Soil Conservation Act (1935)

President Roosevelt signed the Soil Conservation Act on April 27, 1935 [1]. The law was designed “To provide for the protection of land resources against soil erosion, and for other purposes” [2].

A driving force behind the creation of the Soil Conservation Act was the severe drought that was occurring in the Great Plains: “Perhaps no event did more to emphasize the severity of the erosion crisis in the popular imagination than the Dust Bowl. Beginning in 1932, persistent drought conditions on the Great Plains caused widespread crop failures and exposed the region’s soil to blowing wind. A large dust storm on May 11, 1934 swept fine soil particles over Washington, D.C. and three hundred miles out into the Atlantic Ocean” [3].

In addition to the disaster of the Dust Bowl, prominent figures like President Roosevelt and soil expert Hugh Bennett pushed natural resource conservation to the forefront. Bennett, who has been called “the father of Soil Conservation” [4], wrote an influential article with William Ridgely Chapline in 1928 titled, “Soil Erosion: A National Menace.” The men included dramatic photographs of soil erosion in their article and in Part I Bennett wrote: “Removal of forest growth, grass and shrubs and breaking the ground surface by cultivation, the trampling of livestock, etc., accentuate erosion to a degree far beyond that taking place under average natural conditions.” Bennett warned that unless soil erosion was properly addressed there would be “an enormous increase in the abandonment of farm lands” [5].

It would take a number of years for the nation to heed Bennett’s warning but, with the New Deal, the federal government acted decisively. With funds from the newly-passed National Industrial Recovery Act, a Soil Erosion Service (SES) was created in 1933, with Hugh Bennett in charge. Next, after continued drought and further advocacy by Bennett, the Soil Conservation Act was passed in 1935, creating a more permanent Soil Conservation Service (SCS) [6]. The law had a sense of urgency and even used a word from the title of Bennett and Chapline’s famous article: “It is hereby recognized that the wastage of soil and moisture resources on farm, grazing, and forest lands of the Nation, resulting from soil erosion, is a menace to the national welfare…” The Soil Conservation Act called for the protection of America’s soil to “preserve natural resources, control floods, prevent impairment of reservoirs, and maintain the navigability of rivers and harbors, protect public health, public lands and relieve unemployment…” [7].

In 1936, the nation further refined its soil and agricultural policy with the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act, which amended the Soil Conservation Act in order to enhance federal-state coordination, discourage the over-use of land, assist tenants and sharecroppers, and help create stable and adequate prices for farm goods [8]. Roosevelt signed the law on February 29, 1936, and the next day stated: “The United States, as evidenced by the progressive public opinion and vigorous demand which resulted in the enactment of this law, is now emerging from its youthful stage of heedless exploitation and is beginning to realize the supreme importance of treating the soil well” [9].

For more details on how America’s soil was protected during these critical years, see our summary of the Soil Conservation Service (SCS).

Sources: (1) “80 Years Helping People Help the Land: A Brief History of NRCS,” Natural Resources Conservation Service, http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/about/history/?cid=nrcs143_021392, accessed August 22, 2015. (2) Soil Conservation Act (full text), The National Agricultural Law Center, http://nationalaglawcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/assets/farmbills/soilconserv1935.pdf, accessed August 22, 2015. (3) See note 1. (4) Ibid. (5) H.H. Bennett and W.R. Chapline, “Soil Erosion: A National Menace,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, Circular No. 33, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, April, 1928, pp. 1 and 22. (6) See note 1. (7) See note 2, emphasis added. (8) Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1936, The National Agricultural Law Center, http://nationalaglawcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/assets/farmbills/soilconserv1936.pdf, accessed August 22, 2015. (9) “Statement on Signing the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act,” American Presidency Project, University of California – Santa Barbara, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=15254, accessed August 22, 2015.