Greening the US Deserts: 80 Year Old Swales near Tucson, Arizona

Here are two classic videos about the giant permaculture swales in the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, AZ. The swales are now filled with trees and lush grass, and continue to thrive after 80 years with no maintenance. The swales were built in the 1930’s during President Roosevelt’s term to restore the countryside in the Dust Bowl era.

During President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office in 1933, his administration quickly initiated programs to conserve soil and restore the ecological balance of the nation. Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes established the Soil Erosion Service in August 1933. It was reorganized under the Department of Agriculture and renamed the Soil Conservation Service. It is now known as the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

President Roosevelt ordered the Civilian Conservation Corps to plant a huge belt of more than 200 million trees from Canada to Abilene, Texas to break the wind, hold water in the soil, and hold the soil itself in place. The administration also began to educate farmers on soil conservation and anti-erosion techniques, including crop rotation, strip farming, contour plowing, terracing, and other improved farming practices.

YouTube: Bill Mollison shows large swales near Tucson, AZ
Search our blog for lots of other similar stories by searching for keywords ‘restoring degraded land’ and ‘forest gardens’.

13 thoughts on “Greening the US Deserts: 80 Year Old Swales near Tucson, Arizona”

  1. This is a very old technique, probably thousands of years old. The thing is, its small scale and ignores the fact that run-off water is a symptom of a dysfunctional ecosystem and therefor a problem.

  2. Thank you Owen for the link! I lived in Tucson in the 80s and never knew about this. I am finishing up my online PDC with Geoff and already teaching at the local college’s new sustainable ag program, as well as consulting for the county’s new food forests, so there’s a hunger out there. This video has the possibility of igniting new permaculture fires in even more people!

    • I’m very glad to hear of the growing interest in permaculture and the new program at your school. It’s always been a little disappointing at how slowly it has grown (similar situation with natural building). It seems so obvious that it would sweep the world in a few years and become very common or even take over as mainstream. Maybe things have to get really really bad before people change.

      • Geoff talks about the getting to the “tipping point”; perhaps we are getting closer with more people out there becoming conscious of all this and then themselves disseminating to others. I hope this is so….seems like here on the West Coast of the US. Terry

        • Hmm. That made me think of something interesting. Many people are not aware of permaculture but LOTS of people are waking up and generally becoming more aware of what’s going on in the world, and this growing awareness should help spread ideas such as permaculture more quickly.

          There are many paths to this awakening. Some discover alternative natural therapies when they get sick and medicine isn’t working. Some are growing ever more skeptical of government. Some lose their jobs and discover low cost DIY things such as gardening and natural building. Once you tap into this awareness you quickly discover other topics. It’s easy to research things on the Internet and before long lots of new possibilities open up. I think loss of jobs, high priced food and housing, spiking disease rates (shocking) etc. are accelerating this awakening.

          • It is true that when the student is ready, the teacher arrives, and I see more people stepping up to be teachers. This fits in with the ‘people care’ part of permaculture for a restorative, regenerative and sustainable future. I too am frustrated with the seeming slowness of getting these messages of hope out there, but after the decades I have been observing this, the speed does seem to be ticking up a bit, even more so in places outside of the US bubble. Hope it continues!

          • I think it will naturally take off where it makes the most sense. That way normal market forces come into play.

            Permaculture may be far more popular than most people realize. In Thailand, for example, they often use different terminology and most people never hear about it because almost everything is in Thai. See this blog post for instance:

            This story documents how millions of Thais are already living sustainably on permaculture-type farms (but with different terminology).

  3. Sometimes, it seems as if there is a resistance to common and ancient knowledge about how to heal the land and increase food production. It is hard to understand why, in light of the renewed knowledge of mulching, swales, water capture techniques, grazing management and use of natural stone, wood and elements for compost, we still see machines stripping the land bare. We see weeds being disposed of in third world countries instead of being used as mulch. Swales and stone walls should be seen everywhere there is desert and dry land. Massive farming techniques seem to have seen few changes over the years, resulting in tasteless produce and insecticide-laden farm products.

    • Serious problems permeate society from top to bottom: corrupt politicians, corporations that conspire with government to subvert the agriculture and food programs, schools that still teach outdated/destructive farming methods, farmers who are ignorant of sustainable farming or unwilling to change, and consumers who buy and eat all kinds of unhealthy food as long as it tastes good. We end up with sick, overweight people who can’t think clearly.

      That’s why I decided about 5 years ago to start our homestead and grow as much of our food as possible. It turned out to be a lot harder and take a lot longer than imagined but at least we’re on the path of self sufficiency. My health has greatly improved along the way. Here’s what our garden looks like now.

  4. Just imagine how many swales could be built with $85 million. That’s roughly how much was spent on Obama’s vacations over the last 8 years. (That’s just one tiny example of how much money the government blows.) Or maybe a better example — think of how much money was blown in Middle Eastern wars over the last 15 years. It’s truly mind boggling. The Pentagon admits to around $6 trillion in unaccounted expenses. That’s enough to restore every US desert plus rebuild our highways, bridges, mass transit and schools.

    And just to be clear, I’ not suggesting to bulldoze swales through the most scenic deserts. I’m talking about repairing/restoring the vast arid wastelands of the world.

  5. The swales were made with horse and cart. They were not planted and have not been maintained. All of the trees and grass grew naturally from seeds carried from the wind and birds. And there are no fruit trees. Just imagine what could be accomplished with bulldozers and a coordinated plan of swales with food forests. The vast deserts of the earth could be self perpetuating permaculture oases. Thinking about this gives me more hope for the world and so I continue publishing stories like this about restoring degraded land.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.