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Speeches of Hugh Hammond Bennett

Address by H. H. Bennett, Chief, Soil Conservation Service, U. S. Department of Agriculture, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Richmond, Virginia, December 29, 1938.

Land Use and Public Programs

During the decade since this country felt the first impact of world depression, public interest in the problem of land use has become more intense and realistic than it has ever been. Among other things, the depression set us to looking for the causes of economic distress in agriculture; and many of them we found to be rooted in a pattern of land use that was basically unsound. The experience of the depression convinced many people that the recovery and sustained welfare of agriculture would require a drastic renovation of our national land-use situation. The recognition of this need, coupled with dust storms, floods, and other unmistakable physical signs of land abuse, has created a keen awareness of land problems in the public mind and brought a general public demand for positive steps toward land reform.

Through the normal processes of democratic government this demand has been translated into public programs of a kind that differ sharply from the traditional. In the past, public agencies relied principally upon research and education to solve the ills of agriculture. Today, they have moved beyond these fields into the field of action, bringing the resources and facilities of the new government into play directly on the land. The result has been to create a new situation, full of new opportunities for dealing with the varied and complex phases of the broad land problem.

Equally significant is the rapidly increasing interest of rural people in the matter of land reform. The inertia of the individual which for so long impeded agricultural action has disappeared to a large degree. As a result, agencies of the government engaged in land-use programs are now receiving intelligent cooperation from men who use the land day in and day out. There is a close working alliance between farmers and the government which did not exist a decade or so ago. Today, the actual land users of the country are beginning to build their own programs of land-use readjustment out of their own grass-root experience. Through county planning committees, soil-conservation districts, rural zoning groups, and other democratic mechanisms of recent origin, our present-day problems of land-use are being studied and analyzed; action programs are being planned and carried out by farmers themselves with the help of public agencies especially equipped and authorized to assist them. In a very accurate sense of the term, this is land-use action from the ground up. One might say, in fact, that public land-use programs nowadays are grown, not made, since they spring directly from the land; and are carried out, in large part, by people to whom these needs are a matter of everyday concern.

As a result, it now is possible through the cooperation of these local groups, to bring public action program effectively onto the smallest unit of land use-the single field. This in itself is a highly significant fact. Public land-use action must, of course, be broken down into spheres-a national sphere, in which the primary concern is with the broadest realignments; a regional sphere in which readjustments must be made to fit the needs of major segments of the country; a problem area sphere, and so on. Ultimately, there is the smallest sphere-the field. We will attempt to rearrange national or regional, or problem area land-use patterns to little avail if we are not able to rearrange the pattern of land use on the individual acre of the individual farm. A region may be unsuited to a given type of agriculture, but its agriculture can be changed only field by field. It may be that the size of farms must be readjusted in a given problem area, but still the readjustments can be made only field by field. The formation of local land-use action groups, empowered to cooperate directly with agencies of the government in formulating and executing plans for land-use reform, brings the public program effectively into this important final sphere of action.

Typical of this extremely interesting trend toward the assumption of land-use responsibility by local people is the growth of soil conservation districts during the last two years. In that relatively short time, twenty-six states have enacted legislation authorizing the formation of these local cooperative land-use organizations. As of November 15, 1938, 103 districts had been formed. They cover an aggregate area of some 54 million acres of privately-owned farm and grazing land.

Details of the procedure involved in their creation under state laws are not relevant to this discussion. It will suffice to point out that they are formed voluntarily by groups of land operators for the specific purpose of readjusting and regulating land-use practices in the best interests of the community. The entire process of formation and administration is completely democratic, with ample opportunity for the expression of majority will at every important stage.

Stated, simply, the function of the district is to develop and help land operators carry out a program of proper use for all the land within its boundaries. The district itself may undertake to carry out the work; or it may request the assistance of the Soil Conservation Service and other action agencies of the government. Actually, the latter course is usually followed since districts, in the beginning at least, seldom have the facilities for extensive reorganization of land use.

The program drawn up and proposed by a new district embracing five counties in north-central Georgia, will indicate the part these local agencies are now taking in the national land-use picture.

