the Good Earth: The Mississippi Valley Committee and Its Plan
by Harold L. Ickes
Secretary of the Interior and Public Works Administration
Closely related to erosion,
to surface runoff, to forestry is flood control, the most dramatic
problem of the Mississippi Valley. The flood menace is dramatized
in the broken levees of the lower Mississippi, but the real
flood is a thousand miles north, where the water runs off the
fields of Illinois and Iowa. We have tried to "control" the
flood waters of the Mississippi by having our Army engineers
build the levees higher and still higher in the effort to restrain
our wasted water. But the levees have reached their limit as
an engineering possibility.
Now we must attack the real
problem of flood control. We must reverse our practice and prevent
floods. This attack is necessary not only to safeguard the plantations
and towns of the lower Mississippi, but to save wide areas from
the blight of erosion and drought. There are water supplies
on every farm, from the Canadian border to the Gulf, that have
simply been poured into the Mississippi and its tributaries.
These must be dammed and held where they are needed‹the streams
that flow through ravines and coulees when the snow melts or
when there is an unusually heavy rain, the ponds that collect
in low places which we have emptied with "drainage ditches."
We must go back and fill up a lot of these ditches that carry
off both water and topsoil, and we have got to preach the gospel
of using the water we have, particularly in low-rainfall areas,
not making of it a flood menace for the Delta.
Like our handling of water and our treatment
of topsoil, the distribution of farm-land in this country and
the uses to which it is put show little evidence of "the American
genius for organization." The homesteads and "land drawings" in
the North Central states, the glamor and excitement of the "rush"
for "locations" when the Cherokee Strip was thrown open, have
been typical of our hit-or-miss agricultural development.
It is the policy of this administration not
to allow a new piece of land to be brought under cultivation through
reclamation without withdrawing an area of less desirable acres
of equivalent productive capacity. It is with this policy in mind
that irrigation and other reclamation projects are studied today.
The shift is to be not a restless moving from old land to new,
but a change from less desirable to more desirable farming-land.
Thousands of acres in the South and Midwest
should clearly be put back to forests or otherwise taken out of
farming use. Turning under every third crop row is a temporary
expedient. Turning land equivalent to every other half-section
back into woods would encourage better methods of agriculture,
contribute to the upbuilding of the Valley and provide new employment
opportunities in scientific forestry.
The time has
come when we must take to heart the lessons of the wise and economical
agriculturalists of Europe and of the older American civilizations.
The careful Danes and Belgians, the French farmers who for seven
hundred years, father to son, have tilled and genuinely improved
their small farms, the Incas who so wisely treasure their meager
water supply and spade back the topsoil that rain washes into
the hedges‹these husbandmen are all more skilled than we in the
great arts of agriculture. We must recognize erosion and drought
as national perils, and the need to plan in terms of decades rather
talking with an expert who had been studying the gypsy moth. He
showed me his charts and tables and described how, through the
methods he and his associates had developed, the pest had been
brought under control. True, there was a long, uphill fight ahead.
The number of moths would continue to increase year by year for
fifteen years, but the final extinction of the gypsy moth was
assured. "We have the thing licked," he said triumphantly.
facing the realities of the situation and accepting the long-term
struggle, we have got to lick erosion. It is fortunate that we
have as our national leader today a man who is fully alive to
the problems of agriculture and forestry. I am firmly convinced
that the backbone of the Republic will be broken before the century
is out unless we formulate and put in motion such plans as he
envisages for the wise upbuilding of the farm areas. President
Roosevelt has given force and direction to all these efforts.
He may well be honored by succeeding generations as "the man who
saved the land."
The use of the water of the Mississippi Valley
for navigation as well as for agricultural and domestic purposes
is a part of the plan being shaped by the MVC. In a preliminary
way, the committee using data supplied by the Army engineers to
make a map showing the flow of the navigable streams of the area
and the movement of local and long-distance river traffic. Inland
navigation projects to date have been isolated, related neither
to one another nor to any coordinating scheme.
The "Smith Report" on the railroads suggested
the need for comparative data on dollars-and-cents cost of different
means of transportation, and Joseph B. Eastman, federal railroad
coordinator, is directing studies along this line. It must be
remembered, however, that social as well as financial values are
involved, and that the type of transportation facilities to be
developed in a given locality cannot be determined by money outlay
alone. Even so, some fair basis for computing costs is needed.
of inland navigation that must be squarely faced is the day-dreaming
of many communities situated on rivers we have termed navigable.
On many small streams which thread the Mississippi watershed there
are towns and cities that look forward to having foreign vessels
tie up at their docks. Luncheon-club speakers continue to paint
glowing pictures of the activity (and the profits) that will be
enjoyed by local enterprises when French and English freighters
load and unload at Smithtown or Jonesville. The persistence of
such fantasy accounts in some measure for the unsavory pork-barrel
character of many of our rivers and harbors appropirations in
a scheme for river navigation into a vast plan for the Mississippi
Valley, the committee recognizes not only the need for railroad
and river data, but for facts on highway traffic. All transportation
is affected by the coming of pneumatic-tired trucks, long-distance
hauling over highways that can be lightly and hence quickly and
cheaply built and maintained.