Speeches of HHB, Wildlife and Erosion Control


Speeches of Hugh Hammond Bennett

Wildlife and Erosion Control

It seems only yesterday that the average American thought of erosion, if he considered it at all, as something which in the remote past carved out the Grand Canyon of the Colorado or your own Hudson Valley here, and then ceased to operate. As a matter of fact, this average impression wasn't so very far from correct at that, in the light of one definition, at any rate. Erosion did cut the Grand Canyon and the Valley of the Hudson, and probably went about the job in a very leisurely way; for geologic erosion characteristically operates so slowly as to be imperceptible to the eye.

But human intervention has speeded up the process enormously. Had the rate of erosion remained at geologic norms, we might go blissfully on with our daily affairs, completely ignoring it, just as our progenitors did. This, unfortunately, is no longer possible. By our own misguided perseverance we have accelerated this staid old earth-process until it bids fair to become a Juggernaut to overwhelm us. Like the traffic problem, it has become a matter of real personal concern to everyone, although many of us remain complacently unconscious of its inroads against the principal factor in our national security--our indispensable agricultural lands.

Because of certain recent events, such as a nation-wide educational campaign, the dust storms and governmental provision for doing something about the problem, the public is at last paying some attention to the warnings of those who have studied the process of soil wastage, lived with it and watched its rapidly increasing devastation decade after decade. This is indeed encouraging, for I can assure you that the results of unrestrained erosion directly affect the whole body politic--the nation, the state, the community, right on down to the individual--as surely as taxes.

Students of erosion have long perceived its dire consequences, and in their efforts to warn the country have ventured truly appalling estimates of soil losses. Admittedly, however, these estimates of only a few years ago were based at best on observation and very general reconnaissance data; for until very recently we had no accurate measurements of erosion rates and had made no extensive surveys relating to the character and extent of erosion.

During the past few years, however, we have made numerous precise measurements of soil and water losses from a considerable number of important types of agricultural land, subjected to various farm treatments;

and last fall the Soil Conservation Service completed a nation-wide reconnaissance survey of erosion conditions. So at last we have an approximation of the truth. Our old estimates were indeed far short of the mark.

Now we know that the actual loss to the nation amounts thus far to not less than 50 million acres of once fertile land essentially ruined by erosion for further practical crop use, with another 50 million acres in about as bad a condition. The real tragedy is that these 100 million acres of wasted land, if they could be restored and divided into farms of 80 acres each, would support 1,250,000 rural families instead of just weeds and scrub!

And, were this loss not bitter enough, something over 100 million additional acres, largely still in cultivation, have lost all or the greater part of the productive topsoil; while on yet other millions of acres erosion is getting actively under way. Good farm land is being virtually destroyed at the rate of more than 200 thousand acres every year, with a still larger area undergoing severe impoverishment by sheet erosion--an insidious process that strips off sheets of the productive surface soil, layer by layer, before the completely destructive process of gullying becomes evident. It is almost axiomatic that the rich topsoil is the farmer's principal capital. (Erosion-exposed subsoil is generally poor, difficult to plow, relatively unabsorptive, droughty and even more erosive than the humus-charged topsoil.)

As an indication of the information we now have with reference to erosion rates under varying conditions of soil, slope, cover and climate, permit me to make brief reference to a few items of these quantitative data.

For example, for the principal type of corn land in north-central Missouri, soil is being lost at the rate of 67 tons per acre where corn is grown continuously on land of about intermediate declivity. This rate would remove the more productive 7-inch top layer within about 17 years. The simultaneous loss of water in the form of immediate runoff amounts to 28 percent of all the rainfall and melting snow. Conversely, under a thick stand of alfalfa, grown under the same conditions of soil, slope and rainfall, the average annual loss of soil has been at the rate of about one-fifth of a ton per acre annually. At this rate it would require 4,000 years to strip off the 7-inch layer of topsoil. The water wasted as immediate runoff under alfalfa has amounted to only about 4-1/2 percent of the total precipitation, or about 6 times less than the corresponding loss under corn.

In the Great Plains of west-central Kansas, land of about average slope under a clean-cultivated crop is eroding at a rate that would strip off the entire depth of topsoil in approximately 90 years; whereas, under the native sod of that region the mellow surface covering is disappearing at the insignificant rate of about 7 inches in something over 90,000 years, accompanied by a water loss of only five-hundredths of the total precipitation.