The declared objectives of the program of this district are in general to "enable farmers to raise and maintain a suitable standard of living and to perpetuate agricultural resources within the district." More specifically, the objectives are, first, to bring about the adoption of necessary practices for the conservation of soil resources; second, to make the adjustments necessary to a wise land-use program, such adjustments being directed toward an increased income for individual farmers; and third, to develop necessary land-management practices, such as would provide for the efficient utilization of extra feed and pasture resources resulting from the realignment of farm-cropping systems.

In approaching these objectives, this district proposes a number of land-use readjustments, including an increase in total crop land of approximately 12,500 acres; an increase in pasture land of approximately 7,500 acres; a decrease in woodland pasture of approximately 8,000 acres; a decrease in idle land of about 60,000 acres; the reforestation of some 30,000 acres of eroding land currently in crops; the purchase and development of approximately 200,000 acres of submarginal land; the rehabilitation of some 2,900 farmers through loans by the Farm Security Administration; the protection and improvement of 26,000 acres of farm woodlands; the development of food and cover for wildlife; and the installation of sound conservation practices, such as strip-cropping, terracing, cover cropping, and planned rotations on all cultivated land vulnerable to erosion.

Into this district, at the specific request of the district supervisors, the Soil Conservation Service is bringing the facilities of a major public action program. It has the authority to assist in planning and applying soil-conservation measures on individual farms; in establishing good woodland and pasture management practices; in reforesting or regrassing crop lands retired from cultivation; in purchasing the areas of submarginal land recommended for permanent retirement by the district, and so on. In other words, through alliance between the district, as an agency of the community and the Service, which administers Federal aids to better land use, the people of the five counties are given maximum public assistance in readjusting land use farm-by-farm. Public action is brought effectively into play in making single farm realignments and in fitting them into the larger pattern of desirable land use in the district as a whole.

The Soil Conservation Service is mentioned in this connection simply to illustrate the close and highly effective alliance which is now possible between public agencies and local people. There is no intended implication that the program of public aids administered by the Soil Conservation Service represents more than a partial answer to all problems of land use. Indeed, it seems apparent that no single type of public assistance is adequate to cope with those problems in all their ramifications.

But close cooperation between a number of public agencies now engaged directly or indirectly with the problem will have the effect of creating a single broad-gauge program adequate to help the people bring about most if not all of the necessary changes in our national land-use picture. Not all of these agencies are part of the Department of Agriculture: The Indian Service, controlling vast areas of Indian land; the Division of Grazing, with authority over the public range; the General Land Office and the Park Service, are parts of the Department of the Interior. The work of the Farm Credit Administration, the Federal Housing Administration, and many other governmental organizations bears a certain influence upon land use. All of them, as well as the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the Bureau of Agricultural Economics, the Farm Security Administration, the Bureau of Public Roads, the Forest Service, the Soil Conservation Service, the Biological Survey, and various other agencies of the Department of Agriculture must take a coordinate part in national land-use effort if the scope of that effort is to encompass all lands now ill-used and all of the enormous ramifications of the problem. The activities of all these agencies and of various agencies of the states must merge, out on the land, into a line of action in which administrative divisions disappear, objectives coincide, and methods harmonize.

Realistically this is not an easy situation to bring about. But very tangible steps already have been made in the right direction. The relationship between many of these agencies is very close today; programs and objectives are mutually understood; distinctions based on purely administrative lines are rapidly disappearing, and there is every reason to believe that in general the activities of public agencies in the field of land use are better coordinated, more carefully adjusted to one another at the present time than they have ever been.

From the national standpoint, naturally, the Department of Agriculture occupies a predominantly important position in the field of land use. Nearly every phase of the Department's activity either directly or indirectly affects land use. The work of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration in the field of economic stabilization and agricultural conservation is a direct influence for better use of the land; the rural rehabilitation program of the Farm Security Administration, likewise bears directly on these problems. So also does the work of the Forest Service in the management of national forest holdings, and the work of various other departmental agencies in the fields of planning, research, and education.

Most directly concerned with land-use problems on the vast bulk of privately-owned agricultural land, however, is the Soil Conservation Service, which seeks through several lines of work, to assist farmers in correcting the physical land practices contributing to land decline. The Service now administers activities involving the conservation of basic soil and water resources, the purchase and improvement of submarginal land areas, the promotion of farm forestry, the treatment of watershed lands for flood control, and the development of farm and ranch water facilities in arid and semiarid regions of the West.

