The Dust Bowl of the 1930’s covered 300,000 square miles of territory located in Kansas, Texas, western Oklahoma, eastern Colorado, and New Mexico. With successive storms, the wind and the flying dust cut off wheat stalks at ground level and tore out the roots. Blowing dirt shifted from one field to another, burying crops not yet carried away from the wind. Cattle tried to eat the dust-laden grass and filled their stomachs with fatal “mud balls.” Strong winds blew away an average of 480 tons of topsoil per acre, degrading soil productivity, harming health, and damaging air quality. In the hardest-hit areas, agriculture virtually ceased. The dust banked against houses and farm buildings like snow, and buried fences up to the post tops. Dirt penetrated into automobile engines and clogged the vital parts. Housewives fought vainly to keep it out of their homes, but it seeped in through cracks and crevices, through wet blankets hung over windows, through oiled cloths and tape, covering everything with grit. Hospitals reported hundreds of patients suffering from “dust pneumonia.” The black blizzards struck so suddenly that many farmers became lost in their own fields and suffocated, some literally within yards of shelter. More than 350,000 people fled the Great Plains during the 1930s.
The Dust Bowl was one of the most severe environmental crises in North America in the twentieth century. Severe drought and damaging wind erosion hit in the Great Plains in 1930 and lasted through 1940 The leading historian of the Dust Bowl, Donald Worster, described it in the following way: “In no other instance was there greater or more sustained damage to the American land, and there have been few times when so much tragedy was visited on its inhabitants. Not even the Depression was more devastating, economically … in the decade of the 1930s the dust storms of the plains were an unqualified disaster” (1979, p. 24).
Similar droughts and wind occurred later in the 1950s and 1970s in the Great Plains, but there is a general consensus among soil conservationists that there was no comparable level of erosion.
Conservation Districts had their beginning in the 1930s as a result of national concerns over mounting agricultural erosion, floods and the sky-blackening dust storms that swept across the country. Congress enacted the Soil Conservation Act of 1935, which established a national policy for the control and prevention of soil erosion, and directed the Secretary of Agriculture to establish the Soil Conservation Service to implement this policy.
The agency was founded largely through the efforts of Hugh Hammond Bennett, a soil conservation pioneer who had worked for the Department of Agriculture from 1903 to 1952. Bennett’s motivation was based on his knowledge of the detrimental effects of soil erosion and the impacts on U.S lands that led to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. On September 13, 1933, the Soil Erosion Service was formed in the Department of the Interior, with Bennett as chief. The service was transferred to the Department of Agriculture on March 23, 1935, and was combined with other USDA units to form the Soil Conservation Service by the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1935. Hugh Bennett continued as chief, a position he held until his retirement in 1952. On October 20, 1994, the agency was renamed to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) as part of the Federal Crop Insurance Reform and Department of Agriculture Reorganization Act of 1994.
The Conservation District concept was developed to enlist the cooperation of landowners and occupiers in carrying out the programs authorized by the act. In 1937, President Roosevelt wrote to the governors of all the states recommending legislation that would allow local landowners to form soil conservation districts. Congress realized that only active, voluntary support from landowners would guarantee the success of conservation work on private land given that about 75% of the continental United States was privately owned. The Dust Bowl taught everyone a valuable history lesson.
Conservation districts are government entities that provide technical assistance and tools to manage and protect land and water resources in U.S. states and insular areas. Known in various parts of the country as “soil and water conservation districts,” “resource conservation districts,” “natural resource 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 an effort to develop locally-driven solutions to natural resource concerns. Conservation Districts are generally coordinated by non-governmental associations. District borders often coincide with county borders.
There are more than 3,000 in the United States. Colorado has 76 Conservation Districts; more than 17,000 citizens nationwide serve in elected or appointed positions on conservation districts’ governing boards. The districts work directly with millions of cooperating land owners/managers nationwide to manage and protect natural resources. Conservation districts help to:
- Implement farm, ranch and forestland conservation practices which protect soil productivity, water quality and quantity, air quality and wildlife habitat
- Conserve and restore wetlands, which purify water and provide habitat for birds, fish and numerous other animals
- Protect groundwater resources
- Assist communities and homeowners in tree planting and other land cover to hold soil in place, clean the air, provide cover for wildlife and beautify neighborhoods
- Help developers control soil erosion and protect water and air quality during construction
- Reach out to communities and schools to teach the value of natural resources and encourage conservation efforts
Conservation districts nationwide continually adapt to newly emerging conservation challenges such as: Drinking Water and Aquifer Protection, Wetland Protection and Restoration Preservation of Farmland and Open Space, Curbing Urban Sprawl with Wise Planning and Sound Development Practices , Protecting Aquatic Resources through better Stormwater Management.
The unique partnership of the NRCS and the Conservation Districts is alive and well today. Here in the upper Rio Grande Basin, we have five conservation districts: Center, Conejos, Costilla, Mosca-Hooper and Rio Grande that work collaboratively with the Natural Resource Conservation Service. The groups are housed in combined offices in San Luis, Alamosa and Center, where they work with both large and small private landowners to enhance their on the ground conservation. NRCS employees provide technical assistance based on sound science which is suited to a customer’s specific needs. NRCS provides financial assistance for many conservation activities. Participation in NRCS programs is voluntary; the Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA) program provides voluntary conservation technical assistance to land-users, communities, units of state and local government, and other Federal agencies in planning and implementing conservation systems. The Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Conservation Districts reach out to all segments of the community, including underserved and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, to ensure that programs and services are accessible to everyone.