Trees Are Raphael Zon’s Answer to Problem Caused by Droughts
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Trees Are Raphael Zon’s Answer to Problem Caused by Droughts

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Trees and man are inseparable, according to Dr. Raphael Zon, director of the Lake States Forest Experiment Station here, who recently was named technical director of the Great Plains shelter-belt project—the 100 – mile – wide belt of trees to be planted from the Canadian border line in North Dakota 1,000 miles to Texas.

For more than a decade Dr. Zon has dreamed of such a project. His years of forestry work in the Middle West brought him into close contact with the widespread human suffering occasioned by periodic droughts. Hot winds and rainless skies over the whole Great Plains area laid waste to crops and livestock. Dr. Zon saw this and pondered for an answer.


He recalled his boyhood days in Russia, where he was born of Jewish parents December 1, 1874, in the small town of Simbirsk. In this town he received his early education at the Classical Gymnasium, from which he was graduated in 1892 with the degree of B.A. Then he attended the Imperial University of Kazan, from which he was graduated in 1896 with a B.S. degree in natural sciences.

As a student he had heard much about the steppes of his native country—Russia. They were the treeless, barren wastes—always windswept. His technical training in the natural sciences brought him into contact with efforts then being made to reforest these windswept areas.

But forestry — truly scientific forestry—was in its infancy in those days. Zon was a student of the natural sciences and as such he had a thirst for knowledge. The year after graduating from the Imperial University saw Zon engaged in post graduate work at L’Universite Libre at Brussels, where he remained until 1898. Still in search for knowledge in his chosen field of work, Zon came to the United States and next went to Cornell University, where in 1901 he was awarded the degree of forest engineer.


The beginning of his career in professional forestry work came soon afterward. In July, 1901, Zon was appointed to the forest service of the United States Department of Agriculture as student assistant and was assigned to forest investigations in the East. For four years he worked as assistant chief computer and forest expert on forest investigations and cooperative timberland examinations in the East. In 1905 he became forest assistant, and for nearly three years was engaged in the same kind of work. In 1907 he was made chief of the Office of “Silvics,” which later became the Office of Forest Investigations, and was in charge of the forestry research then conducted by the forest service.

Zon saw the need for more experimental work in forestry. The United States was being denuded by wasteful lumbering. He envisioned the Russian steppes. His adopted country must not have their duplicates. After intensive work, Zon organized the early for### research of the forest service. #####cluded eight local forest experiment stations on western national forests, two stations in the East, one in Louisiana, and the other in North Carolina, and in cooperation with the state of Minnesota, an additional station at Cloquet, on state lands.


He continued in this work until the close of 1920, when he was assigned to special work in the broad field of forest economics. Then, in 1923, when the Lake States Forest Experiment Station was created, he was made director, with headquarters in St. Paul.

It was while stationed in the Middle West that Zon began to figure on the relationship of forests to water and climate. He saw drought and dust storms come and go in this Great Plains area, where a tree was not to be found for miles. In areas where there were trees, Zon found there were no dust storms, and the effects of drought periods were minimized because the trees held moisture in the soil.

To prove some of his theories he established a branch experiment station at Towner, North Dakota, in the heart of the “great American desert.” Here he went to work on technical problems to be faced in planting trees in this treeless area. The first experiments included investigations on the survival and fitness of various tree species for the locality.


Zon studied the similar work that had been started in Russia. He felt he was on the right track, and continued his investigations. These proved definitely that the removal of protective forest and vegetative cover in many sections of the United States has resulted in excessive wind and water erosion.

The results of these investigations soon attracted wide attention. When the present nationwide drought started last spring, Zon was called to Washington for consultation. Out of this grew the Great Plains shelterbelt idea announced this Summer by President Roosevelt. A belt of trees 100 miles wide and 1,000 miles long through the heart of the Great Plains should alleviate the incipient desert conditions common there. Zon’s previous investigations pointed in that direction.

When the shelterbelt idea was announced, Zon was named technical director of the project. In this position he is responsible for its successful outcome. He is in charge of development of technical methods to be used in raising the nursery stock and in planting the millions of trees. He also will determine where the various species are to be planted.


Although Zon has participated in practically every phase of forest research, probably his best work has been done in the field of economics. He is the author of several books and pamphlets which have received world-wide recognition.

Although primarily interested in the field of forest research, his greatest contribution, according to experts in forestry work, has been the idealistic spirit which he has injected into all forestry activities. Further than that he has stressed the humanistic and social side of forestry, insisting that the forester at all time should not lose his human touch and that, on account of the forest, he should not fail to regard human welfare.

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