1935 – Publication – Tragic Truth About Erosion

1935 – Publication – Tragic Truth About Erosion (excerpts)

Sheet Washing

Tragic Truth About Erosion, 1935, by Hugh Bennett (U.S. Soil Conservation Service) and published by the New York Forest Preserve Association

Perhaps we can afford the loss of some of our land. At any rate, we have not unduly concerned ourselves about it. If, however, a foreign nation should invade the country and dynamite to a state of desolation thirty-five million acres of the land, which we already have ruined, or any fraction of such an area, we probably would be highly incensed over such trespassing. That a process of nature – rainwater running wild – has been the guilty party, this essential destruction of the equivalent of 220,000 farms of 160 acres each, for some strange reason strikes us as nothing to be alarmed about. We have even lost sight of the fact that all this violent chiseling away of the land would not have taken place had we not upset the normal order of things by doing away with nature’s stabilizers – the trees and grass and shrubs that were sown across the face of the earth to hold the soil in place. Nor have we stopped to think that after doing away with the plant cover we have still further upset natural processes by plowing up and laying bare to the wrath of wind and rain and melting snow the rich topsoil whose building has required countless thousands of years. With plows and overgrazing the natural firmness of the ground has been destroyed. The hidden conduits of the soil, the passageways made by earthworms, insects and plant roots, have been effectively destroyed or sealed and the normal soil porosity has been violently interfered with, thus intercepting downward movement of rainwater.

Unable to penetrate the soil, an excess of rainwater therefore flows across cultivated and overgrazed slopes, picking up the surface particles and sweeping them into the valleys and on toward the oceans. Proceeding with every rain heavy enough to cause water to run downhill, the humus-charged, rich surface layer is planed off by broad flowing sheets of water, finally to expose stiff clay or unconditioned, unproductive sand and soft or hard rock. In this way, sheet erosion has, as stated above, caused the loss of all or the greater part of the topsoil from 125 million acres of land still in cultivation. And still, the gouging effects have not stopped. It is at this stage of depletion that gullying usually sets in – that final stage of erosion that permanently destroys land.

Bad as is the combined effect of gullying, it is the slower sheet washing that causes the most widespread impoverishment of land. The process goes on so slowly and evenly over entire fields and pastures, that farmers usually are unconscious of what is taking place until infertile clay spots and even bedrock make their appearance, at which stage it is too late to save the soil. And here is where the tragedy comes it: Tens of thousands of hard-working farmers are now tilling clay subsoil which bakes and cracks in dry weather, refuses to absorb the rains when they fall, and resists the efforts of animals straining at the plow. Other thousands are tilling a mixture of shale or other rock and poor subsoil material. The evil of erosion is not a threat of the future to those operating on these denuded areas. Here is a tragedy of the present – farmers without real farmland, working from sunrise to sunset to gain the barest subsistence, even when the prices of their products are above the level of “Hard times”. The houses of many of these farmers and the grounds about them bear the depressing stamp of neglect, poverty and hopelessness. Men, women and children have been beaten down to the lowly level of subsoil farming, such as we are coming to understand as decadent farming – or bankrupt farming on bankrupt land.

Our Habit of Waste

America’s original wealth of natural resources was so vast, it is little wonder that we early fell into the habit of thinking our herd of buffalo, our forests and rich agricultural lands were limitless and inexhaustible. We killed off the buffalo for their hides, we have exterminated several species of birds and woefully depleted our game and fur resources, we have about completed cutting down some of the greatest forests of hardwoods and soft woods on the face of the earth. Now we are doing our best to finish up the sloping farmlands of the nation.

There was a time in this country, and not so long ago, when we felt that we were too richly endowed with natural resources to spend anything to put chains upon our reckless prodigality or to waste time with planning for the future. That the present was thought to be well enough served to turn our faces from the shadows cast by coming events. Trees were looked upon as weeds, hence our “log-rolling”, or fire festivals having to do with the quickest possible disposal of the timber of new clearings, Land was limitless, we thought; accordingly, we cleared a field, used it until it was exhausted and then cleared another field to put through the mill of impoverishing and destroying erosion.

Mathematically, an end had to come to this. Now we are beginning to think in the opposite direction. Perhaps some of us have thought recently that we are getting too poor not to do something to check the waste. At any rate, we are not merely thinking nowadays; we actually are beginning to do something.

Picture of soil erosion, Lake George Island:

1935 is the fiftieth anniversary of the New York State Forest Preserve, founded on the principle of greatest benefit to the largest number of people – “The lands of the State,, now owned or hereafter acquired, constitution the Forest Preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed, (Article VII, Section 7, New york State Constitution)

another photo, with caption: