History of the Conservation Movement
Learn about the history and creation of the conservation districts.Woody Guthrie sings, "On the fourteenth day of April of 1935, there struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky. You could see that dust storm coming, the cloud looked death-like black and through our mighty nation it left a dreadful track." (The Great Dust Storm). In"Dust Can't Kill Me" he laments, "This old dust storm it's akickin' up cinders, this old dust stormcuttin' down my wheat, this old dust storm it pushed my shack down, but it didn't get me, girl, it can't stop me."
When pioneers headed west in the late 19th century, many couldn't resist the lure of the tall grassy land in the semiarid midwestern and southern plains of the United States.
They settled there to farm. They were prosperous in the decades that followed, but when the 1930s rolled in, so did strong winds, drought and clouds of dust that plagued nearly 75 percent of the United States between 1931 and 1939.
The era became known as the legendary Dust Bowl.
The seeds of the Dust Bowl may have been sowed during the early 1920s. A post-World War I recession led farmers to try new mechanized farming techniques as a way to increase profits.
Many bought plows and other farming equipment, and between 1925 and 1930 more than 5 million acres of previously unfarmed land was plowed.
With the help of mechanized farming, farmers produced record crops during the 1931 season. However, overproduction of wheat coupled with the Great Depression led to severely reduced market prices.
The wheat market was flooded, and people were too poor to buy. Farmers were unable to earn back their production costs and expanded their fields in an effort to turn a profit -- they covered the prairie with wheat in place of the natural drought-resistant grasses and left any unused fields bare.
But plow-based farming in this region cultivated an unexpected yield: the loss of fertile topsoil that literally blew away in the winds, leaving the land vulnerable to drought and inhospitable for growing crops.
In a brutal twist of fate, the rains stopped.
By 1932, 14 dust storms, known as black blizzards were reported, and in just one year, the number increased to nearly 40.
Millions of people fled the region. The government enacted aid programs to help, but it wasn't until 1939 when the rain returned that relief came.
The U.S. Congress passed the Buchanan Amendment to the Agricultural Appropriation Bill in 1930, which allocated $160,000 for the establishment of ten soil-erosion and ten plant material experiment stations. In the 1932 Yearbook of Agriculture, Hugh Hammond Bennett, a leading proponent of soil conservation, stated that erosional wastage had become a gravely important American economic problem.
In 1933, FDR summoned Hugh Hammond Bennett, a soil scientist, to the White House to see what could be done. Bennett told FDR that 100 million acres had lost its topsoil, nearly half had been destroyed and could never be farmed again.
FDR gave Bennett $5 million in relief funds to start the Soil Erosion Service (in 1935), a temporary agency intended to provide relief. The Soil Erosion Service contracted with local governments to establish vegetation of eroded soils and construct erosion-control dams.
Hugh Bennett knew that the job of saving America's Soil and Water was too big for even the huge resources of the Federal government. So he came up with the idea to give the job to the people who lived on the land -- the nation's farmers and ranchers. He knew they would do what was needed, mostly at their own expense, if supplied with technical help and engineering suggestions.
The temporary Soil Erosion Service became the Soil Conservation Service, a permanent agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Early work by this agency was focused on restoration of erosion-impacted lands.
Since about three-fourths of the continental United States is privately owned, Congress realized that only active, voluntary support from landowners would guarantee the success of conservation work on private lands across the United States.
The crowning touch was to make his own agency's role one of demonstration and suggestion, rather than one of domination and dictation. He knew there was nothing much wrong with the brains and resolution of men who had held title to a farm through that trying period and that, given the technical help, they could be trusted with control of the program. This was absolutely unique in the history of government-farmer relations, and its success has been nothing short of stupendous. The disappearance of huge dust storms says a lot about Government programs. Improvement is evident in the amount of pasture, reduced tillage, strip-cropping, terracing, and windbreaks found on farms today.The proof of the success in conservation can be found anywhere, it would be in comparing the amount of soil loss over the years. Sophisticated computer models track erosion rates every five years. The next surveys which will include CRP land and the implementation of conservation compliance on highly erodible land, should show a dramatic decline in erosion rates.
When the dust storm arrived, during the hearing, they moved from the great mahogany table to the windows of the Senate Office building for a look. Bennett remarked: "Gentlemen, that is Kansas blowing by."While the Soil Conservation Act was being debated before a Senate Committee in May 1934, Bennett delayed the hearing a day because he had been tracking a Southern Plains dust storm that was making its way up the Ohio Valley to the East Coast and Washington, D.C. Congress unanimously passed legislation making soil & water conservation a national policy and priority.
In 1935, the Soil Conservation Act was passed, which provided assistance and technical expertise to farmers and ranchers. BUT, in order to get conservation on the ground, officials would need to find a way to bridge the gap between the government and local landowners.
In an effort to create the local connection, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote to all of the State Governors in 1937 recommending legislation allowing landowners to form soil and water conservation districts.
Under Bennetts leadership, the Standard State Soil Conservation Districts Law was enacted in 1937 to establish local districts in each state to provide guidance on soil conservation activities.
In response, the Colorado General Assembly passed the Colorado Soil Conservation Act (House Bill 258) on May 6, 1937, which provided for the creation of local conservation districts to serve the soil and water conservation needs of the people.
The Colorado Soil Conservation Act (House Bill 258) passed on May 6, 1937. The first conservation district established under the Act was the Great Divide in Moffat County, now called Colorado First Conservation District, in December 1937.
Closely following were the Western Baca and the South East Baca Districts currently called Baca County Conservation District.
The Plainview and the Smoky Hill Districts were organized by the end of 1938 and are still in existence today as the Burlington Conservation District.
By 1941 there were 23 Districts organized and by 1969 there were 94 Districts.
In October of 1954, Governor Dan Thornton designated the State Soil Conservation Board as the official state agency to carry out the state functions as required under Public Law No. 566.
In 2002 legislation was passed to move the State Conservation Program from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources to the Colorado Department of Agriculture and to remove "soil" from the names of districts to better reflect the current broader activities of the conservation districts in the state.
The districts continue to work for constructive land use providing for the conservation and preservation of natural resources, including adequate underground water reserves, the control of wind and water erosion, noxious weed control and the reduction of damage resulting from floods across the entire state. Today there are 76 conservation districts with the state agency housed in the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA), Conservation Services Division.
In 1946, 32 soil conservation districts met in Washington, DC to form the National Association of Soil Conservation Districts (NASCD).
Over 1600 districts had already formed.
Early conservation district leaders recognized the need for a unified message to policy makers. Today there are nearly 3000 conservation districts nationwide.
KEY POINTSThere are currently 76 Conservation Districts in Colorado.
The Dust Bowl was the driving factor for the development of conservation districts.
The Dust Bowl lasted from 1931 to 1939.