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History of Conservation Districts

In 1937, as the Dust Bowl focused attention on soil erosion, President Roosevelt sent a model law to governors recommending legislation that would allow landowners to form voluntary soil conservation districts.  The Soil Conservation Service (SCS) was created in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) by an act of Congress on April 27, 1935. However, an earlier date, September 19, 1933 should not pass without recognition. That date marks the selection of Hugh Hammond Bennett as the director of the Soil Erosion Service (SES), predecessor to SCS.(1) Creation of the Soil Erosion Service was critical to the future of Federal soil conservation activities, the history of SCS, and Bennett's recognition as the father of soil conservation.

This paper discusses Bennett's USDA career, which made him the logical candidate to lead the Federal soil conservation effort, and recounts the summer of 1933 when the New Deal included soil conservation as a purpose for public works programs. From June to September 1933, several agencies put forth plans to utilize the public works funds to be devoted to soil conservation.  Legislation was adopted by Iowa’s legislature in 1939 and the first conservation district was formed in three Marion County townships in April 1940. In 1944 an article of certification forming the Monroe County Soil & Water Conservation District was filed.  By 1952, all of the  counties in Iowa  had  created Conservation Districts which serves today.

Today, Conservation Districts in Iowa are managed by five commissioners elected on the general ballot in each county. Each of the five commissioners serve four-year terms with no more than two commissioners  residing in any single township. With assistance from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship-Division of Soil Conservation, commissioners address the natural resource issues that are most critical in their districts.

Conservation Districts’ Role

Soil and water conservation districts are legal subdivisions of state government. Commissioners are responsible for carrying out state laws and programs within district boundaries. These include:

  • sediment control law

  • conservation cost-sharing

  • conservation revolving loan funds

  • water quality protection projects

  • resource enhancement and protection

New Documentary on the Father of Soil Conservation 

Hugh Hammond Bennett and the Creation of the Soil Erosion Service

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