Soil. It’s underfoot, where food is grown, and the foundation on which homes, roads, and important infrastructure are built. Wind and water soil erosion poses serious consequences to land, crops, vegetation, and human health. During erosion and runoff, sediment might be carried into the air or deposited downstream or on roadways. Infrastructure is compromised and pollutants are distributed.
The effects of the growing agriculture industry on United States land prompted the U.S. government to implement programs and acts that work to conserve and preserve soil from erosion and degradation. Since the 1930s, the United States has expanded its various conservation programs in order to utilize the land to its full potential while reducing the harm caused by human activities such as agriculture.
Today, several federal soil conservation programs operate under the United States Department of Agriculture and a USDA conservation service, the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). This program oversees the programs designed by the USDA, and with contribution from the U.S. Forest Service, to reduce the impact of soil erosion while making preservation efforts in the Great Plains and on U.S. wetlands.
History of Conservation Programs
The U.S. government has implemented programs to combat soil erosion caused by humans. Many of these acts focus on sustainable farming and agriculture.
1935 Soil Conservation Act: Congress enacted this program in order to “…provide for the protection of land resources against soil erosion, and for other purposes.” This act authorized the Conservation Options Program and the voluntary Soil Conservation Service, the predecessor to NRCS. These offshoots provided technical assistance to those looking to implement soil management programs and reduce the harmful effects of agriculture.
1936 Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act: U.S. federal policy amended the Soil Conservation Act to encourage participation in agricultural conservation programs. This gave rise to the Agricultural Conservation Program, a voluntary program that provides producers the financial assistance they might require to put into use approved conservation practices
1956 Great Plains Conservation Program (GPCP): This voluntary long-term program sought to address the issues of soil erosion from wind and water, specifically on the Great Plains — an area of prime agriculture real estate. Producers were encouraged to adopt conservation practices to reduce erosion and employ best practices for the use of water and soil resources. Functions of this program included “anti-pollution practices, measures to enhance fish, wildlife, and recreation resources, and practices to promote economic land use.”
1956-today: The NRCS has greatly expanded in the years following, and today there are approximately two dozen programs designed to assist producers by providing education, and technical and financial assistance to implement conservation practices.
At the heart of these programs lie common goals:
- Address natural resource and environmental concerns associated with agriculture.
- Reduce soil erosion.
- Enhance water supplies.
- Improve water quality.
- Increase wildlife habitat.
- Reduce damages from floods and natural disasters.
Major Programs Today
Today, soil conservation programs are divided into two major categories: Working Land and Land Retirement. In the case of working-land programs, conservation practices are put into use on productive agricultural land. Under these programs, the land must stay in active production for the entirety of its enrollment period.
Land Retirement programs require that certain land is removed from agricultural production due to its vulnerability or high-erosion risk. Land sent into retirement then adopts conservation practices designated under the program the land is enrolled in.
Up until 2000, 90% of conservation programs focused on land retirement. Since then, the focus of the NRCS has shifted with the realization that working land needs as much, or more, protections.
Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)
This land retirement program serves to remove millions of acres of sensitive land that is susceptible to erosion from agricultural production. With 27 million acres lost to soil erosion, this program aims to reduce the damaging effects caused by agricultural production. Under this soil conservation service resides the Farm Service Agency which administers CRP in 10-year contracts under the NRCS.
Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP)
A working land program, the ACEP provides financial and technical assistance for agricultural land and wetlands to promote their conservation and the benefits both provide.
Also under this program is the Agricultural Land Easements. This component assists the NRCS in promoting Native American tribes, state and local governments, and non-government organizations to protect working land and prevent non-agricultural use of said land. The Wetlands Reserve Easements is yet another component that works to restore, protect, and enhance wetlands.
Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)
Another working-land program, EQIP may provide cost-share payments to producers and landowners to encourage them to put into place management practices to conserve and protect. Under this program reside four other programs with focused intent, which include the Conservation Innovative Grants, Ground and Surface Water Conservation, Klamath River Basin, and Colorado River Basin Salinity Control programs
The Conservation Security Program (CSP)
This working lands program offers financial incentives and technical assistance to agricultural producers. The program rewards producers who promote conservation efforts and work to improve soil, water, air, energy, plant, and animal life. This program is one of the most promising as it could eventually affect US agricultural policy.
Since the 1930s, and not that far into the 20th century, the U.S. recognized that just as the environment affected agriculture, so agriculture affected the environment. The implementation of several soil conservation programs under USDA oversight illustrate the efforts that need to be made to prevent or at least minimize the damage of soil erosion.
World population has more than tripled since 1935, with now over seven billion humans on the planet that are fed and clothed through agriculture. As changing weather patterns produce storms and create unpredictability, agricultural producers and landowners must be more vigilant than ever.
Today there are many more programs filled with incentives and education to raise awareness and promote conservation efforts, a step in the right direction. Manufacturers are fulfilling the demand for substrates and sod-forming material to combat erosion and runoff. The National Resources Conservation Program has made strides forward to minimize the damage from soil erosion to include working land and land sent into retirement equally in the efforts to combat the effects of human activity and growth.
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