees are planted quickly and earth filled in and stomped down , the middle rows being American elm and hackberry, and the backbone of it the cottonwoods. There are some conifers, too, and on either edge some sturdy shrubs.
The trees will grow, foresters declare, if cultivated when young. Otherwise not. Farmers couldn't believe it here at first. How could trees survive if the crops themselves languished in the terrible droughts? Their doubts seemed reasonable. But they neglected two things: the help that cultivating does to a tree when it starts, and the hardy nature of the trees planted, selected by peaceful expeditions to the plains of China and the steppes of Siberia. Those territories, too, know the wild range of temperatures between arctic winter and blistering summer.
So now let us skip 40 years between the time when the foregoing was written (and first appeared in The Christian Science Monitor Sept. 2, 1941) and the present. Many of the trees have survived, others have been planted, still others neglected. Some people believe the dust bowls come in the US in cycles, and they are concerned that another period of drought and erosion lies ahead.
It is sad to see a neglected shelter belt planted half a century ago with its rows in the center making a dense screen of branches and leaves 40 feet high, but where some later owner has neglected the defense against the moaning wind. There are gaps in the skyline where dead and dying trees should have been cut, and holes in the lower level where cattle have been allowed to graze.
Windbreak planting, of course, has gone on since its start in 1934. The program strengthened in the mid-1960's. Then the annual acreage of farmstead windbreaks planted leveled off. Since 1976 the trend of planting seemed to decline. But in the last five years interest in farmstead windbreaks seems to have increased, apparently tied to the value of windbreaks for energy conservation. A briefing paper on farmstead windbreaks offered a year ago by the Agriculture Department declares that ''a well designed farmstead windbreak can reduce winter fuel consumption by 10 to 30 percent.''
The shelter belt discussion has particular significance, curiously enough, to a debate recently in Washington over the proper memorial for Franklin Roosevelt, the centenary of whose birth occurred Jan. 30. When he registered to vote in New York he described himself as ''tree planter.'' He instituted the Soil Conservation Service and the shelter-belt program. Of the shelter belt he commented, ''This is my baby.''
For 27 years, officials in Washington have argued about a memorial to Franklin Roosevelt. It is a place of monuments, too many perhaps - the majestic one to Washington, the inspiring Lincoln Memorial, the new shrine to Thomas Jefferson. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt have their memorial at Hyde Park, N.Y. , but it is not a national monument.
Recently the idea has been broached - why not make the trees on the plains a living memorial to FDR - something green and growing and making the land more productive and beautiful? Something everyone shares?
I finished the article in the Monitor about the shelter belt trees 40 years ago with the comment, ''Half a century from now some of the trees will still be doing their work of making the land whole again and of lifting up men's hearts.''
Since then a lot of FDR's trees have been neglected, bulldozed, or burned. The belt has been all but forgotten since FDR's passing, April 15, 1945. Reviving interest in it would be a fitting memorial for FDR - ''tree planter.''