Each of these lines of action is important in itself as a means of land-use readjustment. The adoption of sound soil-conservation practices on a farm or in a watershed suffering from severe erosion, usually requires a realignment of present cropping and tillage methods. Frequently, these realignments, when carefully planned, result in a better economic status for the individual farmers and the community The promotion of forestry as an integral part of the farm economy likewise changes the use of land. The purchase of submarginal areas and their development along lines properly suited to their use obviously affects the land-use pattern in any locality. Adequate facilities for stock water, irrigation, and water spreading in the West make it possible to correct abusive grazing practices, improve the range, and develop certain areas for the production of crops. In other words, in carrying out each of these several lines of action, patterns of land use actually are altered.

Combined into a single, integrated attack upon the diverse land-use problems of an area or a region, these several action programs constitute a rather well-rounded approach to the correction of the physical ills of the land.

An interesting example of the application of such an integrated program to a given area is the soil conservation demonstration project of the Service in the low-rainfall area of he Wind River Basin, in west-central Wyoming. Heavy over-stocking of the range, and poor grazing management had brought about serious depletion of forage over much of the Basin, resulting in severe erosion and the waste of water from denuded and eroding lands.

Some 45,000 acres known as the Riverton Tract, in the Shoshone Indian reservation, were selected in 1936 for a demonstration of improved land-use possibilities. In this tract, originally wellgrassed, some 3,335 sheep were then being grazed under a leased management, along with about 500 trespass sheep. The only available water was that of Wind River, which for a short distance forms the extreme northwestern border of the tract. Because of this inadequate distribution of stock water, only about half the area was being utilized for grazing. Much of this was being so severely over-used that the productivity in animal units was steadily declining, along with the land and the forage on the land.

As the basis of developing a practical plan for better use of the area, surveys were made to determine the character and distribution of the soils, the nature and distribution of erosion conditions and potentialities, the present and potential carrying capacity of the range, and favorable locations for water development.

With this information, a systematic grazing plan was worked out for the entire area and put into effect. It consisted of the establishment of two grazing routes for 2,000 sheep each, and the timing and regulation of grazing over these routes (Figure 1). Forty-one water holes were established over the tract, and bedgrounds located so that each would be used no more than three consecutive nights on the average. In favorable situations some water spreading structures were installed, and the area was fenced against trespass stock.

In spite of the increased number of animals using the area, range forage has increased 25 percent in carrying capacity, and numerous eroded areas are revegetating in a most encouraging way. The indications are that from time to time additional sheep can now be turned on this tract without unduly checking the improvement in forage.

The results obtained here, moreover, fit nicely into a large project covering more than a million acres of range and irrigation land in the Wind River Basin. Some portions of this larger area have such little vegetation left that recuperation will be impossible without a reduction in the number of animals using the land. But the Riverton tract, together with other managed areas on which the forage is improving steadily, will relieve the pressure on neighboring lands by taking care of part of the animals now overtaxing them. Still other relief will be derived from the production of supplemental feed by a more conservative and effective use of available irrigation water.

Within the broader pattern of improve land-use for the entire area, still other adjustments in present use have been planned and to a large extent installed. Grazing, for example, has been excluded from certain critical areas from which flash runoff has resulted in serious flood damage to irrigated lands downstream. This control of upland grazing, together with the installation of small retention reservoirs, contouring, and water-spreading structures, apparently has resulted already in the material diminution of flood flows.

Also, it should be noted, the project was developed only after a careful study of the economic situation of the land users, both irrigation and livestock operators, to determine how far land-use changes might be carried without overtaxing the economy of the individual rancher or irrigation farmer. These studies have considered the interrelation of the ranch and farm enterprise and indicate, for example, the opportunity for increased production and use of soil-conserving feed crops and the effect of such increases on the total production of sheep by the whole land-use enterprise.

