Known in various parts of the country as "soil and water conservation districts", "land conservation committees" and similar names, they share a single mission: to coordinate assistance from all available sources, public and private, local, state, and federal in effort to develop locally driven solutions to natural resource concerns.
Sixty years have dramatically changed the American landscape. In rural America, farmers use new technology to improve crop and livestock productivity while practicing environmental stewardship. Widespread conservation practices like planting trees and leaving crop residue on fields prevent soil from blowing and washing away. Land managers have altered their practices — from the way they till their land to the crops they plant and how much fertilizer they use — to protect the natural resources we all depend upon.
Although weather still acts as both friend and foe to the farmer, the Dust Bowl has taught everyone a distant but valuable history lesson. Today, conservation districts continually adapt to newly emerging challenges.
Farmers and ranchers are still challenged to properly manage manure and fertilizer so they do not contaminate water resources. Conservation efforts also focus on wetlands restoration, efficient irrigation and flood protection. Urban expansion poses a variety of problems, from threatening plant and animal habitat to compromising water quality.
Sprawling suburbia pushes forward other issues. Common construction practices often accelerate erosion, allowing sediment to wash into waterways. Homeowners often use too much fertilizer and pesticide in their yards, and that also ends up in the waterways.
In the early 1930s, along with the greatest depression this nation ever experienced, came an equally unparalleled ecological disaster known as the Dust Bowl. Following a severe and sustained drought in the Great Plains, the region’s soil began to erode and blow away, creating huge black dust storms that blotted out the sun and swallowed the countryside. Thousands of “dust refugees” left the black fog to seek better lives.
But the storms stretched across the nation. They reached south to Texas and east to New York. Dust even sifted into the White House and onto the desk of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
On Capitol Hill, while testifying about the erosion problem, soil scientist Hugh Hammond Bennett threw back the curtains to reveal a sky blackened by dust. Congress unanimously passed legislation declaring soil and water conservation a national policy and priority. Since about three-fourths of the continental United States is privately owned, Congress realized that only active, voluntary support from landowners would guarantee the success of conservation work on private land.
In 1937, President Roosevelt wrote the governors of all the states recommending legislation that would allow local landowners to form soil conservation districts.