Soil Conservation Service Is Established Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Soil Conservation Service was established to alleviate problems created by the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s, in which some of the nation’s most productive topsoil blew away as a result of poor land management.

Summary of Event

The Great Depression and the drought of the early 1930’s alerted U.S. leaders to the need for government to take a more active role in resource management. During President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration, a number of initiatives were introduced, and in 1935 Congress passed the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act, which established the Soil Conservation Service (SCS). Although the findings from field research at experimental erosion stations, the worldwide economic depression, and dust storms resulting from drought conditions were all important considerations, the legislation was largely passed as a result of efforts by Hugh Hammond Bennett, the father of modern soil conservation in the United States, who used his knowledge to garner political support for national soil-conservation programs. [kw]Soil Conservation Service Is Established (Apr. 27, 1935) [kw]Conservation Service Is Established, Soil (Apr. 27, 1935) Soil Conservation Service Conservation;soil Dust Bowl;soil conservation Topsoil conservation Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act (1935) [g]United States;Apr. 27, 1935: Soil Conservation Service Is Established[08900] [c]Environmental issues;Apr. 27, 1935: Soil Conservation Service Is Established[08900] [c]Natural resources;Apr. 27, 1935: Soil Conservation Service Is Established[08900] [c]Organizations and institutions;Apr. 27, 1935: Soil Conservation Service Is Established[08900] [c]Government and politics;Apr. 27, 1935: Soil Conservation Service Is Established[08900] Bennett, Hugh Hammond Wilson, Milburn L. Roosevelt, Franklin D. [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;New Deal

Concern for soil erosion was common in the United States, especially in the South. After observing contour plowing in France, Thomas Jefferson and his brother-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph, introduced the method in Virginia. By 1850, contour plowing was common in the South. The Southwest Soil and Water Conservation conference, held in Texas in 1929, helped to bring attention to the problem of soil erosion. Still, soil erosion did not warrant national concern until the Great Depression of the 1930’s, when the connection between poor soils and poor people became apparent.

During the 1930’s, millions of people were unemployed and desperate for work. The market system did not appear to be functioning, and the nation’s economic woes were exacerbated by the drought. During the 1932 presidential election campaign, Franklin D. Roosevelt promised to do something about the stagnant economy and high unemployment rate by offering people a “New Deal,” and after his inauguration in 1933, he initiated a large-scale government-spending program. One aspect of this initiative was the National Industrial Recovery Act (1933), National Industrial Recovery Act (1933) a broad-based act that provided stimulus for all sectors of the economy. Although the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) was not established until 1935, its predecessor, the Soil Erosion Service, Soil Erosion Service was established as a temporary agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior under the 1933 act. When the Civilian Conservation Corps Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was established in 1933, several hundred CCC camps were assigned to the Soil Erosion Service, giving impetus to erosion-control efforts.

Bennett, a soil scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was employed to direct the Soil Erosion Service. He had firsthand experience with soil erosion in North Carolina; moreover, he had seen the effects of erosion while working as a surveyor and as a supervisor of surveys in the South. In 1928, he and W. R. Chapline published a paper titled “Soil Erosion: A National Menace.” This U.S. Department of Agriculture publication, along with other articles that appeared in such widely read publications as Nature, Geographical Review, and Farm Journal, alerted politicians and the public to the severity of the nation’s erosion problem.

When Bennett took control of the Soil Erosion Service in 1933, his budget was $5 million. Soil-conservation projects were strategically located in watersheds near erosion-control experiment stations so that the research findings could be readily employed, and farmers signed five-year cooperative agreements to employ the recommended conservation measures. In return, the Soil Erosion Service provided them with equipment, seeds, seedlings, lime, fertilizer, soil-conservation assistance, and labor from the CCC or the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Many of the conservation practices promoted by the Soil Erosion Service were not new. Various methods in a conservation system, however, were designed specifically for each individual farm. For example, strip cropping under longer rotation was encouraged for hay and small grain crops. Administrators also emphasized pasture management by using fertilizers and fencing off woodland from grazing in hilly areas to reduce runoff, and many farmers were introduced to grassed outlets, grassed waterways, and grade stabilization techniques.


The Soil Erosion Service was shifted from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Agriculture and was given permanent status under the Soil Conservation Act. Its name was changed to the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), and its responsibilities centered on planning and conducting a national program to conserve and develop the nation’s soil and water resources. If not for the activities of the Soil Conservation Service, the physical landscape of the United States would be much less stable.

CCC workers conducted a number of demonstration projects. Seeds for nursery production of seedlings were collected for reforestation, native grasses were used to revegetate rangeland in semiarid regions, water filtration was enhanced by water-spreading systems and contour furrows, and livestock grazing was redistributed with the use of stock-watering in ponds and springs. Demonstration projects aimed at improving rangeland through range management were also implemented on Native American reservations. The demonstration projects’ results were so convincing, in fact, that farmers who visited areas where these projects were being implemented also began to ask for assistance.

Realizing that the CCC and WPA workers would be available only temporarily, the assistant secretary of agriculture, Milburn L. Wilson, devised a plan for making a sustained supply of conservation expertise available to farmers. His plan called for the development of soil-conservation districts, which provided for greater local participation in the planning operations. The Standard State Conservation Districts Law was sent to state governors on February 27, 1937, by President Roosevelt. After each state passed the law, districts were organized around local watersheds or county boundaries, and supervisors were elected. Districts signed agreements with the Department of Agriculture, which provided nearly three thousand districts with trained soil conservationists, who worked directly with farmers. Through these planning districts, the SCS developed a land-classification system and associated soil management practices that did much to restore the fertility of American soils after periods of degradation.

