Boise–April 2010 marks the 75th Anniversary of a landmark in conservation. It was the beginning of a federal commitment to private land conservation when Congress established the Soil Conservation Service in the U. S. Department of Agriculture in 1935, known today as the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
“Initially NRCS focused on helping farmers combat erosion through changes in agricultural practices,” said Jeff Burwell, Idaho NRCS State Conservationist. “Over the years, NRCS has expanded to become a conservation leader in comprehensive natural resource planning and conservation on private lands, ensuring they are protected, restored and made more resilient to environmental challenges.”
NRCS works directly with farmers and ranchers on projects that reduce water pollution, control erosion, conserve water and energy, restore wetlands, enhance wildlife habitat, and so much more. Last year in Idaho NRCS provided $19,186,368 to help fund conservation work on private land. Over 1,157,000 acres were treated for a variety of resource concerns that ranged from inefficient water use to wind erosion and from aquifer overdraft to increasing pasture productivity and health.
Hugh Hammond Bennett pursued creating a national soil conservation agency and helped establish the precursor to the NRCS. Photo location and date unknown. “The history of our agency is closely tied to the vision of one man - Hugh Hammond Bennett,” said Burwell. “Hugh was a passionate soil conservationist who saw the need to protect our nation’s farmland soils from the threat of erosion.”
Hugh Hammond Bennett surveyed soils in the early 1900s, mapping soil types and their characteristics in the eastern United States. He saw firsthand what damage soil erosion caused to farms and fields. He realized that erosion damage could eventually impair the nation’s ability to produce food. Bennett believed soil conservation was needed and, though speeches, articles, and alliances, pushed for a national soil conservation agency.
In 1933, with Bennett at the helm, the Soil Erosion Service was formed in the Department of Interior. It was transferred to the Department of Agriculture in 1935 as the Soil Conservation Service. In 1994, the agency was renamed the Natural Resources
Two notable principles formed in those early years still guide the agency’s work today: developing conservation work plans cooperatively with farmers and drawing on expertise from a variety of specialties like agronomy, forestry, engineering, and biology to effectively approach soil conservation.
“Bennett started the tradition of working one-on-one with landowners during the Great Depression with demonstration projects on local farms,” Burwell said. “The personal connection between the trained conservationist and the land users became the hallmark of our agency.”
Another hallmark of the agency is working cooperatively with Conservation Districts. To spread successful conservation practices beyond the demonstration projects, states were encouraged to form conservation districts to help the Soil Conservation Service promote private land conservation. The conservation districts involve local landowners in conservation planning and priority setting. Idaho’s law was passed in 1939. Today, there are 51 soil conservation districts in Idaho that work together with NRCS.
The 1985 Farm Bill was the first that funded conservation work on agriculture land. Since then, conservation funding through the Farm Bill has swelled 300% and Farm Bill programs have increasingly become part of the agency’s goals and services.
Together with private landowners, other agency partners and the soil conservation districts, the Natural Resources Conservation Service will continue to help conserve that most essential ingredient for plant life – soil.