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Soil Conservation: A Southern History

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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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