History of Conservation
From our American history classes in school, most of us probably remember the part about the Dust Bowl. This dark period of agricultural and ecological ruin during the 1930s most severely affected a 150,000-square mile area, encompassing the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles and neighboring sections or Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico.
The destructive combination or little rainfall, light soil, and high winds devastated much of the heart of America 's agriculture land in the southern Great Plains. Without the strong root system of the grass to anchor the soil, the winds easily picked up the loose topsoil and swirled it into dense dust clouds, called black blizzards. The first of these in the Dust Bowl began in 1932 with recurrent severe dust storms continuing through 1937. These blizzards wreaked devastation - killing cattle, laying waste fields, and displaced much of the population from the region. As farms and homes were abandoned, car-loads and caravans of thousands of homeless and hungry families migrated west to agricultural areas and cities, mostly in California. Most of the migrants came from eastern sections of Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri which experienced more drought and depression than dust.
While the drought and wind were major factors of the Dust Bowl, they were not the major causes. When wheat prices rose during World War I, homesteaders descended on the southern Great Plains and began plowing up the native grass that had historically held the soil in place. Throughout the wet years of the 1920s, the farmers were able to reap big harvests, but when the Great Depression hit, wheat prices collapsed and then the drought began in 1930- 31.
Local, state, and national leaders knew that something had to be done. The dust storms of May 11, 1934 and March 6, 1935 especially got the attention of national leaders when clouds of fine soil particles were swept over Washington, DC. Then came Black Sunday on April 14, 1935, when the worst dust storm of the decade brought more devastation upon devastation. This storm led one Associated Press reporter to coin a new term in a story he filed, in which he referred to “life in the dust bowl of the continent.”
In response, the Soil Erosion Service (est. in 1933) was moved to the USDA in 1935, and renamed the Soil Conservation Service (SCS). The SCS began setting up demonstration areas to promote conservation practices, but had limited success due to lack of support or interest. Leaders in Washington then realized that success would depend in large part on local support and local groups leading the conservation efforts. One of those demonstration areas was in our neighboring Scott County.
In early 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt penned a letter to all the state
Governors, recommending that legislative authority be provided for the establishment of soil conservation districts. These were to be political or legal subdivisions of the state governments established to address the problems of erosion control and soil conservation. Fortunately, the Arkansas General Assembly was in session at the time the President's letter was received. The legislature wasted no time. A bill sponsored by state Representative George Louis Hardgrave of Johnson County was immediately drafted and introduced. The bill declared the necessity of creating governmental subdivisions of the state, to be known as ‘Soil Conservation Districts', and aimed "to establish the state soil conservation committee, and to define its powers and duties." Governor Carl E. Bailey signed Act 197 into law 80 years ago this month, March 3, 1937, making Arkansas the first state in the nation to pass such a law.
The next year, district supervisors. the Agricultural Extension Service and the State Soil Conservation Committee formed an organization called the State Association of District Supervisors, Soil Conservation Districts of Arkansas. Arkansas was the first state to have such an association. The district program continued to grow until the entire state was covered on June 2, 1955. This made Arkansas the sixteenth state to achieve total coverage. Most district boundaries coincide with county boundaries. On January 13.1970, the association adopted a new constitution. and the name was changed to Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts (AACD).
On our home front, the Rich Mountain Conservation District was formed 1n 1941. For over 75 years the district has worked cooperatively with the SCS (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)), other state and federal agencies, and local governmental and institutional entities in applying soil and water conservation measures on the ground. Most important and consequential though has been the commitment made by generations of Polk County landowners to be good stewards of what God has entrusted to us - to preserve and protect those vital natural resources for today's and future generations. That's what conservation districts are all about, and it's why their grass roots institutional role in American agriculture will always be needed.
This article appeared in The Polk County Pulse on March 8, 2017 and was contributed by Jeff Olson (firstname.lastname@example.org)