The Southern Origins of Soil Conservation

Erosion in Stewart County, Georgia, 1937Erosion in Stewart County, Georgia, 1937 (Photo: Library of Congress)

Eighty-one years ago today, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law a bill establishing the Soil Conservation Service, one of the signature conservation agencies of the New Deal. Historians have usually seen the creation of the Soil Conservation Service as a direct result of the Dust Bowl, and particularly of a series of dramatic 1935 dust storms that convinced Congress of the dire need for a national soil conservation program. The Dust Bowl certainly was an important proximate cause of the creation of the Soil Conservation Service, but soil conservation did not arise, phoenix-like, from the Great Plains. In fact, the cause had been building for more than a quarter of a century, and most early soil conservation concern arose from the eroded and gullied landscapes of the plantation South.

In the early 1930s, with the nation in a deep depression, the scant rain that usually fell over the western Great Plains failed to appear for several years straight. Temperatures rose, crops and grazing lands dried up, and the winds picked up the loose soil. Plains residents reported a few dust storms in 1932, and many more in 1933, but Americans did not pay attention until 1934 and 1935.

The scene darkened in the spring of 1935. On March 20, the crusading soil conservationist Hugh Hammond Bennett testified before the House Public Lands Committee in favor of the Soil Conservation Act of 1935, which aimed to create a Soil Conservation Service as a permanent agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At the same time, one of the worst dust storms of the season developed over the southern plains, carrying millions of pounds of topsoil eastward. On the following day, realizing the propitious timing, Bennett stalled the committee proceedings until the dust storm arrived. Then he allegedly encouraged committee members and others in attendance to leave their seats and watch from the hearing room windows as Great Plains soil fell like snow on the nation’s capital. “Everything went nicely thereafter,” Bennett recalled of the hearings. The Public Lands Committee issued a favorable report on March 29, and the full House approved the bill on April 1.

As the Soil Conservation Act moved over to the Senate, the dust storms on the plains intensified. On April 14, 1935, known as “Black Sunday,” a strong front built over southeastern Colorado and western Kansas. Temperatures dropped precipitously and then a veritable soil tsunami broke across the southern plains, darkening what had been a bright spring day and sending residents in their Sunday best scrambling for shelter. That night, in the Washington Evening Star, a reporter named Robert Geiger first referred to the southern plains as a “dust bowl.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the Senate acted with alacrity, passing the Soil Conservation Act the very next day, on April 15, and then sending it to President Roosevelt, who signed it into law on April 27. The remarkable coincidence between the massive spring dust storms of 1935 and the legislative process that produced the Soil Conservation Service has made it easy to assume a simple line of causation, but doing so obscures a deeper and more southern history of soil conservation advocacy in a cloud of dust.

Hugh Hammond Bennett’s early career charted the rise of concern about soil conservation in the South. Bennett had been born and raised on a farm in Anson County, North Carolina, where he had watched his father struggle to hold the soil in place. After graduating from the University of North Carolina in 1903, Bennett took a job with the U.S. Bureau of Soils, which had just undertaken a major national mapping project of the nation’s soil types. Erosion reconnaissance was not supposed to be part of the job, but as Bennett traveled throughout the eastern United States during the first decade of the twentieth century, he saw numerous farmers struggling with erosion. As importantly, he came to understand that many of the soils that he and his colleagues were mapping and categorizing were not merely products of nature but artifacts of erosive land use. Bennett soon learned to read the nation’s long history of erosion in the soils he inspected on a daily basis.

In 1909, as an inspector for the Soil Survey, and Bennett came to understand how badly eroded the soils of the South’s plantation regions had become. “Almost every survey in the Old Cotton Belt,” Bennett later recalled, “turned up startling information on the impoverishing effects of erosion.” A couple of county-level surveys were particularly eye opening. The first was the “Soil Survey of Fairfield County, South Carolina,” which revealed that 90,000 acres of that county, in the state’s lower Piedmont cotton belt, had been cut to pieces by deep gullying. The erosion was so bad that soil surveyors had to invent a new category of soil classification, “Rough gullied land.” Bennett later noted that this was the first soil survey to map the problem of soil erosion.

Only a couple of years later, in 1913, Bennett traveled to Stewart County, Georgia, just south of Columbus, where a soil survey team was struggling to map a landscape wracked by the most extreme gullying he had ever seen. Again, Bennett and his colleagues mapped tens of thousands of acres of “Rough gullied land.” Some of the county’s gullies were more than 150 feet deep and hundreds of feet wide. The published “Soil Survey of Stewart County” highlighted a gully that locals called “Providence Cave,” a place that would later come to be known as Georgia’s “Little Grand Canyon.”

Witnessing such erosion convinced Bennett that something needed to be done to save the region’s, and the nation’s, soils. But several factors limited the effectiveness of his proselytizing for a federal soil conservation bureau. Federal conservation programs on public lands had developed during the Progressive Era, but instituting a program to regulate resource use on private lands had proven more difficult. The interruption of the First World War and the more conservative political climate of the postwar years also thwarted his ambitions. Bennett had to contend with another problem, too: the head of the U.S. Bureau of Soils, Milton Whitney, refused to take soil conservation seriously. Instead, Whitney repeatedly insisted that “the soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the Nation possesses.” Everything Bennett had seen in his travels around the South had convinced him otherwise. “I didn’t know so much costly misinformation,” Bennett lamented, “could be put into a single brief sentence.”

Whitney’s death in 1927 brought on a flurry of soil conservation activity, including a formative government report, Soil Erosion: A National Menace, co-authored by Bennett in 1928. Bennett also began, as he put it, to “howl about the evils of soil erosion.” His campaign built strength over the next five years, especially after 1932 because of the Roosevelt administration’s willingness to wed federal work relief and soil conservation. Bennett continued to use the massive soil erosion he had witnessed in the American South as rationale for a soil conservation agency, citing the cases of Fairfield and Stewart County repeatedly.

The cause of soil conservation, then, was ascendant well before the first dust storms rolled off the Great Plains and into the nation’s consciousness. The devastated soils of the American South had a particularly formative influence. The Dust Bowl certainly played a major part in the final passage of the Soil Conservation Act of 1935, but it was a latecomer to the stage – the latest disaster in a long history of destructive human-induced soil erosion.

About the Author

Paul Sutter

Paul S. Sutter is a Professor of History at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he teaches modern U.S. history and environmental history. He is the author of Driven Wild: How the Fight against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement and, more recently, of Let Us Now Praise Famous Gullies: Providence Canyon and the Soils of the South. He is also Series Editor of Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books, which is published by the University of Washington Press.

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