By Jeff Olson
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s statement, “The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” reflects the understanding that wise and prudent men and women of the 1930s had of the importance of soil conservation in America. This translated and evolved into a commitment which saw its strongest expression during and in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl; giving birth to institutions which to this day remain dedicated to the same mission they set out on many years ago.
The Dust Bowl was a time of severe dust storms that greatly damaged the ecology and agriculture of the U.S. and Canadian prairies during the 1930s. It affected 100 million acres that centered on the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma and touched adjacent sections of New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas. It forced approximately 3.5 million people to move out of the Plains states to agricultural areas and cities, mostly in California. Many found that the Great Depression had rendered economic conditions there little better than those they had left. The declining natural resource and economic conditions reached a point that something needed to be done on a large scale to address the mounting catastrophe.
With the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt to the presidency in 1932, conservation of soil and water resources became a national priority in the New Deal administration. After one of the worst dust storms reached Washington, D.C. in May 1934, while Congress was commencing hearings on a proposed soil conservation law, scientist and director of the Soil Erosion Service Hugh Hammond Bennett seized the opportunity to explain the cause of the storms and to offer a solution. He penned editorials and testified to Congress urging for the creation of a permanent soil conservation agency. The result was Public Law 74-46, the Soil Conservation Act, which directed the Secretary of Agriculture to establish the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) as a permanent agency in the USDA. This law recognized that “the wastage of soil and moisture resources on farm, grazing, and forest lands . . . is a menace to the national welfare” and was so designed “To provide for the protection of land resources against soil erosion, and for other purposes” It was signed by President Roosevelt 85 years ago this coming Monday, April 27, 1935.
The SCS became the lead agency for conservation on private lands in America. Her roles have been many and varied. They’ve included: performing surveys and devising flood control plans for selected watersheds under the authority of the Flood Control Act of 1936 and drafting the Standard State Soil Conservation Districts Law in 1937 which strengthened local efforts and control to apply conservation measures on the ground through establishing soil conservation districts. In 1938 SCS was made responsible for administering the Department’s drainage and irrigation assistance programs, the snow survey and water supply forecasting program, and the Water Facilities, Land Utilization, and Farm Forestry programs. The Secretary of Agriculture made SCS the lead agency responsible for technical oversight of the “permanent” type conservation measures installed with cost-share funds under the Agricultural Conservation Program (ACP). The number of soil conservation districts continued to increase, as did the number of cooperators working with SCS to develop conservation plans for their farms as well as construct ponds and other structures. Cost-sharing was administered through the Agriculture Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS), renamed from the Commodity Stabilization Service in 1961. As of 2015, SCS constructed nearly 11,000 dams on some 2,000 watershed projects that continue to provide flood control, water supplies, recreation, and wildlife habitat benefits. In 1952 USDA soils works were merged and unified into the SCS. Soil surveys have since been completed in practically every region of the country as a part of the National Cooperative Soil Survey.
In 1994, Congress initiated a major reorganization of the USDA and renamed SCS the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to better reflect the broadened scope of the agency’s concerns and new approaches to delivering services to the public.
Over the past 85 years, the SCS/NRCS has developed numerous science-based tools and standards in agronomy, soils, forestry, engineering, economics, wildlife biology, hydrology and other disciplines that local field office conservationists and technicians have used in helping landowners plan and install conservation practices. In partnership with conservation districts and other governmental and private entities, NRCS has worked with land users all over America in applying effective and enduring soil and water conservation measures which we still see and benefit from today. As an example closer to home: most of the thousands of ponds on the western Arkansas landscape were designed by the SCS/NRCS, built by local construction folks, and many were financed in part (cost-shared) through the ASCS.
Today, the NRCS continues the conservation legacy began in 1935, even as it adapts to changing concerns and takes on new responsibilities to address present and future challenges. Though some of the tools and methodologies have changed, the core mission of NRCS has not – “Helping People Help The Land.”