In North Carolina under virgin forest, approximately 468,000 years would be required to remove the topsoil layer. In other words, with the protection of nature's stabilizing cover of vegetation, erosion proceeds so slowly that soil is built up from beneath about as fast as it disappears from the surface.

It is easy to see how fundamentally these staggering soil losses must affect the basic agricultural prosperity of the nation, and but little reflection is necessary to appreciate the fact that hazards to our agricultural prosperity inevitably constitute hazards also to your prosperity and mine, no matter how far we may be removed from actual contact with the land. We have never had, nor can we have, an enduring prosperity or even an enduring civilization entirely apart from agriculture; so erosion, like the termites of the tropics, is working silently and unnoticed at the very foundations of this social structure we proudly call America. We have been more prodigal of our heritage of natural resources than any other people in the world. True, other civilizations have waned and expired because of erosion, but their lands were utilized for centuries before they finally had to be abandoned. Much of our ruined land knew the plow for scarcely a generation.

We have been living in a fool's paradise with respect to the security of our most basic asset. Since colonial days we have, unquestionably, been guilty of the most colossal soil wastage the world has ever witnessed in a like space of time. We have permitted tens of thousands of our farmer to become tillers of subsoil--bankrupt farmers of bankrupt land. Moreover, this ruin of the soil is permanent so far as we and our sons and their sons are concerned; for nature needs centuries to build a single inch of soil that, through human misuse and abuse, may be carried away by a single rain or wind storm. We have continued to plow up and plant the short-grass country of the plains, regardless of soil character and without thought of the permanency, under natural conditions, of the native cover of nutritious grasses, or of its value for livestock and wildlife. Actually, the activities of man have caused the creation of numerous small and large areas of desert in that region during the present year.

As indicated, the effects of erosion on agriculture, and hence on our national and individual prosperity, are more or less obvious. But how, you may ask, is wildlife concerned with human economics? It may even be argued theoretically that the abandonment of a field and its reversion to a wild state is to the advantage of wildlife, and that when people are less prosperous they have less money with which to buy ammunition, and therefore shoot less game.

Both arguments are fallacious. The present depression has amply demonstrated that thousands of people in time of economic stress turn to the woods, fields and waters to relieve the strain on a diminishing larder. As for the worn-out fields, it is noteworthy that the volunteer growths of weeds and brush on badly eroded land often are not of kinds valuable to desirable wildlife species.

It is not intended to imply, however, that the great reduction in farm wildlife is one of the direct results of erosion. In fact, erosion and decreasing wildlife reserves are fellow symptoms of the same disease. The underlying malady is the reckless denudation of soil resulting from the stripping off of the protective cover of vegetation.

When white men first set foot on American shores, they found no gutted fields and impoverished farms. Such cultivation as was practiced by the Indians had not been extravagant of soil. Unlike white men, the Indians did not use a field until it was dissipated by erosion, and then clear another from a supposedly limitless and inexhaustible supply of land.

We can now boast the banishment of our last frontier, and we have made the sad discovery that our land is neither limitless nor inexhaustible. It is a matter of very simple arithmetic to figure out how long we can stand the annual destruction of 200 thousand acres of good farm soil. Even today we do not have enough good farm land; a considerable part of our aggregate production is from soil made hopelessly poor by erosion--land that yields so poorly the operators have been forced down to the level of bare subsistence. What we are going to do about it, however, is a real problem.

Obviously, we can not return to pre-settlement conditions. The Nation has its very roots in agriculture, and if it is to persist, its agriculture must go on. But we can not raise our corn and cotton in the woods, nor grow our wheat on unbroken prairie. If we would continue to grow these crops, however, we must be prepared to compromise with nature.

That is where the Soil Conservation Service comes in. We are charged with the responsibility of demonstrating that protection and production are not necessarily incompatible, and of finding means to make the compromises as easy on the farmer as possible.

We propose a plan of land conservation to replace the old system of exploitation. Our program is essentially one of better land use. Its aim is to rededicate each acre to the purposes for which it is best adapted, and to provide adequate protection for all valuable land needing protection, in accordance with the peculiar needs of the numerous widely diverse types of soil under diverse climate conditions.