Over the years, the responsibilities of the Soil Conservation Service grew to include a variety of tasks, and the SCS tried to promote soil conservation in a number of ways. Soil conservation was enhanced by employing conservation methods based on scientific research findings, by developing an agency of technically trained personnel to carry out soil conservation in farm communities, and by creating soil-conservation districts. Furthermore, the agency shared in the cost of establishing and implementing soil-conservation practices.

A Soil Conservation Service poster emphasizes the importance of good farming practices.


The Soil Conservation Service came to be widely recognized for its soil surveys and maps. The surveys examined the soil’s physical attributes, revealing such information as soil moisture, texture, slope, erosion, and chemistry. This information was supplemented by laboratory studies and was used for selecting sites for specific land uses. Each soil survey described the key characteristics of soils in a survey area, classified and named the soil according to a nationwide system, provided information on the potential and limitations of soils for various uses, and showed the soil distribution on a detailed map. More than one billion acres of land were mapped, and maps of millions of additional acres were added each year. The soil surveys and maps were published, and the SCS also cooperated with other agencies that prepared special reports and maps relevant to soil surveys.

More than one hundred new plants were identified by the Soil Conservation Service’s Plant Materials Center. This group searched for plants that lend themselves to stabilizing waste disposal areas, extending grazing seasons, improving windbreaks and shelterbelts, and reducing air pollution, snow drift damage, and wind erosion. More than twenty-three thousand plants were examined after 1938, and more than one hundred were released for conservation purposes.

The Soil Conservation Service also became involved in a comprehensive system of land-resource conservation, and it analyzed alternate soil-conservation methods and management practices required to safeguard the soil under different cropping systems. The practices included such methods as no-till and minimum-tillage farming, contour plowing, terracing, strip cropping, stubble mulching, and the efficient use of fertilizers. On rangeland, the SCS pioneered the use of range inventory methods that incorporated ecological principles and concepts as well as practical methods for range management. Furthermore, thousands of pilot studies correlated soils with tree growth, and these analyses were made available to woodland conservationists.

Hundreds of millions of acres of land were restored or stabilized as a result of these practices, and farmers and other land users were given the latest information pertaining to crops and their use and management. Land users received assistance with wildlife conservation efforts, recreational land-use projects, and campaigns to prevent land-disturbing activities. The Food and Agriculture Act of 1962 authorized the Department of Agriculture to assist landowners with developing recreational resources. Nearly two million lakes and ponds were built on farms and ranches by the SCS, which also helped soil-conservation districts to help stabilize mine spoils and reclaim hundreds of millions of acres of land.

Watershed projects enacted in 1954 under the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act established soil- and water-conservation measures on private and public land and allowed for the construction of dams and other water-control structures on upstream tributaries to ensure effective water management. This activity was administered by the Soil Conservation Service, which also administered work on watersheds that was authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1944 Flood Control Act (1944) in eleven major watersheds covering about thirty million acres. These watershed projects helped control flooding and erosion while supplying water for irrigation, industrial, and municipal uses.

The Soil Conservation Service also became involved with some of the provisions of the Food Security Act of 1985. Under this program, SCS conservationists worked directly with farmers to determine soil erodibility as it applied to the preservation of wetlands. Some of the most erodible land was taken out of production and covered with protective vegetation, and farmers received rental payments in return. Although the effectiveness of soil-conservation efforts has been debated by some, the nation’s soils are much more protected as a result of the Soil Conservation Service’s work. In 1994, the Soil Conservation Service was subsumed under the National Resources Conservation Service, part of the Department of Agriculture. Soil Conservation Service Conservation;soil Dust Bowl;soil conservation Topsoil conservation Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act (1935)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bennett, Hugh H. “Soil.” In The American Environment: Readings in the History of Conservation, edited by Roderick Nash. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1968. A historical perspective of the soil-erosion problem in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Soils Conservation. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1939. A comprehensive view of soil erosion. Although not written as a history of soil conservation, Bennett’s persuasive argument for soil conservation is articulated. Soils are viewed as an essential natural resource that must be protected to secure the nation’s future.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Helms, Douglas. Readings in the History of the Conservation Service. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture. Soil Conservation Service, 1992. A collection of short articles by Douglas Helms, national historian for the Soil Conservation Service. The articles focus on a general history of the Soil Conservation Service, its origin, and selected historic activities, including involvement by women and minorities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Klee, Gary A. “Soil Resource Management.” In Conservation of Natural Resources. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1991. A brief historical view of misuse of soil that dates back to the Sumerian and Roman empires. An attempt is made to compare these ancient practices to more recent soil-conservation efforts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Merchant, Carolyn. The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. Discusses how humans and environment have interacted throughout American history, including human impacts on animal species. Includes an environmental history time line and an extensive guide to resources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nash, Roderick Frazier. Wilderness and the American Mind. 4th ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. An exploration of the physiological and psychological significance of wilderness, especially for Americans of European descent. The book looks to prehistoric humans, treats notions of the wilderness in classical and medieval Europe, and focuses on American efforts to define, explore, and conquer the wilderness up to the end of the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Steiner, Frederick R. Soil Conservation in the United States: Policy and Planning. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. Comprehensive view of soil erosion and related legislation in the United States. Examines the activities of the Soil Conservation Service and recommends a quantitative approach to soil conservation.

First U.S. National Wildlife Refuge Is Established

Pinchot Becomes Head of the U.S. Forest Service

Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources

Izaak Walton League Is Formed

U.S. Civilian Conservation Corps Is Established

Tennessee Valley Authority Is Created

Dust Bowl Devastates the Great Plains

Taylor Grazing Act

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Is Formed

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