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Soil Conservation: A Southern History



When we think of soil conservation (a topic I know is near and dear to all LGM readers!) we think of the Dust Bowl as the central event. And in many ways that’s true, but it has deeper roots, which is fantastic erosion created in the Southern cotton regions. Above is Providence Canyon, Georgia. This is one of Georgia’s Seven Natural Wonders. It is also completely created by erosion from cotton growing. The historian Paul Sutter expands upon this and previews his new book on Providence Canyon by looking at Soil Conservation Service head Hugh Bennett.

Only a couple of years later, in 1913, Bennett traveled to Stewart County, Georgia, just south of Columbus, where a soil survey team was struggling to map a landscape wracked by the most extreme gullying he had ever seen. Again, Bennett and his colleagues mapped tens of thousands of acres of “Rough gullied land.” Some of the county’s gullies were more than 150 feet deep and hundreds of feet wide. The published “Soil Survey of Stewart County” highlighted a gully that locals called “Providence Cave,” a place that would later come to be known as Georgia’s “Little Grand Canyon.”

Witnessing such erosion convinced Bennett that something needed to be done to save the region’s, and the nation’s, soils. But several factors limited the effectiveness of his proselytizing for a federal soil conservation bureau. Federal conservation programs on public lands had developed during the Progressive Era, but instituting a program to regulate resource use on private lands had proven more difficult. The interruption of the First World War and the more conservative political climate of the postwar years also thwarted his ambitions. Bennett had to contend with another problem, too: the head of the U.S. Bureau of Soils, Milton Whitney, refused to take soil conservation seriously. Instead, Whitney repeatedly insisted that “the soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the Nation possesses.” Everything Bennett had seen in his travels around the South had convinced him otherwise. “I didn’t know so much costly misinformation,” Bennett lamented, “could be put into a single brief sentence.”

Whitney’s death in 1927 brought on a flurry of soil conservation activity, including a formative government report, Soil Erosion: A National Menace, co-authored by Bennett in 1928. Bennett also began, as he put it, to “howl about the evils of soil erosion.” His campaign built strength over the next five years, especially after 1932 because of the Roosevelt administration’s willingness to wed federal work relief and soil conservation. Bennett continued to use the massive soil erosion he had witnessed in the American South as rationale for a soil conservation agency, citing the cases of Fairfield and Stewart County repeatedly.

The cause of soil conservation, then, was ascendant well before the first dust storms rolled off the Great Plains and into the nation’s consciousness. The devastated soils of the American South had a particularly formative influence. The Dust Bowl certainly played a major part in the final passage of the Soil Conservation Act of 1935, but it was a latecomer to the stage – the latest disaster in a long history of destructive human-induced soil erosion.

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  • rea

    Whitney repeatedly insisted that “the soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the Nation possesses.

    how anyone with eyes could think that is a mystery

    • Brett

      No kidding. Tobacco was exhausting soil back in the Colonial Era, and they knew it.

      • witlesschum

        Farmers have known about soil being exhausted as long as there have been farmers.

  • JustRuss

    “the soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the Nation possesses.”

    If soil is so immutable, why did Whitney think we established Bureau of Soils? What the heck was the point of his job?

    • tribble

      Probably thought it was a typo.

      • Gregor Sansa

        Clearly it is supposed to be the Beurau of Soils. I mean, “bureau”, seriously? Call that a word??

        • tribble

          To the Vicor go the Soils.

          • wjts

            Solis invictus.

    • delazeur
      • Peterr
        • advocatethis

          Yikes, that brings back bitter memories. When I saw Gorsuch’s name in delazeur’s comment, I thought, that seems familiar. Then I saw Watt in your comment and it all came flooding back to me.

          People, even those who were also around and sentient in the 80s, usually don’t understand the intensity of my disrespect for and outright loathing of Ronald Reagan. His staffing of the Department of the Interior and the EPA and the other agencies created to safeguard the country’s resources is just one of many, though a prominent one, reasons for my feelings.

        • cpinva

          this is the douchebag who wanted to cut the beach boys from the july 4th party on the mall, and have wayne newton (yes, that wayne newton.) perform in their place, because he was more “family oriented”. to my knowledge, the beach boys have never made las vegas their home base, and nobody would accuse that city of being “family oriented”.

  • jim, some guy in iowa

    “natural wonder” seems like false advertising

    the other thing I shake my head at after seeing those pictures is that Iowa is supposed to be the state most changed by the settlers/farmers from what it was before

    • Vance Maverick

      “If these beautiful canyons could form in less than a hundred years, the Grand Canyon of the Colorado had plenty of time to form in the millennia since Bishop Ussher’s date for the creation!”

      • delazeur

        That is a real argument I have heard people make with a straight face.