This program is being put into operation through demonstrations carried out, usually, on complete watersheds. Each demonstration area or group of related areas is under the management of a Regional Director, supported by a staff of trained technicians, including agronomists, agricultural engineers, erosion specialists, foresters, soils experts, wildlife specialists, and so on. Most of the projects operate on private farms, under the terms of a cooperative agreement whereby the farm owner or operator, in return for the advice, services and certain labor and materials furnished by the Government, binds himself to carry out for a minimum period of five years the land-use practices advocated for his particular farm, and agrees himself to contribute as much as possible in the form of labor, materials, implements, power, et cetera. It is the duty of the regional technical staff to study on the ground the individual problems of each cooperative farm, and to so revise the farm layout and readjust farm procedure as to ensure the highest possible degree of rainfall absorption, erosion protection and reduction of flood hazards and silting, and at the same time permit profitable operation of the farm.

The methods employed run the gamut of agronomy, biology, engineering, forestry and geology, but the basic idea underlying all is the maximum possible restoration of vegetative cover.

Public response to our program has been very gratifying; the job itself has been, in the physical sense, almost overwhelming. When we began operations, towards the close of 1933, we had a mere handful of employees in Washington, and less than a dozen projects in the field. At the last count our regularly appointed staff numbered more than three thousand persons, engaged in the operation of 140 demonstrations involving a total area of approximately 50 million acres in 41 different states. In addition, 500 CCC camps have been assigned to the organization to help meet the tremendous demands now being made on the Service. At the moment approximately 125,000 men are employed on the job, both in supervisory and labor capacities.

If my postulate is true, that the increase of erosion and the decrease of upland wildlife are both traceable to the devegetation of the land, then it might be supposed that the remedy for one would be proper for both. Not necessarily. We might stabilize an eroding field with a solid plantation of spruce, but the plantation ultimately would be more barren of wildlife than the field we started with. To turn erosion control operations to the maximum benefit of wildlife we must have technical direction based on a knowledge of wildlife requirements.

It is patent that every manipulation of the soil, either directly or indirectly, affects wildlife for good or ill. It is equally clear that the operations of the Soil Conservation Service, extending as they do into every corner of the country, and involving millions of acres of land, have an extremely high potential effect upon wildlife. Which way that potential is being directed, I shall let you yourselves decide.

In the first place, the man chosen to direct our wildlife activities, Mr. Ernest G. Holt, came to us from your own organization. That should be guaranty of the correctness of his attitude towards all wildlife. He has brought into the Service a fine body of biologists, in whose selection proper attitude was a determining factor. These are the men who are shaping our wildlife policies and guiding our operations in the field. They may know what the word "vermin" means, but they have dropped it from their vocabulary.

As might be expected, we shall have to control some animals in order to protect our work. Pocket gophers, for example, are capable of playing havoc with an earth dam; and a heavy infestation of jack rabbits or meadow mice can make the best forester's plantation look pretty sick, or mutilate the vegetation of our protective contour strips with disastrous consequences. Fortunately, such cases are localized and involve only local control, and, I am happy to say, we have just concluded an arrangement with "Ding" Darling over there, whereby experts of his bureau will supervise any control measures we may find necessary, and thus ensure their maximum effectiveness with a minimum of hazard to other animals. It is conceivable, too, that we may sometime have to eliminate a few predators in order to lessen the pressure on some species we are trying to manage as a crop.

However, I can assure you that the Soil Conservation Service very definitely is not planning to launch widespread campaigns against any bird or mammal.

Another evidence of Mr. Darling's splendid spirit of cooperation is the generous manner in which he has placed at our disposal the enormous fund of wildlife information accumulated by his research men through the years. Without these data our own technicians would have scant basis for intelligent action. It is my earnest hope that we may soon have funds to reciprocate his courtesy by underwriting some special wildlife management research to be carried out by the Biological Survey.

The objectives of our wildlife program may be stated briefly: (1) The avoidance, insofar as possible, of acts which would be detrimental to wildlife, (2) the betterment of conditions for wildlife as a whole, and (3) the development of an annual self-perpetuating crop of game, fur-bearers and game fish to provide supplemental compensation to the farmer for lands retired from agricultural use in the interest of erosion-control.

It will be seen that our program does not give exclusive recognition to the interests of any group or class. In our wildlife work we are not concerned solely with the production of something to be shot by the sportsman, but as much with the encouragement of birds to protect the farmer's crops, and equally as much with the welfare of creatures that delight the ear with song and the eye with color; and, or course, with increased production of those plants which not only afford food and shelter for wild things, but give protection to the land.

Our first efforts are directed towards rebuilding the habitats so essential to the existence of the creatures of the wild. This involves principally the restoration of food and cover plants in proper relation to one another, and adequate interspersion to make them available to the animals we would encourage. And this brings us right back to our basic principle of erosion-control--the maximum use of vegetation.

