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Soil Conservation in the New Deal Congress

April 27, 1935
Soil Conservation in the New Deal Congress Image courtesy of Library of Congress With more than a decade of service in the House of Representatives, John Marvin Jones of Texas served as chairman of the Committee on Agriculture for four terms.
On this date, as blistering heat sapped the American West of much-needed moisture, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law a bill protecting “land resources against soil erosion.” Throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, and the Dakotas during the early 1930s, high winds stirred the arid soil, loosened after years of rapid homesteading and commercial agriculture. Nearly 180 dust storms ripped across the southern plains during 1933, a prelude to the major storm of May 1934, which whipped an estimated 350 million tons of earth into the sky. It trapped people in their homes and suffocated cattle on the plains. Dust fell like snow in Chicago and eastern cities. Sailors on ships 300 miles off the Atlantic coast swept Kansan soil from their decks. Similar storms plagued America’s center well into 1935. In response, western House Democrats introduced H.R. 7054, “to provide for the protection of land resources against soil erosion, and for other purposes.” Unlike the ecological forces at work on the plains, John Marvin Jones of Texas explained, “the bill is simple and easily understood.” Bill sponsor John Joseph Dempsey of New Mexico—whom colleagues described as a “soil erosion enthusiast”—argued that the measure was of national interest, and therefore vital. John Conover Nichols of Oklahoma, whose state dust storms hit particularly hard, noted that in uprooting its topsoil, the United States “[had] been living in a fool’s paradise, with respect to the security of [its] most basic asset.” With the understanding that such storms posed a national threat, the New Deal Congress approved the bill. The ambitious act established the Soil Conservation Service to combat soil erosion and “to preserve natural resources, control floods, prevent impairment of reservoirs, and maintain the navigability of rivers and harbors, protect public health, public lands and relieve unemployment.” While the act appropriated no money upfront, it left open the option to fund projects with “such sums as Congress may from time to time determine to be necessary.” A year later, Congress passed the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act which rewarded farmers who planted grasses and legumes to support the soil, rather than commercial crops which exhausted its nutrients—a difficult measure for many farmers to agree to during the Great Depression. The act classified commercial harvests like wheat as a threat to the plain’s soil, giving farmers a chance to wean their fields from surplus crops at the federal government’s expense.

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