Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act (1935) (Major Acts of Congress)
Kyle A. Loring
On April 27, 1935, Congress responded to the dual threats of soil erosion and agricultural overproduction by passing the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act (P.L. 46-74, 49 Stat. 163), the nation's first national soil conservation program. Although geologists had first warned the White House about the dangers of soil erosion in 1908, the federal government did not begin to react to this hazard until Hugh Bennet, a soil scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, published Soil Erosion: A National Menace in 1928. As a result, in 1929 Congress authorized soil conservation experiment stations and then in 1933 established the Soil Erosion Services (SES) to provide farmers with planning assistance and equipment, seeds, and seedlings. Then on May 12, 1934, the worst dust storm in the history of the United States grew out of the Dust Bowl, an area of the Great Plains known for its recurring droughts and dust storms. The 1934 dust storm worked its way to the Atlantic Ocean, obscuring the sun and leaving a dusty film in its wake. This catastrophe convinced Congress that the soil erosion caused by conditions in the Dust Bowl truly did pose a menace to the national welfare, and led directly to the enactment of the act.
When it created the act, Congress "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 act stated that its ultimate goal was "to provide permanently for the control and prevention of soil erosion and thereby 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." To do so, the act authorized the secretary of agriculture to survey and research soil erosion and methods for its prevention, to carry out preventive measures, to cooperate with state agencies or individuals, and to acquire any lands necessary to carry out the purpose of the act. To limit governmental interference in private actions, the act required landowner consent before the secretary could act on private land and prohibited actions that would interfere with the general production of food and fibers for ordinary domestic consumption.
The act established the Soil Conservation Services (SCSow called the Natural Resources Conservation Service) as the successor to the SES and empowered it to conduct a national program of soil erosion prevention through technical and financial aid to farmers who agreed to implement soil conservation practices. The SCS did this first through demonstration projects with local farmers, where the cooperative effort employed contour plowing, strip cropping, erosion resistant crops, resting lands, and terracing. Then, in 1937, the SCS initiated the soil conservation district concept whereby the federal government would work through state-created conservation districts composed of local farmers.
Farmers approached the act's direct federal regulation with skepticism, worrying that the federal government would overregulate them and essentially take direct control of the farms. However, the conservation district approach eased their concerns. These conservation districts gave locally appointed directors, not federal officials, the authority to establish and manage local soil and water conservation. The federal government, in turn, cooperated by granting the districts equipment and technical assistance. This arrangement left local areas with the authority to shape conservation projects, but encouraged them to undertake such projects with federal funding. In 1937 Arkansas hosted the first such district, and now there are nearly 3,000, delivering conservation education, watershed protection, and technical assistance to the nation's farmers.
The act combated overproduction of crops by paying farmers to shift from production of "soil-depleting crops" to "soil-conserving crops." The act then defined soil-depleting crops to include surplus crops, even those such as wheat that had soil-conserving properties. Defining crops this way helped farmers who had to sell their crops at a low price because the market was flooded with them. Hence, the government indirectly paid farmers to reduce production of surplus crops to decrease overall overproduction.
See also: AGRICULTURAL ADJUSTMENT ACT; FARM CREDIT ACT OF 1933; NATIONAL INDUSTRIAL RECOVERY ACT; TENNESSEE VALLEY AUTHORITY ACT OF 1933.
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