Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Essay

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An agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is a unique and rather poorly understood part of the U.S. government. It plays a major role in the management of the nation’s rural lands, but unlike its more famous federal land management counterparts (e.g., the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), the NRCS neither owns nor administers land. Indeed, it is generally disallowed from working on federal land, and it is the only federal agency specifically authorized to work on private lands. While its principal work activities involve agricultural extension, the NRCS also conducts soil and flood control surveys, inventories national land use and land cover, monitors snowfall to forecast water supplies, and administers grants to conserve wildlife habitat, soil and water, and agricultural land.

Although often perceived among environmentalists as “captured” by farmers and ranchers, the NRCS was never intended to be a regulatory agency. Rather, it was designed to work cooperatively with states and counties as well as private landowners, and in several ways it pioneered approaches to conservation that have more recently been “rediscovered,” such as public-private partnerships, community-based conservation, and watershed-scale restoration.

Prior to October 1994, the NRCS was called the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), which was created in April 1935 under Public Law 46. The name change was intended to communicate a broader conception of the agency’s mandate, but the mandate itself had always been far-reaching. Public Law 46 declared “that the wastage of soil and moisture resources on farm, grazing and forest lands of the nation, resulting from soil erosion, is a menace to the national welfare.” It proclaimed “the policy of Congress to provide permanently for the control and prevention of soil erosion and thereby preserve natural resources, control floods, prevent impairment of reservoirs, and maintain the navigability of rivers and harbors.” The SCS formalized and made permanent within the USDA the activities of the Department of the Interior’s Soil Erosion Service, which had been formed on an emergency basis two years earlier in response to the combined effects of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.

The director of the Soil Erosion Service and first chief of the SCS, Hugh Hammond Bennett (1881- 1960), is today regarded as “the father of soil conservation.” Bennett joined the USDA’s Bureau of Soils in 1903 and spent his early career producing county soil surveys. In the course of fieldwork in the southern United States, Alaska, and overseas, he became convinced that soil erosion was not only widespread and severe but also a peril that required coordinated government action. In 1928 he coauthored “Soil Erosion: A National Menace,” a bulletin that popularized the issue and led to the formation of the Soil Erosion Service. Bennett worked from the premise that soil erosion was both a social and an ecological issue, one that required political organization as well as scientific information.

One of the first actions of the Soil Erosion Service was a watershed scale demonstration project in the Coon Valley of southwestern Wisconsin, where local farmers petitioned for technical assistance and agreed to lead the project. Erosion integrated the watershed, touching on everything from farming and grazing practices to land use patterns and wildlife. With input from an interdisciplinary team of technicians, over 400 farmers participated in a comprehensive analysis of the watershed’s natural resources and implemented treatments on creeks, forests, and pastures as well as croplands.

This approach was institutionalized in conservation districts enabled by a federal law passed in 1937. Districts are technically units of state government, created and run by elected boards of local cooperators with support and technical assistance from the NRCS. Although the federal legislation permitted districts to assume jurisdiction over planning and zoning, very few states included these powers in their laws. Some 3,000 conservation districts exist at present, although their potential as vehicles for “new” ideas in conservation has scarcely been tested.

Bibliography:

  1. Natural Resources Conservation Service, www.nrcs.usda.gov;
  2. W.D. Rasmussen and Gladys Baker, The Department of Agriculture (Praeger, 1972);
  3. Maxine Rosaler, Department of Agriculture (Rosen Publishing Group, 2005).

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