Biography of Hugh Hammond Bennett
April 15, 1881 — July 7, 1960, The Father of Soil Conservation
Hugh Hammond Bennett led the soil conservation
movement in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, urged the nation to
address the "national menace" of soil erosion, and created a new
federal agency and served as its first chief — the Soil Conservation Service,
now the Natural Resources Conservation Service in the
U.S. Department of Agriculture. He is considered today
to be the father of soil conservation.
As noted by a contemporary, Bennett
"combined science with showmanship" to convince the country that soil
erosion was a serious problem that merited national attention. His efforts led
to demonstration projects and ultimately to a conservation partnership that the
nation enjoys today of science-based technical assistance and support from USDA,
leadership from local conservation districts, and support from state
conservation agencies for natural resource conservation on private land.
Born near Wadesboro, North Carolina, Bennett
graduated from the University of North Carolina. He began his career as a soil
surveyor for USDA. As he conducted soil surveys and investigated declining crop
yields, he became convinced that soil erosion was a problem not just for farmers
but also for rural economies.
By 1909, he was supervising soil surveys in the
southern United States and studying soils abroad and in U.S. territories. He
worked in Costa Rica and Panama (1909), Alaska (1914), and Cuba (1925–1926) and
served on the Guatemala — Honduras Boundary Commission (1919).
Among his writings of the 1920s, none was more
influential than Soil Erosion: A National Menace, a USDA bulletin which
he co-authored in 1928. Bennett wrote steadily about soil erosion, with articles
appearing in popular and scientific journals, including Country Gentleman and
Largely in response to Bennett's campaign for soil conservation,
Representative James P. Buchanan of Texas attached an amendment to the 1930
appropriations bill authorizing USDA to establish a series of soil erosion
experiment stations. The Coon Creek Watershed Project, in southwestern
Wisconsin, was the first of many watershed-based projects initiated to
demonstrate soil conservation practices to farmers.
Bennett helped establish the Soil Erosion Service
in the Department of the Interior and became its director in September 1933. The
agency worked with farmers to demonstrate soil conservation methods in
Bennett's speeches inspired action for soil
conservation around the country, whether at farm-field demonstrations, scholarly
gatherings, or in the Congress. When a dust storm from the Great Plains moved
over Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1935 during the height of the Dust Bowl,
Bennett was testifying before a Congressional committee on the bill that would
create the Soil Conservation Service. He knew the storm was coming and used it
to dramatically demonstrate the need for soil conservation.
The resulting Soil Conservation Act of April 27,
1935, created the Soil Conservation Service at USDA. Bennett served as its chief
until he retired in 1951.
In 2000, Bennett was named a charter inductee
into the USDA Hall of Heroes. During his lifetime, Bennett received many honors,
including serving as president of the Association of American Geographers in
1943; receiving the Frances K. Hutchinson Award from the Garden Club of American
in 1944, the Cullum Geographical Medal by the American Geographical Society in
1948, and the Distinguished Service Medal by the USDA and the Audubon Medal by
the National Audubon Society, both in 1947. He was a fellow of the American
Society of Agronomy, the American Geographical Society, the American Association
for the Advancement of Science, and the Soil Conservation Society of America.
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