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The greatest drought in the nation's history continued last week to blight the lives of people throughout a vast region in the central and southwestern part of the U.S., bringing withered crops, emaciated cattle, dead or dying trees, waterless streams and the decimation of wildlife. For the rest of the country the proportions of the tragedy have just been emphasized by President Eisenhower's personal inspection of the disaster area.
The President's trip was for the purpose of determining what can be done, beyond the various government programs now in effect, to help drought sufferers over the crisis. But, even if the rains come soon, recovery of the worst-hit sections will take many years, for even 300-year-old live oaks and tough mesquite trees are dead, the ground cover is gone, and thousands of wild animals have perished. The answers to the long-range problem of bringing back and maintaining a healthy, productive environment—for both people and animals—may well lie in research work already started in south Texas by Dr. Clarence Cottam, the director of a new and unique institution called the Rob and Bessie Welder Wildlife Foundation.
Owners of drought-stricken ranches and conservationists the country over are looking to this undertaking with hope. The foundation is national in scope and designed to prove that under wise use of the land a healthy ecology will result in abundant wildlife and better plant cover, yet at the same time provide long-term economic returns as great as, or greater than, those derived through overgrazing and bad farming practices.
Dr. Cottam, former assistant director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, already has proved through experiments in Utah that grazing on a grass-percentage basis results in the production of more cattle. There Dr. Cottam established that when only 60% of the grass is grazed off a healthier and more productive grass cover results. Maintaining this heavier ground cover also cushions the effect of droughts.
At present the government owns huge areas in the Dust Bowl on which the grass has been permitted to return. The effect of this, it is agreed, has been to lessen the intensity of dust storms. Dr. Cottam and his research scientists are attacking the problem on a much broader front. They are setting out to prove that healthy woods, waters and wildlife go hand in hand with healthy economic returns.
Although the work of the foundation cannot mitigate the present drought crisis, landowners in Texas and other stricken areas are fortunate to have such an institution as a focal point for learning the lessons of how best to prepare for droughts of the future. Conservationists agree that in few places has overgrazing and poor land use brought deterioration more rapidly than in Texas.
The foundation starts its program at a time when 90% of the state has been declared a disaster area, when drinking water is being bought at prices higher than oil and when 60,000 families have moved from their wrecked farms and ranches to the cities. The institution is the creation of a Texan who saw the need for a wiser treatment of the land.
Rob H. Welder, south Texas cattle baron and oilman, drew up a will that proved to be an unusual document for Texas or, for that matter, any other state. Subsequent to Mr. Welder's death on New Year's Eve of 1953, it was found that his will established a foundation such as America had never had before, an institution designed to have an ultimate impact on conservation practices not just in Texas but in the nation as a whole.
In the basic provisions of his will Welder set aside 7,799.24 acres of land, 32 miles northwest of Corpus Christi, to be used for research in how best to foster wildlife on farms and ranches. Although a large area, the gift of the land was not unique. The legacy became more impressive when it was found to be coupled with oil wells and cattle producing an annual income of more than half a million dollars, all of which is to be used in the furtherance of the purposes of the foundation.
Even this gives but a faint idea of the great scope of the bequest. In his will the Texas cattleman expressed his thoughts in establishing the trust as follows: