Creation of SWCDs

Following national recognition that wise soil and water conservation use serve as national policy, Hugh Hammond Bennett, known as the father of soil & water conservation districts, understood the need for assistance at the local level. Bennett advised Franklin Roosevelt on soil health and the fact “Americans in the nation’s midsection had farmed too much, too fast” (Egan, 2006, p.134). Bennett steadfastly educated leaders that the land could not withstand this type of assault, that the grasslands had been “hammered and left without cover” and that “dusters” were not an act of God but man and would continue to get worse (Egan, 2006, p.134).

As a result of Bennett’s steadfast effort and Roosevelt’s leadership, in 1936 a Standard State District Act, also referred to as “District Law,” was developed at the federal government level by the United States Department of Agriculture or USDA (previously called Soil Conservation Service) which encouraged the citizens of local governments to organize conservation districts as political subdivisions of state government.

President Roosevelt wrote to each state governor, urging each to approve legislation that would create Soil and Water Conservation Districts.

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In 1935, soil conservation pioneer and Soil Erosion Service director Hugh Hammond Bennett (right) timed his speech to Congress to coincide with an approaching dust storm. @NRCS

The Soil Conservation District Program recognized that new farming methods must be accepted and enforced by the farmers on the land, giving local citizens the opportunity to shape soil and water conservation and resource planning in their communities.

According to the USDA handbook “The Preparation of the Standard State Conservation Districts Law,” a conservation district was to be established by a majority vote of the farmers within a district’s boundaries (USDA, 1990). No district was to be formed without farmer approval through a referendum process. To ensure buy-in, supervisors of the district, also known as directors in VA, were to be elected by the farmers themselves. The intent was for districts to function as “local units of government, established by the people, governed by the people through their elected supervisors” and then given authority to develop and carry out local erosion control plans district wide (USDA, 1990). Today  Virginia’s soil and water conservation district directors are elected on the general ballot directly by their constituents within the district boundaries they serve.

All 50 states have since passed what is known as “District Law” and established soil and water conservation districts.

Although not the first state to adopt the District Law, North Carolina was the first state to organize a conservation district. Appropriately enough, the first district was the Brown Creek Soil Conservation District, organized on August 4, 1937, covering the area in which Hugh Hammond Bennett lived—the advocate of SWCDs (Heath, 2004, p.4). Since 1937 and the passage of “District Law,” more than 3,000 districts have been formed across the United States and its territories to address local conservation needs.

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