History of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (formerly the Soil Conservation Service) and the National Association of Conservation Districts*
It is hard to imagine that only a few decades ago little was known in the United States about soil conservation. The knowledge taken for granted today simply didn’t exist. Soil erosion was considered a local farm difficulty well into the 1920’s.
The man who brought it to the nation’s attention was a soil surveyor with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Hugh Hammond Bennett. Eroded cropland was a common sight when he started mapping soil in 1903. During the next two decades Bennett became convinced that soil erosion was a national problem – a threat to agricultural productivity.
Events would bear him out. Production rose as World War I increased demand for farm products. Prices were high and more and more marginal land, especially on the fragile soils of the Great Plains, was plowed up for wheat. With the end of the war came agricultural depression. Farms weren’t as worried about their resources as they were about surpluses and failing prices. In the South, things weren’t any better. Cotton continued to dominate southern agriculture. When the price dropped to five cents a pound, southern farmers responded by plowing more land and cultivating steeper slopes. Erosion took its toll.
Then, in October 1929, came the stock market crash and the industrial economy joined the farm economy in deep depression. This was a bleak period for the American Dream. Formerly fertile land, overworked in the boom years, was now eroded, sun baked and dust-covered. Farms were abandoned, and homeless families were on the road looking for any kind of work.
As if there weren’t misery enough, a severe drought over-ran the Great Plains. Giant clouds of dust rose from the dry land, from abused rangeland, and from fields devoured by insects. The soil blew from farms in Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas and the Dakotas as far east as Washington, D. C. and into the sea beyond. So was born the infamous Dust Bowl. The land was stripped of productive soil. And men and women were stripped of hope and ambition.
It was in the setting – depleted land in the South, eroded land in the Corn Belt, and devastated land in the Plains – that Americans finally awakened to the fact that land was perishable. Land could be destroyed and it could impoverish its people.
Congress acted and in 1929 provided $160,000 to study soil erosion. The money was used to set up the first erosion experiment station in the world in Guthrie, Oklahoma, and in nine other locations. The findings were dramatized to alert the public to the seriousness of soil erosion. In charge of the research was Hugh Bennett, who, with W. R. Chapline had published a milestone circular, “Soil Erosion, a National Menace”.
By 1933, Bennett was the most knowledgeable erosion specialist in the country. He was looking for ways to demonstrate his theories; and President Franklin D. Roosevelt was looking for ways to put people to work. In 1933, Bennett was named to head the new Soil Erosion Service, set up by the Secretary of the Interior, to employ men on erosion control projects. This unit became a permanent federal agency in April 1935 – the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (now known as the Natural Resources Conservation Service).
Bennett was by now evangelist for soil conservation, and spoke to individual farmers and groups wherever he could. “Soil conservation is essential,” he said, “whether we are ready to admit it or not. The ravages of unrestrained farming have left us in a situation where we have no more land to waste”.
And the soil conservation movement began, couched in demonstrations around the country. The first was the Coon Creek project in Wisconsin, started in August 1933. Bennett enlisted the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), made up of young men from cities and farms who needed work. The CCC boys healed gullies, planted trees, established contour cropping patterns, and built drop inlets and grass waterways to slow down excess water from rainstorms.
Soil conservation demonstrations were set up in practically every state, and thousands of framers came out to see what conservation practices were all about. But demonstrations alone would never be enough, as one USDA official wrote; “We must somehow devise a method by which we c
ans say to the farmers and ranchers of America, you take the initiative, we will help you”.
And the first seeds of the idea of conservation districts were planted.
In early 1937, President Roosevelt sent a letter to the governors of all the states: “My Dear Governor (he wrote): The dust storms and the floods of the last few years have underscored the importance of programs to control soil erosion. I need not emphasize to you the seriousness of the problem and t
he desirability of our taking effective action, as a Nation, and in the several states, to conserve the soil as our basic asset. The Nation that destroys itself…” He ended the letter this way: “I’m sending you several copies of the Standard State Soil Conservation District Laws. I hope that you will see fit to make the adoption of legislation along the lines of the Standard Act part of the agricultural program for you state”.
Arkansas and Oklahoma were the first to act. By the end of 1937, 23 states had district laws. By 1947, all the states and Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico had soil conservation district laws. The Arizona Association of Conservation Disricts was formed in 1944. The first district, the Brown Creek Soil Conservation District, was organized in Anson County, North Carolina, the home of Dr. Bennett, in August 1937. By 1945, there were more than 1300 districts, primarily in areas where erosion by water was most severe. Five years later, the Midwest and a large portion of the Great Plains began to fill in districts. Then the remaining states followed suit with their own districts. Today, there are nearly 3,000 districts – typically one for each county covering nearly all nonfederal lands.
From the beginning, the district approach to soil and water conservation was a marked success. Farmers took the initiative and sought the help of SCS field employees in establishing crop rotations and other soil conservation measures. Encouraged by friends and neighbors, more and more farmers and ranchers signed up as cooperators with local soil conservation districts. Farmer’s often used homemade transits to lay out contours, homemade irrigation equipment to help crops live through dry spells, and simple but effective devices to build terraces. Earthen dams were built with plenty of horse and muscle power. Even the old Dust Bowl began to be healed. Those who doubted the claims of conservationist could see for themselves what conservation practices could do. In the west, ranchers began to restore unproductive rangelands, many with a return to drought tolerant, deep rooted native grasses. The face of rural America began to change from one of careless exploitation to planned husbandry of soil and water. The change to conservation farming was so rapid that by World War II, America was able to meet record farm production goals without seriously damaging basic resources.