Equally fundamental adjustments in physical land-use practice have also been brought about in farming sections of the humid region through cooperative action by the Soil Conservation Service and farmers. Typical of such realignments are those accomplished in the demonstration project at Lindale, in northeast Texas. This project, it should be pointed out, is representative of the practical possibilities of effecting needed land-use adjustments in a large problem area embracing some 48 million acres: The Interior West-Gulf Coastal Plain in southern Arkansas, northwestern Louisiana, and northeastern Texas (Figure 2). This problem area includes much submarginal land, a considerable part of which, although subject to serious erosion under present farming practice, is under cultivation. Approximately 60 percent of the land has slopes ranging from 2 to 8 percent, and is subject to moderate to severe erosion; while about one-tenth of the area exceeds 8 percent in declivity-a slope generally too steep for cultivation because of susceptibility to very severe soil washing. Thirty-five percent of the region is in cultivation, 45 percent is forested, 13 percent consists of pasture, and 7 percent is idle.

In cooperation with land operators in the 23,000-acre watershed comprising the Lindale demonstration project, 80 farms were surveyed to determine the extent and distribution of individual soil types, erosion types and potentialities, and the slope classes; as well as to show the location of farm, field, and pasture boundaries, fences, drainage ways, and other cultural features. With this information, readjustment and conservation plans were worked out individually for each farm, indicating not only the specific needs of each parcel of land, field, pasture, woodlot, and idle area, but the measures necessary to effect required readjustments and conservation (Figure 3). The program for each farm was adjusted as nearly as possible to the income requirements of the operator. Careful consideration was given to prospective yields under the rearranged farm system to the problem of utilizing the products grown under the reorganized plan, and to the opportunities for developing supplementary income from properly managed woodlands and game resources.

Some of the major results thus far effected in the project have been: Control of erosion to a degree of effectiveness estimated at 85 to 90 percent; reduction of runoff by 25 percent; retirement of 33 percent of the original cultivated area to the permanent protection of grass, trees, or shrubs; reduction of 46 percent in the area devoted to soil-impoverishing crops; with an approximately corresponding increase in the acreage of soil-conserving crops; increase of 100 percent in the pasture area; improvement of all pastures by contouring, reseeding, and other measures; control of all gullies; improvement of all woodlands by thinning, planting and selective cutting; and treatment of all idle lands for erosion control.

When the project began 52 percent of the area was under cultivation; 21 percent was in pasture; 25 percent in timber; and 2 percent idle. Under the readjustments made thus far, the corresponding percentages of use are; 35 percent under cultivation; 41 percent in pasture; and 22.4 percent in timber. Because of the trend toward livestock development in the area, eroded upland was for the most part retired to pasture instead of timber. Other areas of eroding upland were retired to pasture instead of timber. Other areas of eroding upland were retired to a permanent cover of grass, and a comparably productive area of timbered bottom land was brought into cultivation in order that production volume could be maintained. This accounts for the slight reduction in the area devoted to trees.

Such local land-use changes as those made in the Riverton range area of Wyoming, and at Lindale in the farming section of East Texas, must be fitted, of course, into the larger picture of regional adjustment. They are, as a matter of fact, the individual pieces out of which regional and national land-use patterns must be designed.

Rapidly, now, those larger patterns are taking shape. In the semiarid Southern Great Plains, for example, both the nature and the extent of physical land-use needs have been determined by careful surveys covering nearly 100 million acres.

On the basis of these surveys, proper physical use of the land over this large segment of the Southern Plains will mean an increase of 10 percent in the aggregate area devoted to grazing, an increase of 20.7 percent in the area devoted to farm pasture, and an increase of 22.6 percent in the acreage of feed crops. These increases will call for a decrease of 30.3 percent in the acreage in wheat, 16.6 percent of the acreage in cotton, 12.9 percent in the acreage of miscellaneous cash crops, and 8.1 percent in the acreage of corn. These readjustments reflect the need for a general shift from a hazardous cash crop agriculture to a more certain grain and livestock type of farming in the Southern Plains. To make this shift toward a stable agriculture in the Plains, the total area devoted to grazing and farm pasturage, must be increased from 57,899,000 acres to 64,399,000 acres, and the total area of cash crops must be decreased from 28,823,000 acres to 21,576,000 acres. The area in feed crops also must be increased from 3,298,000 to 4,045,000 acres.

Extensive alterations of this kind over entire regions call for action along lines broader than the purely physical, of course. The same is equally true of the more local readjustments which together will make up the changed pattern of the region. The correction of physical land ills depends to a very large extent upon the economic and social factors which exercise such a tremendous influence on the way men use the land. The price of farm products may determine whether a man is able or willing to use his land well or badly. Rural roads area a most important factor in determining the feasibility of using land for one purpose as opposed to another. The tenancy situation in any locality has a marked effect on the use of land, since tenants often lack a true incentive to use the land as it should be used. Complicating factors of this kind could be listed almost indefinitely to indicate the diversity of forces which must be dealt with if better land use in this country is to be a fact.