  • Wasn’t Kudzu introduced as a method of fighting erosion?

    • Yes.

      • advocatethis

        Aside from its other effects, how has it done in that role?

        • It is pretty effective in stopping erosion, yes.

          • Bootsie

            Like how killer bees can fulfill their original job and be raised in the jungle.

          • cpinva

            unfortunately, kudzu stops erosion by taking over everything in its path, including buildings. so yeah, a bit of overkill there. and it’s moving north. you didn’t used to see it in NC & VA, now, it’s all over the place in those two states.

  • AMK

    I didn’t know states had official natural wonders. I imagine some states have to be more….creative than others. My own New Jersey, for example.

    • skate

      At a guess, Paterson Great Falls?

      • AMK

        Good call. That and maybe the pine barrens.

        • N__B

          The Delaware Water Gap.

          • rm

            The inclusion of the unnecessary “Water” in that name is a confusing newjerseyism. I guess “gap” meant “pass” at some point (as in Cumberland Gap) and they wanted to make clear they were talking about a river gorge.

        • witlesschum

          The Meadowlands are underrated! I read this great book by a guy who just started kayaking and canoeing back and forth through them.

          The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures at the Edge of a City by Robert Sullivan

    • Ahuitzotl

      The Linden Blasted Heath?

  • koolhand21

    I suppose the good news is that the slow decline of the shiny paper magazine industry means less kaolin being dragged out of Georgia. Sizable industry at a point in the past.

  • Chris Mealy

    Erik, you should check out “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations” by David Montgomery It’s really terrific. One of the themes of the book is that people across the centuries have known they’re destroying the soil but there’s too much money in it so they do it anyway. IIRC the story of erosion in the south was that Virginia and the Carolinas had destroyed their soils growing cotton, and wanted to expand slavery to the west so they could export slaves for profit.

    • JustRuss

      I hear “Ketchup: God’s Condiment” is a good read too.

      • rm

        The history of ketchup is actually pretty interesting.

    • cpinva

      it was actually both cotton and tobacco, with tobacco being the first, in VA. both crops strip the soil of all nutrients, requiring the early planters to be constantly clearing more land, and leaving huge swaths of stripped land in their wake. it wasn’t until crop rotation and fertilizer were introduced, allowing the land to be grown on more than once or twice, and reducing the necessity of wiping out the forests to create new growing fields.

      • Ahuitzotl

        Uh crop rotation was at least 600 years old by then, how did it get overlooked?

        • jim, some guy in iowa

          it’s America- where the three things we’ve always believed are

          1) we don’t have to play by the same rules everyone else does

          2) no matter what we use up or ruin there’s always more just across the river

          3) if it makes money now keep doing it until there isn’t any money in it

    • dm

      Yes! A brilliant book. Everyone thinks the problem of erosion was solved by Bennett et al but half of the topsoil on the planet has been lost in the last 150 years and that loss hasn’t stopped. Soil is one of our most precious non-renewable resources. Here’s a NASA photo of soil being washed to sea http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=41237

  • Nick Conway

    It’s insane how much of the landscapes around us have been radically reshaped in the past few hundred years. I was doing archeological survey in New Mexico a year ago and a big part of the job was constantly having to climb down into arroyos (steep little gullys/ditches) and then climbing back up to continue the survey. I completely took for granted that that the landscape in New Mexico was just shaped that way, with lots of cracks and ups and downs. Turned out it’s all very recent.

    Ended up talking to one of the ranchers who was showing us where an archeological site was. His family had been in that area for the past 100+ years, and he told us that when his great grandfather had first settled there he had been able to ride a horse and wagon for miles across the land, because it was completely smooth. If you tried that today you would make it a few hundred feet until your horse and buggy went crashing into an arroyo 10 feet deep. Grazing has completely reshaped the environment.

    • Yeah, William DeBuys, Enchantment and Exploitation is good on the arroyos and environmental degradation in northern New Mexico generally.

      • Nick Conway

        Looks really interesting, I’ll check it out.

  • sharculese

    I’ll take that list, although I’ll also accept arguments for subbing one of those out for Cloudland Canyon.

  • Pat

    Clearing forests for pasture is a big thing in parts of the South that still have trees.

  • Gwen

    This actually helps give me a little context for one of my family history stories.

    My great uncle Pinky (which is a better nickname for “Willard” than Mitt, I think) was a soil scientist for the Department of Agriculture in East Texas during the 1930s.

    I was sort of under the impression that “government agronomist” was sort of a booming job during the Depression and this kind of helps to explain why.

  • SamChevre

    I lived for several years in West Tennessee. Natchez Trace State Park was created out of a bunch of land with that kind of erosion. In the western part of the county, there were eroded hills where you could back a truck up and just shovel it full of sand.

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