11/20/2012 08:37 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2013

Ken Burns' Dust Bowl : A Cautionary Tale

William Faulkner wrote, "History is not was, but is."

Ken Burns' new documentary, The Dust Bowl, is a timely reminder of Faulkner's point. The film's moving interviews with Dust Bowl survivors, photos of decimated landscapes and footage of desperate farmers and struggling communities bring to mind today's images of cornfields shriveled by this summer's drought, mountainsides blackened by wildfires, coastal communities torn apart by Superstorm Sandy.

In a recent interview with The Nature Conservancy, Ken Burns called the Dust Bowl "one of the great cautionary tales of all time." We learned, then, about the need to care for nature. Are we so absorbed today by political division that we cannot or will not heed nature's latest warnings?

In the 1930s, the "black blizzards" of dust blowing across the nation revealed in stark terms the consequences of pushing our natural resources too far. Years of unsustainable agriculture weakened the soil. Land that should have been left in native grasses was plowed up. When a prolonged drought hit, the topsoil dried out and blew away.

But, as in the case of other disasters, Americans found a creative and intelligent response. Heroes emerged, like soil scientist Henry Howard Finnell whose story is told in Burns' film. Finnell pioneered sustainable farming techniques including terraces and contour planting. By reducing runoff and capturing as much moisture as possible, Finnell's ideas helped farmers produce better harvests while keeping soil in place. Areas unsuitable for agriculture were turned back to grassland. By 1939, the Dust Bowl had shrunk to 1/5 of its previous size.

The conservation practices put into place by farmers with assistance from the government helped the nation recover from the Dust Bowl. These farming methods demonstrated very clearly that caring for the land produced better crops and higher profits. Advice and support from the federal government played an important role. Today's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has its roots in our response to the Dust Bowl. This federal agency continues to help farmers and ranchers become better stewards of their land by conserving healthy soil, water and wildlife.

The programs of the NRCS are authorized and funded by the Conservation Title of the Farm Bill, which (while most people don't know it) provides the single largest source of federal funding for conservation. Ironically, as American farmers struggled this summer with another severe drought, re-authorization of the Farm Bill stalled in Congress. The bill expired on September 30, putting its highly cost-effective conservation programs in jeopardy. The Farm Bill can be an ongoing instrument for protecting our nation's soil and water and for discouraging the kind of unsustainable farming practices that led to the Dust Bowl. It has always had strong bi-partisan support. But it languishes now just as parched mid-western landscapes warn us of the need for its continuation.

Over the years, the NRCS and our land grant universities have fostered a deeper understanding of the utility of healthy natural systems -- like how intact wetlands and functioning floodplains reduce polluted runoff and the impacts of floods. Similarly, we have come to understand that intact forests protect our water supplies, and coastal marshes, oyster and coral reefs, and mangroves help to shield communities from storm damage.

In the 1930s and in the last decade we learned that the careless investment of our nation's capital puts our entire financial system in jeopardy. And in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s we saw, as well, that a failure to invest in our natural capital, in the soil, water and wetlands upon which productive agriculture is based, led to disaster. That lesson is no less true today. Even in our urbanized society, the security of our food and water supplies, the safety of our communities from storms and floods and the peace of mind we derive from time in the outdoors are dependent upon continuing investments in nature.

Ken Burns' eloquent film reminds us that the fate of nature and people are bound irrevocably together. We disregard dark clouds of dust looming in the distance at our peril. History is not was, but is.