Passed on May 20, 1862, the Homestead Act accelerated the settlement of the western territory of the United States by granting any adult citizen, or intended citizen, who had never borne arms against the U.S. Government a claim of 160 acres of surveyed public land. Claimants were required to “improve” the plot by building a dwelling and cultivating the land for a minimal filing fee and 5 years of continuous residence on that land. After 5 years on the land, the original filer was entitled to the property, free and clear, except for a small registration fee. This Act was followed by the Kinkaid Act of 1904 and the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909. All these acts led to a massive influx of new and inexperienced farmers across the Great Plains.
At this point, the land of the Great Plains had been covered by miles upon miles of prairie grass. But when waves of new migrants and immigrants reached the Great Plains, they greatly increased the acreage under cultivation. Widespread conversion of the land by deep plowing and other soil preparation methods to enable agriculture ended up eliminating the native grasses which held the soil in place and helped retain moisture during dry periods. An unusually wet period in the Great Plains mistakenly led settlers and the federal government to believe that “rain follows the plow” (a popular phrase of the time among real estate promoters) and that the climate of the region had changed permanently.
While initial agricultural endeavors were primarily cattle ranching, the adverse effect of harsh winters on the cattle led many landowners to increase the amount of land under cultivation.
By the early 20th Century, much of that grass land had been plowed under, and the United States entry into World War I in 1917 created a huge demand for wheat. Farmers began to push their fields to their limit, plowing under more and more grassland with the newly invented tractor, which chewed up huge amounts of land at unheard of rates as compared to what the horse drawn plows had been able to manage.
Then in 1931 a severe drought hit the mid-west and southern plains states. The drought is the worst ever in United States history, covering more than 75 percent of the country and affecting 27 states severely. As those crops died, the “black blizzards” began. Dust from the over-plowed and over-grazed land began to blow.
On May 11th, 1934, a massive dust storm two miles high sent millions of tons of topsoil flying 2,000 miles toward the East Coast; right over Washington, D.C., and 300 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean. Approximately 35 million acres of formerly cultivated land had essentially been destroyed for crop production, one hundred million acres of crops had lost all or most of their topsoil, and another 125 million acres of land were rapidly losing their topsoil.
Finally, in 1935, Congress declared soil erosion “a national menace” and as a result both the Soil Conservation Act and Soil Conservation Service (SCS) were created. This new federal agency (which is now called the Natural Resources Conservation Service or NRCS) developed extensive conservation programs to retain topsoil and prevent further irreparable damage to the land. The primary mission of the SCS was to assist farmers in reducing erosion and protecting soil. But by this time, the damage had been done. By 1936, 850 milliontons of topsoil had been blown off the southern plains.
Soil conservation laws were enacted in 1937 that would allow farmers to set up their own local districts, controlled by local boards of directors, and empowered to manage soil and water resources for the purpose of conservation. Until the formation of these Soil Conservation Districts (now called Resource Conservation Districts or RCDs), there was no organized mechanism for disseminating resource conservation information, expertise, and assistance. Farmers and ranchers often had no way of reaching SCS scientists for soil and water conservation information or methods. One of the few grassroots organizations set up by the New Deal still in operation today, the soil conservation district program recognized that new farming methods needed to be tested, accepted, and enforced by the farmers working the land rather than scientists in Washington.
On January 4, 1944 the Nevada County Board of Supervisors approved the petition of organization of the Nevada County Soil Conservation District (SCD). The original district boundaries included 54,600 acres in the Chicago Park and Wolf Creek areas. Since that time, the boundaries have been expanded and contracted at least twelve times, and now includes all of Nevada County and a portion of western Sierra County. In 1971, SCDs were given the additional responsibility of assisting in the conservation of “related resources” in addition to soil and water and were renamed Resource Conservation Districts, or RCDs.
To this day, the Nevada County Resource Conservation District (NCRCD) continues assisting landowners with information regarding erosion control, drainage issues, pasture and range management, forest health, road maintenance, livestock water development, cross fencing, nutrient management, and many other resource concerns.
RCDs continue to sponsor educational efforts to teach children and adults alike of the importance of conserving resources. Though there are growing contributions by other groups and organizations in communities that raise public awareness of resource conservation, RCDs remain one of the primary links between local people and government on issues related to conservation. With an ever-dwindling base of resources and environmental pressures from a host of human activities, the work of RCDs will continue to be needed far into the future.
It took a crisis of national proportions, the Dust Bowl, to bring this about. Farmers and ranchers still need up-to-date scientific information and techniques to manage the natural resources on their properties, and the need for ongoing conservation education and assistance among all sectors of the public is as great or greater than it ever has been.