Perhaps you would like to hear of some concrete accomplishments in this work of wildlife restoration. For certain reasons beyond our control, our wildlife work heretofore has not kept pace with other phases of our national program, but the situation is being rapidly corrected, and on some projects the work already is well advanced. In Wisconsin, for example, more than 75 percent of the farmers signed up for erosion control are cooperating actively in a wildlife management program. In Minnesota, 67 percent of the farmers signed by nine CCC camps operating outside of demonstration projects have agreed to management measures. In North Carolina more than a thousand farmers are working with the wildlife specialist, while in Ohio also much has been done. In these four states more than 800 acres of gully planting has been especially designed to produce wildlife food and cover and to serve as avenues of communication across otherwise open and uninhabitable fields. On our projects in Wisconsin and Minnesota, where snows are deep and temperatures low, 597 winter food patches have been established. In North Carolina a very considerable acreage has been retired from active cultivation and developed especially for wildlife. A biologist has only recently been appointed for Pennsylvania, yet he has just finished the collection of 30-odd thousand pounds of seed of trees and shrubs having direct value to wildlife. These will be propagated in a nursery and the seedlings transplanted on projects throughout the region.

I have been speaking solely of things that have been done in special consideration of wildlife, leaving out of account altogether the routine erosion control operations which also are automatically of great importance in wildlife conservation. In the latter category would fall the planting of millions of trees (for our woodlot planting is not done in pure stand) and the seeding of thousands of acres of protective strips to lespedeza, alfalfa, clover and other dense ground cover on thousands of farms. Neither has account been taken of the educational work, carried on through the cooperation of extension agencies, 4-H Clubs, and so on, which is calculated to have a far-reaching influence.

Numerous ponds, some of them quite large, have been built in the Great Plains and in other localities as measures of erosion control, fitted into the coordinated national plan of soil conservation. The impounded water has brought relief to the livestock of many ranches and farms of low rainfall areas, and the operators have shown much interest in the fact that wild ducks are visiting these ponds, even breeding about them in some instances. Only a few weeks ago, September 27th to be exact, I saw on the erosion project near Pullman, Washington, a considerable number of wild ducks which had summered along some of the gullies recently put under control through the building of scores of permanent dams. Behind these dams, pools of water have collected; normal watertable conditions have been reestablished by lateral seepage, and the productivity of the land has been restored. Incidentally, ducks have come to breed where only two years ago, and previously, the ravines, all summer long, were as dry as desert arroyos.

Some contributions of water to these stabilized ravines undoubtedly has seeped down from the areas where erosion-prevention practices have been installed within the watershed of this project, comprising 98,000 acres in the upper drainage of South Palouse River. Ten thousand acres of steep, highly erosive land have been retired from cultivation here and planted to dense covers of grass, alfalfa, or sweetclover. According to measurements made on the erosion experiment station near Pullman, this planting alone, which represents but one phase of various land treatments used on the watershed, caused the absorption of more than 1,600,000,000 gallons of water from rain and melting snow during the past winter and spring. Without the establishment of this cover, which not only protects the soil from erosion but causes the absorption of practically all of the direct precipitation, this water would have been lost as immediate runoff. At any rate, South Palouse River this year has flowed throughout the summer for the first time in 16 years.

Mr. Warren Eaton, of your staff, writing in the July-August number of Bird-lore, has spoken very kindly of the work of our CCC camp. I would like to take this occasion to express our appreciation of your confidence. The camps are merely helping to carry out our general program, and so far as possible their work is as carefully supervised as that on the regular erosion-control demonstration project. In every Minnesota and Wisconsin camp all planting and cultural operations are in charge of a technician who has had special training in wildlife management technique. These men have been instructed to use special care in removing so-called "weed" trees and "wolf" trees, and otherwise to safeguard wildlife interests.

I have already emphasized how utterly futile would be the attack of any single, unsupported agency on the problem of erosion. This is almost equally true of every other phase of conservation. Hence we are definitely committed to a policy of close cooperation not only with the farmers and land owners, but with business men, educational institutions, experiment stations and all agencies of the states and the Federal government having any concern with the best use and proper conservation of the land and the creatures that live on the land. We believe that conservationists, above all others, should make cooperation a religion and singleness of purpose a guiding principle. The conservation of natural resources, complicated as it is with myriad conflicting interests, is just too big a job for one outfit. Let's tackle it together!

Presented by H.H. Bennett, Chief, Soil Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, before 31st Annual Convention, National Association of Audubon Societies, New York, October 29, 1935.

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