Conservation Movement

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Popular wisdom has it that in times of scarcity or economic contraction the relative luxury of land or resource conservation loses its viability and appeal. Yet, during the Great Depression, the conservation movement, which had reached an apogee during the Progressive era, continued within a core of organizations and especially within the federal government to evolve as the New Deal linked conservation projects with its relief programs.

The Depression in agriculture that accompanied the end of World War I had drawn the attention of economists and agricultural planners to the challenges of inefficient agriculture and overproduction. Agricultural economists and politicians had spent the 1920s casting about for a solution to deflated commodity prices, and most had been attracted to the idea of parity price controls and government intervention in the marketing of agricultural surpluses. Yet, with the onset of nationwide Depression in 1929, and especially by 1931, many of the most progressive of the nation's planners and agricultural economists had begun to discuss land utilization and overproduction as the most pressing concerns facing American agriculture. The leading thinkers of this latter group, M. L. Wilson, Rexford G. Tugwell, Henry A. Wallace, and L. C. Gray, entered the upper ranks of the agricultural establishment after the inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and they were pivotal in determining federal conservation policy during the Depression. The principal accomplishments of the conservation movement during the 1930s took place mostly within the programs of federal government through the coordination of forward-thinking policymakers.


Tugwell suggested in 1934 that the moment for action on conservation measures had arrived, not only because of the national emergency and its economic causes, but also because of the new leadership in which the American people had placed their trust. Roosevelt was a natural leader for conservationist thinking in government because of his concern for the conservation of resources and the efficiency of agriculture and forestry, which he had demonstrated during his career as a farmer and politician in New York state. In a speech in Montgomery, Alabama, in January 1933 the incoming president encompassed many of his ideas about conservation and planning: "We have an opportunity of setting an example of planning not just for ourselves but for the generations to come, tying in industry and agriculture and forestry and flood prevention, tying them all into a unified whole . . . so that we can afford better opportunities and better places for living for millions of yet unborn, in the days to come."

The continuation of the conservation movement during the Great Depression was most evident in federal land use planning, and the conservation projects of the New Deal were deeply rooted in progressive ideas about efficient land use that had characterized the early twentieth century. Significant among these was the identification and retirement of so-called submarginal land (agricultural land unsuited for the purposes for which it was being used), a project that began in divisions of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). Retiring surplus, unprofitable farmland from production had been an element of New York's land use planning programs under Governor Roosevelt during the 1920s, but not until the New Deal did federal agencies embrace the idea of promoting similar reforms in land use. In 1935, the Tugwell's Resettlement Administration took over the land utilization and land retirement work of the AAA and FERA, and attempted, in spite of widespread opposition, to conserve human and natural resources through the reorganization of the agricultural landscape.

Another corrective conservation measure, the Shelterbelt Project, was in part a response to the dust storms of the mid-1930s. The Shelterbelt was designed to include the planting of over two hundred million trees along the country's 100th meridian as a means of moderating drought and reducing dust storms, thus protecting crops and livestock.

Soil conservation was no less important to the prevention of dust storms and agricultural inefficiency, and shortly after $5 million was allotted to erosion control in 1933, Ickes created the Soil Erosion Service (SES) in the Department of Interior, where it developed into an agency committed to spreading the use of such techniques as contour plowing and strip farming. With a 1934 study the SES drew attention to the plague of erosion, reporting that within the United States only 578 million of over two billion acres were unaffected by soil loss. In March 1935 the SES was transferred to the Department of Agriculture and renamed the Soil Conservation Service. In 1936, in response to the growing awareness of the destructive powers of erosion, Congress passed the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act, which offered inducements to farmers for replacing soil-draining commercial crops like cotton, wheat, or corn with grasses and legumes that returned nutrients to the soil and remained rooted in the soil yearlong. This legislative descendent of the AAA linked conservation to the earlier aims of reducing production, and it gave soil protection a permanent place in government.

Regional planning was no less important a part of the federal agenda during the New Deal, and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) embodied regional planning through the development of dams that provided flood control and generated electricity, the construction of new highways, and agricultural reforms that combined to transform the economic life of the region. Though no other regions received as much reorganization as the Tennessee Valley, this model of intensive regional planning informed national policies elsewhere.

The nation's forests were another subject of widespread interest among government officials, and the Forest Service's 1933 National Plan for American Forestry recommended that the federal government begin purchasing cutover and tax-delinquent land. As a consequence, between 1933 and 1936 the federal government doubled the size of the national forest system.

Work in the national forests was performed in large part by one of Roosevelt's, and the nation's, favorite New Deal programs, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which was designed as a refuge for the millions of unemployed young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. Corps enrollees worked on both private and public land, constructing trails, reforesting national parks and forests, working to prevent erosion, and fighting forest fires, among dozens of other pursuits. The CCC's work offered tangible proof of the federal government's interest in the conservation of both human and natural resources, and as it offered new opportunities to the nation's young men it furthered the conservation agenda dramatically in the years preceding World War II.

With the national appeal of programs like the CCC and the growing attention in government to conservation issues, the historic conflict between the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Interior over programs and power continued. During the 1930s Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace and Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes battled for control over the New Deal conservation projects. Both administrators saw the logic of combining the conservation functions of government in one department, but both also sought control over the programs. Ickes sought to change the name of the Department of the Interior to the Department of Conservation and Works, with an associated swapping of bureaus with Agriculture, but Wallace refused, arguing that the functions of forestry and soil conservation belonged with other agricultural pursuits in his department. Ultimately, in 1935 and 1936, both President Roosevelt and Congress refused to consolidate the government's conservation programs into one department, and the distribution of conservation bureaus through the several departments remains to the present.


Outside government, such advocacy groups as the Sierra Club similarly worked during the Depression to forward their agenda of expanding and preserving national parks, forests, and monuments, like Death Valley, Kings Canyon, and Olympic National Park. A newcomer to the conservation movement during the Depression was the Wilderness Society, founded by a small group of wilderness advocates who rejected the growing automobility of recreation and devoted themselves to the preservation of wilderness. One of the founding members, Benton MacKaye, who worked for the TVA during the early 1930s, had been a primary advocate for the creation of the Appalachian Trail. MacKaye was concerned that the natural areas for which conservation activists had worked during the 1920s were being threatened by unprecedented government intrusion into conservation and recreational development. The Wilderness Society campaigned against the government's make-work programs, such as the Shenandoah National Park's Skyline Drive, which brought tourists—and their cars—to the wildest parts of the nation's parks and forests.

By the end of the 1930s, hundreds of millions of acres of land had come under federal management and been improved by the labor of relief workers. The subsidies and supervision provided to agriculture and public lands through the various federal agencies meant that the landscapes of production and recreation had changed, with conservation being a new and fundamental aspect of agricultural and land-management policy within the federal government.



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Sara M. Gregg

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Conservation Movement

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