Soil Conservation Service (SCS)

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In April 1935 the U.S. Congress passed the Soil Conservation Act, which created the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) within the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and declared that the federal government bore permanent responsibility for reducing water and wind erosion of the nation's soils. The SCS included more than ten thousand permanent and part-time employees, and utilized the labor of some 450 Civilian Conservation Corps units. The SCS also operated twenty-three research stations, where it studied the causes, extent, and prevention of soil erosion.

Before the creation of the SCS, soil conservation had not figured prominently in government policy and had been overseen variously by the Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Chemistry and Soils, by county agricultural extension agents, and from 1933 to 1935 by the Soil Erosion Service, a temporary agency in the Department of Interior. President Franklin Roosevelt transferred the Soil Erosion Service to the USDA in March 1935, only weeks before the SCS was created. The Great Depression, coupled with the massive dust storms that swept the country's southern Plains in the spring of 1935, compelled the federal government to address the urgent and related problems of the depressed agricultural economy and the squandering and mismanagement of the nation's natural resources.

The Soil Conservation Service was headed by Hugh Hammond Bennett, who had directed the Soil Erosion Service. Bennett had been advocating soil conservation since the early twentieth century. In 1928, he warned that soil erosion posed a "menace" to the nation's food supply and prosperity. In 1934, experts from the Soil Erosion Service estimated that more than 260 million acres of American cropland had been severely damaged by water and erosion. The following year, Bennett estimated that more than 50 million acres had been so severely damaged that they were no longer arable.

The SCS addressed the problem of soil erosion by creating "demonstration projects" in which the Service cooperated with landowners to implement conservation measures. The SCS assisted farmers in devising and implementing soil conservation plans for their land. In exchange for the landowner's agreement to cooperate for a five-year period and to contribute his labor, the SCS supplied technical advice, materials, and additional labor. The Service urged farmers and ranchers voluntarily to plant ground cover vegetation to protect vulnerable soils, to rotate crops and allow fields to occasionally lie fallow, to build terraces and use contour plowing to retain soil moisture, and to refrain from planting crops on highly erodible land.

Although more than fifty thousand farmers participated in SCS demonstration projects, attacking the widespread problem of soil erosion one farm at a time was costly and inefficient. In 1936, therefore, the SCS published a model statute that would enable farmers to create a soil conservation district in their vicinity, which could stipulate land use practices within the district. Many state governments passed laws permitting farmers to form soil conservation districts, but many farmers and state legislators were reluctant to grant districts the power to require landowners to comply with district regulations, and soil conservation efforts remained largely voluntary.



Hardin, Charles M. The Politics of Agriculture: Soil Conservation and the Struggle for Power in Rural America. 1952.

Held, R. Burnell, and Marion Clawson. Soil Conservation in Perspective. 1965.

Nixon, Edgar, ed. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Conservation,1911–1945, 2 vols. 1957.

Owen, A. L. Riesch. Conservation under FDR. 1983.

Simms, D. Harper. The Soil Conservation Service. 1970.

Steiner, Frederick R. Soil Conservation in the United States:Policy and Planning. 1990.

Worster, Donald. Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the1930s. 1979.

Chris Rasmussen