Nor is the ultimate effect of alterations in land-use practice limited to the physical betterment of the land. It is conceivable, for example, that extensive reorganization of our national land-use pattern will bring about a more even distribution of cash crops and a more regular volume of production, with consequent good effect upon surpluses and farm prices. It has already been demonstrated that through the establishment of good land-use systems on tenant farms it is possible to bring about a higher degree of satisfaction on the part of both tenant and owner and a greater inclination toward long term leases on both sides.

To cite an interesting illustration in this general connection; In certain localities the filling of stream channels with the products of erosion has caused the formation of marshes and stagnant pools of water along the streams. As a result, malaria has become a menace to the population, where formerly the disease was unknown. Mosquito control by draining the marshes would be only a temporary palliative if erosion were permitted to continue over the uplands. The readjustment of land-use practices to prevent soil erosion on the upland shedding water into these streams is consequently essential to the public health.

Important also is the effect of land-use changes in one section on conditions in other sections, adjoining or distant. Necessary readjustment in the physical pattern of land use may sometimes call for the removal of people from one section to another. This process, however, cannot go beyond the productive capacity of the land available for the transfer of these people. Displacement of the population by retiring the whole of a large area of erodible land for cultivation, for example, will make it necessary to raise the level of productivity in some other area if the displaced people are not to suffer economic and social hardships. On the other hand, if the erodible area should be continued in production without increasing the productive capacity of the non-erodible area, the same kind of economic difficulty would arise with the ruin of the former area for agricultural use. The remedy in such a situation is to find an economically productive use for the land retired from cultivation, such as the development of a salable wildlife resource or the establishment of a productive orchard on a soil-conserving basis. This, of course, assumes that immediate absorption of displaced farm people into industry or other fields of livelihood will not be very great, and that most of them will be forced to continue in agriculture. Possible difficulties of this kind indicate the importance of the relationship of land-use adjustment on one tract of land to the physical welfare of some other tract of land, as well as to the economic and social welfare of those who live on the land or are dependent on its produce.

Ramifications of the land problem thus could be explored almost endlessly. It will be sufficient merely to suggest that they extend into the fields of physics and chemistry, economics and sociology, health and sanitation, education, engineering, and into other fields as well. Obviously, there is no panacea. Whatever is accomplished will be brought about only by coordinating the progress of many programs in many fields toward a common objective.

Although the Soil Conservation Service is going ahead with definite action programs in all these fields, the need for effort along other lines is no less acute. There is need for a vast amount of research into many of the complex aspects of the problem; into the economics and the sociology of land reform as well as the purely physical problems of readjustment. Likewise, there is need for continuing educational effort so that the gains made by action and research will not be lost as time goes on. People must be taught to think as a matter of course in terms of good land use if what we accomplish now is to be permanently effective.

And unless the United States goes ahead vigorously, persistently, and speedily to defend and conserve the soil and to make far-reaching adjustments in our complex land economy, national decadence lies ahead. We must continue to capitalize upon experience and to advance through research. From the standpoint of our soil resource alone the need for action is now clear enough. Failure to act has caused the essential ruin of some 280 million acres of farm and grazing land and the injury of 775 million acres more. The average citizen does not yet fully understand the deep significance of this waste, nor realize the hardships it has caused in lowering tens of thousands of land users virtually to the level of pauperized farming with its attendant discouragement and inertia. Nor have we yet fully probed the social and economic implications of this single facet of the problem.

There is no longer a question of the need for coping with these evils. There is no longer a question as to whether we can cope with them. We know that we can. Millions of acres already have been anchored against erosion; new and practical conservation measures are being developed through research and experience on the land; many of our economic and social difficulties are being solved. We are moving constantly ahead, though not yet with sufficient speed.

It should be remembered that today's necessity for public action is the outgrowth of yesterday's failure to look more carefully to our land. Hindsight is easy; but foresight during the last century when our present land-use picture was in the making, would have produced a different result. Today we are simply retracing our steps across this land in an effort to correct past mistakes in the interest of the future.



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