When we talk of conservation on the High Plains we are not just talking about using water wisely. Conservation comes in many forms. As the Great Dust Bowl wore on, conservation became a necessary means to returning any sort of economic or ecological activity to the High Plains. The soil had been plowed in such a way that made the grasslands uninhabitable; it caused deaths and even heartbreak over lost land.
When the miles-high dust storms created a crisis of epic proportions, Hugh Bennett, known as the father of soil conservation, stepped in. Bennett was responsible for putting a large part of our country literally back together.
For Hugh Bennett, conservation and efficiency were not at odds. He grew up on a plantation owned by his father in North Carolina where he witnessed what would now be considered conservation practices; on the plantation they were considered efficiency practices. One of those practices was terracing, which was designed to keep the soil from flying away.
In 1933 Bennett was appointed head of the newly formed Soil Erosion Service, an agency supported by the CCC and the Dept. of the Interior. Bennett carried out over 40 demonstration projects to help famers learn soil conservation and restoration practices. The CCC carried out much of the work at the demonstration sites, planting trees, building erosion control structures, and planting cover crops. In 1935, when the dust storms had become severe and devastating, Bennett convinced Congress to create the Soil Conservation Service.
Still, after two years, not enough farmers were cooperating to make the conservation projects effective. So to further enable cooperation on a local level, Bennett initiated the Soil Conservation Districts, which organized farmers and ranchers into local districts. The CCC arranged meetings between neighboring farmers and ranchers, to teach them how to manage and plant their land in a way that could prevent more wind erosion. They were meant to consider their land management collectively, not individually. Bennett knew that if even one farmer or rancher in a district were not applying the conservation methods, then all the efforts would go back dust.
Today, over seventy-five years later, there are still hundreds of good people working together in Conservation Districts. Many ranchers and farmers are working to restore their piece of the Great Plains to make it ecologically healthy, and economically sustainable. Although ranching is far from profitable for most ranchers, many take on the task of restoration on with a sense of duty to the landscape, working within the bounds of the ecosystem to prevent another Dust Bowl.
CCC workers planting willow sprouts, ca. 1935, Central Plains, courtesy of the National Archives
CCC Enrollees building fences to control grazing at camp SCS-Ida-10, Weiser, Idaho, courtesy of the National Archives