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Saving the Good Earth: The Mississippi Valley Committee and Its Plan

by Harold L. Ickes

Secretary of the Interior and Public Works Administration

February 1934

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But this loss of soil is not the end of the story. Erosion and runoff work together in a vicious circle. Once the sod or woodland cover is gone, erosion planes off the rich, humus-charged topsoil leaving unproductive sand, stiff clay or rock. The hidden conduits of the soil, the veins made by earthworms and insects and plant roots are destroyed. In fact, since insects and worms exist on organic matter in the soil they do not penetrate to great depths in the subsoil. The subsoil is hard and smooth. Not being able to penetrate-the surface, the rainwater runs off, gullying the slopes and, in some regions, burying fertile lowland fields under sterile sand and clay.

In human terms, the tragedy of erosion is the tens of thousands of hard-working families trying to till land that cracks and bakes, and gives meager yields of poor crops in return for weary toil. The homes of these farmers and the yards around them bear the unlovely stamp of poverty. Men and women and children live narrow, dreary lives on these farms that have been despoiled of both soil and water by our prodigal misuse of the land. No one unless he personally has gone off the beaten paths can have any conception of the existing deplorable conditions. In the last ten years, more than 30 million acres of American farmland have been abandoned because of erosion. If an enemy army with big guns and trenches laid waste these once fertile farms we would be filled with horror and dismay. But since it was done by our carelessness in letting rainwater run wild, for some strange reason it strikes us as nothing to worry about.

With an allotment of $10 million from the PWA, the Erosion Service, recently established in the Department of the Interior, is laying out several impressive projects, working whole watersheds of 100,000 acres or more, employing every practical erosion-control measure that conforms to the needs and nature of the land. Farmers who will cooperate with the Erosion Service are to be given CCC aid. The Service will not only apply the best methods known, but will devise and experiment with new methods.

In almost every instance, an attack on erosion is also an attack on drought. "Contour plowing" follows the levels of the land, making ridges that hold the water instead of channels to carry it away. "Strip farming" puts narrow fields of sod crops-alfalfa, clover and the like-between such crops as corn, tobacco and cotton, conserving both moisture and topsoil. Fertile slopes can often be terraced to good effect. A field in Texas with a 2 percent grade (almost level) lost 42 tons of topsoil in a single year. Terracing reduced the next year's loss to 19 tons, while a sod field (Buffalo grass) alongside lost only 7 tons. The Erosion Service demonstrations will, it is believed, serve not only as laboratories for testing and devising methods of erosion control, but as convincing educational centers, teaching the importance of conserving our soil and water and the ways and means of fulfilling that great responsibility.

Forestry, which includes the management of existing wooded areas as well as forestation, must hold a big place in any plan for the Mississippi Valley. Forests not only prevent erosion, but by checking runoff in flood periods and increasing the underground water supply, they save the surface water for thirsty farm lands. A first report on forests in relation to water conservation and control has been prepared by Henry C. Graves of the MVC. This report shows that there are left about 250,000 square miles of forest land in the Valley, more than 10 percent of it already stripped or devastated. A little less than half the total is in farm ownership, only 27,000 square miles are public property and the balance is commercially owned.

The report points out that "the forests have been greatly impaired by cutting, fire, insects, grazing and other destructive agencies." It makes clear the need for an enlarged program of forest-fire protection, and also for the regulation of grazing, "since heavy grazing of forests reduces their value in watershed protection." Though grazing is well managed in public forest reservations, much damage is done by overgrazing in private forests and on the public domain.

There are still some 20 million acres of public domain within the Valley. Most of the conservation groups in the country opposed the recommendation of the committee appointed by President Hoover in 1930 which, if adopted, would have transferred this entire acreage to the states. A proposal to place the public grazing-land under federal control, prepared and endorsed by the Departments of the Interior and of Agriculture is contained in H.R. 6462, now before Congress.

LITTLE progress has been made in the handling of private forests. "Commercial timberlands are nearly all cut under the old system of unregulated exploitation." The result is not only destruction of the forests, but soil erosion and drought. The code of the Lumber and Associated Forest Industries contains an article, the details of which are being worked out, committing the industry to proper and intelligent forest practices. This holds a real measure of promise.

Accompanying the committee's first forestry report are maps which show where forests used to be and their extent today. Clearly it would not be advisable to put back to forests all the land that was once grown estimate indicates that for every 100 trees in the Valley today we must add 20. In making a forestry plan, we have got to think at least in terms of a 20-year program.

Among the questions Mr. Cooke and his associates have posed are: How many seedlings do we need year by year? What varieties should they be? Where are we going to get them? Where can they best be grown? For, as Mr. Cooke points out, Any progress in forestation in such an area runs into big figures. You can plan all you want to, but your planning for new forests is no good unless you have the trees to plant, the men to set them out, to supervise their growth, to protect them from fire, to cut and replant as forestry experts, conscious of public responsibility, rather than as lumber dealers, out for big profits.



Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003