Soil Conservation Service

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Soil Conservation Service

Soil erosion is an age-old problem recorded in many documents of human civilizations. In the United States, Simms traces concern for soil erosion, and attempts to combat it, back to the very first European settlers. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) bulletins on soil erosion date back at least to "Washed Soils: How to Prevent and Reclaim Them," dated 1894.

The contemporary Soil Conservation Service (SCS) was predated by the Bureau of Soils in the USDA, later called the Bureau of Chemistry and Soils. The catalyst for an action agency was Hugh Hammond Bennett , a soils scientist who went to work for the Bureau of Soils in 1903. From his urging, the USDA published the classic circular on "Soil Erosion, A National Menace," in 1928. Further pressure by Bennett resulted in the establishment of a temporary agency, the Soil Erosion Service, in the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1933, what Simms describes as "the first national action program of soil conservation anywhere in the world." Bennett was the agency's first director.

Hugh Bennett pushed his agenda hard, and his "primary tenet of soil conservation" can still be seen in the activities of the service today: "No single practice will suffice. A physical inventory of the land of the farm should be made, and each should be used in accordance with its adaptability and treated in accordance with its needs."

In 1935 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order transferring the Soil Erosion Service to the USDA. The Department of Agriculture immediately consolidated all of its activities bearing on erosion control into the agency. Also in 1935 the Soil Conservation Act was passed and signed into law, establishing a permanent Soil Conservation Service in the USDA, with Hugh Bennett as the first Director. In 1994 The Soil Conservation Service became the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

Scanning lists of publications from the Natural Resources Conservation Service shows work on a surprising range of contemporary conservation concerns. As one might expect, topping the list are numerous soil surveys of various counties in the United States: a soil survey of Esmeralda County, New York in 1991, one of the Asotin County area in Washington, and one of Crockett County, Tennessee. Less expected is a paper on salinity control in Colorado. Also included are status reports of various NRCS programs: status of water quantity and water quality programs, and the situation regarding wetlands and riparian programs. The NRCS also publishes a wide variety of maps, depicting, for example, major watersheds in Michigan, land resource regions and major land resource areas, and soil erosion in Colfax County, Nebraska.

The Service provides appropriate databases for computer research, including a pesticides properties database for environmental decision-making, state soil geographic databases, and a computer design for grassed waterways. The NRCS provides local landowners a "how-to" video (1990) on "Better Land, Better Water." The United States still has severe erosion problemsSteiner notes that "only 3.23% of the cropland in the United States was considered adequately protected by the NRCS in 1983." But, this and other conservation problems are not nearly as severe as they would be without Bennett's wisdom, foresight, and tenacity. He set the stage for 50 years of research and action by the national network of Natural Resources Conservation Service offices and agents.

[Gerald L. Young Ph.D. ]



Simms, D. H. The Soil Conservation Service. New York: Praeger, 1970.

Steiner, F. R. Soil Conservation in the United States: Policy and Planning. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.


Helms, D. "Conserving the Plains: The Soil Conservation Service in the Great Plains." Agricultural History 64 (Spring 1990): 5873+.