NRCS: The Feds Get Their Hands Dirty

Federal involvement in soil conservation began with a very passionate and motivated soil scientist by the name of Hugh Hammond Bennett, whose career as an agronomist began in 1903 when he joined the Bureau of Soils in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Bennett was hired to conduct soil surveys, which led to his personal conviction that soil erosion was a “national menace” and if left unchecked would disrupt the nation’s ability to produce food. His efforts led Congress in 1929 to approve soil erosion experiment stations.

In the 1930s, the Great Depression provided the opportunity to further Bennett’s “dirty work” when the National Industrial Recovery Act authorized erosion control efforts. Bennett argued that effective erosion control needed a comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach involving agronomists, engineers, foresters, wildlife biologists and social scientists.

Congress then created the Soil Erosion Service (SES) under the U.S. Department of the Interior, and named Bennett the first director. In his new position Bennett set up demonstration projects to educate communities about the benefits of erosion control. The Civilian Conservation Corps did most of the labor.

In 1935, Bennett found himself once again attempting to persuade Congress that more needed to be done: the dirt problem became a dust problem as once-productive farmlands in the Great Plains morphed into the infamous Dust Bowl. As Bennett testified, he watched the Senators become increasingly bored. But just as he was beginning to lose hope, the sky went dark and a great dust storm descended on the Capitol. The terrifying experience was enough to convince Congress to unanimously pass more soil conservation legislation.

Declaring soil erosion a menace to the national welfare, Congress renamed the SES the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) and granted it broad powers to attack the problem. Following a power struggle, it emerged as a branch of the USDA. In 1937, President Roosevelt worked with the states to create conservation districts with locally elected representatives, allowing for federal assistance without complete centralized control.

Under the Emergency Watershed Program, the agency has assisted many communities in recovery from natural disasters such as Hurricane Andrew and the Oakland-Berkeley Hills fires of 1991. SCS became the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which encompasses water, air, plants and animals in addition to soil.

Today there are a number of advocacy groups devoted to soil conservation, such as the Soil and Water Conservation Society and the Land Institute, boasting a diverse membership, including researchers, planners, policymakers, administrators, teachers, students, farmers and ranchers. There is room for everyone to roll up their sleeves and do a little dirty work.