April 14, 1935, is not a date we normally observe on our calendars like July 4 or Memorial Day or Labor Day. Nevertheless, April 14 is an important date in our history, especially for those interested in conservation.
The date is known as "Black Sunday" because the dust being blown across portions of the Great Plains was so thick that day it blocked out the sky, says John Hassell, executive director of the Conservation Technology Information Center.
The Dust Bowl, which was caused by a combination of drought and clean tillage that resulted in the loss of an estimated 850 million tons of soil from the Plains, led to the establishment of the Soil Conservation Service (now known as USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service) and conservation districts.
"There was a groundswell of public support," said Hassell. "People had a passion about conservation. They demanded change because they could see and feel what was happening."
Hassell, keynote speaker for the Southern Conservation Tillage Systems Conference in Florence, S.C., says conservationists and others interested in protecting the nation’s soil and water resources need to experience those feelings again.
"We haven’t seen that kind of passion in a long time," said Hassell, who grew up in Oklahoma and was director of water quality programs for the Oklahoma Conservation Commission before moving to the West Lafayette, Ind.-based CTIC. Established in 1982, the center provides technological assistance on soil and water conservation efforts.
As a boy in Oklahoma, Hassell said he could remember seeing the windbreaks that were built to stop wind erosion in the 1930s. "But I can show you places in Oklahoma today where those windbreaks are being torn out and plowed over," he said. "That’s how short our memories are."
Hassell traced humanity’s problems with soil conservation back to 5,000 B.C. when nomadic groups of people began forming communities in the Tigris-Euphrates River Valley in present-day Iraq.
"Archaeologists tell us that at one point they had 24 communities of 10,000 to 20,000 people each," he said. "One of the earliest agricultural researchers discovered a plow-like implement, and they were able to feed themselves from the land in the flood plain.
"But as the population increased, more food was needed, and they began abusing the soil. It’s estimated that about 4,000 years ago the land became unproductive. Eventually, they did so much damage they destroyed their civilization."
The groundswell of public concern that led to the formation of the Soil Conservation Service in the 1930s and the development of tools such as the universal soil loss equation in the 1950s was followed by a resurgence of environmental activity in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Reports of massive fish kills and "rivers catching on fire" led to a resurgence of the environmental movement and passage of numerous laws, including the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the legislation creating the Environmental Protection Agency.
"We’ve seen tremendous reductions in soil loss and improvements in air and water quality in the last 30 years," he noted. "Billion of dollars have been spent on conservation and environmental programs. So our work is done…. Or is it?"
Despite the "feel good aspects" of the reported improvements in soil, air and water quality, Hassell says a crisis still exists in conservation and environmental stability in the United States and in much of the world.
"Increasing populations demand safe, inexpensive food, fiber and energy. Decreasing cropland acreages are expected to produce greater yields to satisfy the consumptive nature of our population. Depleted water supplies are stretched thin to satisfy agricultural production, industrial processing and municipal use. Soil quality is being compromised because of the way our lands are managed."
In the 1980s, U.S. farmers lost 3.2 billion tons of soil per year on 170 million acres of erodible land. Today, the soil loss is estimated at 1.8 billion tons per year on 103 million acres that continue to erode excessively. "That’s an improvement, but it’s not good enough," says Hassell.
"You can go all over the country and see this, and it makes me sad," he said, referring to a photo of muddy water coming off a plowed field. "You can see culverts filled up, dust still blowing off fields, gullies running across fields."
New estimates put the annual cost of soil erosion at $44 billion, "but we’re spending less than $8 billion a year to try to fix the problems," he noted. "Our soil quality efforts are minimal with only 22.6 percent of cropland acreage in a no-till system and less than 10 percent of those acres are continuously no-till."
An estimated 15 million acres will begin coming out of the Conservation Reserve Program and back into production over the next few years, "and we have no plans for what to do with them."
Conservation-minded farmers and researchers need a revival, he says, one that will restore their fervor for stewardship.
"One of the ways to accomplish change is to renew the passion to promote changes that have positive benefits for our natural resources," he noted. "There needs to be a revival of a conservation ethic by all who work in the area of conservation. And we need to remember that, "Conservation is more than just a word – it’s a way of life – and it’s forever."