We’ve come a long way in correcting our mistakes and achieving a better understanding of environmental needs. Today, two out of every five acres of farmland are adequately protected against erosion. Along the way, we’ve achieved an international reputation in the field of soil and water conservation. We’ve learned that no single program or agency or group can solve the nation’s soil and water problems. A single approach – federal, state, or local – has proven to be a panacea, nor were any sacrifice, and leadership of a million farmers and ranchers, the support of professional organizations and associations, and the dedication of people from all walks of life who feel a sincere stewardship for the land.
*Quoted entirely from a document found in a WNRCD supervisor files. Author is unknown. Some statistics, i.e. numbers of existing districts and acreages, have changed since this article was written.
Arizona’s NRCD’s and the Winkelman NRCD
Arizona passed its Conservation District Law in 1941. That legislation described its mission as follows: “It is declared the policy of the legislature to provide for the restoration and conservation of lands and soil resources of the state, the preservation of water rights and the control and prevention of soil erosion, and thereby to conserve natural resources, conserve wildlife, protect the tax base, protect public lands and protect and restore this state’s rivers and streams and associated riparian habitats, including fish and wildlife resources that are dependent on those habitats, and in such manner to protect and promote the public health, safety and general welfare of the people”. By 1942, the Secretary of State certified eight Natural Resource Conservation Districts (NRCDs) in Arizona. Now, in 2012 there are 41 districts in Arizona. Of the 41, 9 are Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs). SWCDs and NRCDs have the same basic objectives except that SWCDs are administered under tribal law. NRCDs are political subdivisions of state government and are administered under state law through the Arizona State Land Department. However, districts operate independently of the State Land Department.
A 1991 survey conducted by the Arizona State Land Department showed that 183 district supervisors and advisors at the time contributed approximately 40,000 man-hours on NRCD programs per year which had an annual value of approximately $750,000, a fairly good return on the money appropriated for the districts. In 2001, Arizona invested $500,000 in the NRCDs and, through programs administered through the NRCDs, received approximately $25,000,000 in federal and private monies which generated approximately $1,000,000 in taxes. This is approximately a $40.00 return for every dollar spent! That’s a major reason why, in 2002 during the extreme state budget crisis, the districts were one of the only entities to receive their full funding.
The Winkelman Natural Resource Conservation District
The Winkelman Natural Resource Conservation District (WNRCD) was organized and became functional under the State of Arizona Soil Conservation District Las in October 1948. The Certificate of Organization was issued by the State Attorney General on October 4, 1948, and by November 16, 1948, the original program and work plan for the district was approved by the District Board of Supervisors. The District included 6,200 acres owned and 48 individuals. D. O. Shartzer was the first Chairman of the district. M. S. Wilkins and Paul F. Adams were the other two elected supervisors. On October 16, 1948, the district entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the USDA Soil Conservation Service. Hugh H. Bennett was the Chief of the Soil Conservation Service at the time.
The Winkelman NRCD now includes approximately 1,609,470 acres. Less than 1,500 acres of that is irrigated farmland. The remaining acres not within towns, cities or mine lands are rangeland. Land ownership is a combination of private, state, and federal lands. Portions of the Tonto and Coronado National Forests lie within the district boundaries. The district also has Bureau of Land Management Lands (BLM), Arizona State Trust Lands (ASLD) and private lands. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service technical assistance is provided by the Tucson Field and Area Offices.
The Winkelman NRCD is located in the eastern part of Pinal County, the southwest corner of Gila County, a small area in the southwest corner of Graham County, and a small area in northeast Pima County. In the north lies the Pinal Mountains, to the east are the Galiuro Mountains, to the south are the Catalina Mountains, and to the west lies the desert land near Picacho Reservoir. Substantial portions of two of Arizona’s major rivers, the San Pedro and the Gila, wind through the district.
Land uses other than agriculture in the district include mining, recreation, urban areas, and preserves. Two major mining activities lie within the district, as well as two gypsum mines, and various sand and gravel operations. Recreation involves hunting, fishing, hiking, off-highway vehicular use, bird watching, camping, and sightseeing. Residential areas include Oracle, San Manuel, Mammoth, Dudleyville, Winkelman, Kearny, and a small part of Catalina.
WNRCD land ownership
As in other districts, the WNRCD has five supervisors, three of which are elected and two appointed by the State Land Commissioner. All NRCD supervisors “exercise a portion of the sovereign power of the State of Arizona in the performance of their duties and are PUBLIC OFFICERS”. Thus, the general laws of the State pertaining to “public officers” applies to NRCD supervisors. The current supervisors of the Winkelman NRCD are William Dunn, Francie Meyer, Gary Vinson, Peter Else, and Stephen Turcotte. Regular meetings are held quarterly on the third Wednesday of every January, April, July, and October. All district supervisors are unpaid volunteers although some supervisor’s expenses incurred while doing business can be paid by district funds. Likewise, all cooperation with the district is strictly voluntary.
While in some Arizona districts the supervisors address the needs of the district, the Winkelman NRCD encourages its cooperators, local organizations, federal, state and local agencies, and other citizens of the district to be involved in district activities. Attendance at a regular Winkelman NRCD meeting averages between 30 and 55 people! Cooperators and other district citizens talk and intermingle with agency people which encourage mutual respect and open communication between everyone. This facilitates problem solving before an issue gets blown out of control.
The stated goal of the Winkelman NRCD is “to support and encourage the proper and wise sustained use and management of our basic renewable and non-renewable natural resources utilizing sound science and valid on–ground experience.” The District attempts to provide leadership in order to promote good management of the natural resources of the district through coordination conservation and development programs resulting in the wise use of lands within the district.