In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt stated: “When the soil is gone, man must go; and the process does not take long.” In 1934, the second President Roosevelt revived the issue, creating the Soil Conservation Service as an independent arm of government. The visionary first Director, Hugh Bennett, wrote: “Out of the long list of nature’s gifts to man, none is perhaps so utterly essential to human life as soil.”
In recent decades, those of us in farm country have observed the thorough abandonment of the soil conservation ideal, and with each rain and spring runoff, we watch the nation’s top soil washing into streams, rivers and oceans. The tragedy is, in part, the result of flawed government policy which converted the original Soil Conservation Service into yet another agency committed to increasing crop production. But in the greater part, the tragedy is the result of irresponsible decisions by private landowners who are more concerned with short-term revenue than conserving the nation’s topsoil.
In the early days of the Soil Conservation Service, one of its leaders laid out the essential practical ethic:
“There is an ethical reason — a reason of patriotism — why the individual landowner should take the initiative. If we would preserve our democracy of ownership of private property, then ownership must meet its responsibilities as well as enjoy its privileges. Accompanying widely distributed ownership of private property there is individual responsibility for adjusting the conditions and uses of property to social requirements. Erosion is not merely an individual problem, it is a social problem created by individual conduct.”