In every even numbered year, North Carolina has elections for county officials. In every other one of these even numbered years, like 2016, there is a simultaneous election at the top of the ballot for President of the United States. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent and mass media is fixated over more than a year, assuring global attention to this important election. But at the bottom of those ballots in every even numbered year, another set of elections takes place with implications for the State’s environment–yet the media attention, if any, is almost always limited to asking “what do these people do, these Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisors?” Our collective ignorance of the work of soil and water conservation districts is sadly paralleled by our ignorance of the importance of soil itself. Water makes its way into our headlines more regularly these days, though it is still largely taken for granted in the well-watered eastern United States. Soil–that thin, living layer that sustains life itself on what, without it, would be a lifeless rock in space–has got to be the most undervalued environmental attribute in our world.
Not everyone is so ignorant of the importance of soil. Anyone who succeeds in producing plants for a few seasons, whether farmer or gardener, comes to understand how vital soil is. The soil and water conservation districts are part of a great legacy of people who really understand how vital soil is. North Carolina has been a leader in soil and water conservation since Hugh Hammond Bennett, a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate from Anson County, convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a desperate, Depression-era U.S. Congress that government must make active efforts to protect and restore the soil. In those days it was obvious what the problems were: the Dustbowl Era saw huge chunks of American topsoil literally blown away. For a great account of that piece of environmental history, see Ken Burns’ documentary, The Dust Bowl, a chronical of “the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history.”
Thanks in large part to Dr. Bennett, it was obvious what the soil erosion problems were in the Dustbowl era. But it was not at all obvious how the federal government could help solve those problems, given that they were local in nature and spread all across a huge country that was primarily governed by states, counties and cities. Soil conservation districts emerged as a solution after debates and discussion by a talented group of New Deal lawyers, agronomists and bureacrats. In the deepest depths of the Great Depression, 1935-36, they came up with a creative set of ideas that have persisted to this day: a way for states to set up soil conservation districts, with five supervisors, three of whom were democratically elected by the local community, so that they understood local needs; two of whom were appointed by a state commission to ensure that they understood the technical side of soil conservation. This new unit of local government would create plans that set priorities for federal funding, which would be distributed to partially pay for the installation of conservation practices on the land on a voluntary basis, where landowners were willing to help establish and maintain the practices. They wrote these ideas up in a model state soil and water conservation law. For an interesting look at the people and the thinking behind that law, see An Interview with Philip Glick, The Preparation of the Standard State Soil Conservation Districts Law (Feb. 1990). North Carolina was among the first states to pass that law, now G.S. Chapter 139. On August 4, 1937, North Carolina established the very first soil conservation district in the nation, the Brown Creek Soil and Water Conservation District, in Hugh Bennett’s home county of Anson. Brown Creek district remains proud and active to this day.
Today the problems that soil and water conservation districts work on are still important, but less visible, less publicly-understood, and even more complex. For counties in which production agriculture remains vital to the local economy, the districts continue to do work much like the demonstration projects and other farm-oriented efforts that Hugh Hammond Bennett championed. They represent a non-regulatory approach to conservation. Farmers are given technical and financial assistance to install practices that keep the soil and water healthy. Thousands of these practices have been installed on farms all across North Carolina, and across the country, with the result that, in many places, agriculture today is much more environmentally sound, even at large-scale, commodity-oriented farms, than it was in past decades.
In urbanized areas of the State and the nation, however, the role of the soil and water districts is contested. Many local government officials and managers assume that soil and water conservation districts exist only to serve agricultural interests. On that assumption, why should a county in which there is little or no agriculture support a district? In fact, the districts themselves in urbanized places have evolved ways to make their expertise useful for urban problems, such as stormwater management. But the degree of support within the soil and water conservation world for what’s become known in N.C. as Community Conservation Assistance, a cost-share program aimed at solving stormwater problems, is unclear–some agriculture advocates see the program as competing with farm-oriented cost share programs. Soil and water problems do not disappear when an area urbanizes; they just change, and often increase. And as the original authors of the nation’s model soil and water districts law recognized, there are vital public education needs when environmental problems are severe enough to require regulation. Many soil and water districts have made this environmental education task a core part of their work.
Even in areas where agriculture predominates, there are major challenges for soil and water conservation. The Depression-era creators of soil and water conservation districts really did believe in delegating lots of discretion on spending to the local level, but over time there has been tension between federal experts and local districts over control of the planning process. The uniqueness of the districts, amplified by the relative lack of public understanding of their purpose and structure, means that other local government partners (such as county managers) constantly need education about what districts can and can’t do. The lack of public understanding is amplified in some districts by their relatively closed nature–in the worst cases, essentially keeping access to funding streams limited to small groups “in the know.” The overall tension in American agriculture between commodity-oriented “get big or get out” approaches versus the rise of younger farmers aiming at more “artisanal” production for local markets is sometimes felt within districts. More generally, there is the constant tension between production goals and conservation, as was seen quite visibly in recent years when high corn prices led farmers to want to take conservation lands back and put them into production. Then there is the diffuse, hard-to-control nature of some contemporary pollution concerns, like excess nutrients and groundwater contamination–the less visible the environmental problem, the more difficult to get agreement that it deserves attention and resources. Finally, there is this built-in tension in district philosophy: great pride in having non-regulatory programs, but a reluctance to admit that the districts themselves have to play a regulatory role by making sure that public monies are well spent, on practices that are really needed and that are installed and maintained properly.
Despite the hard challenges, we should be thankful that we have this soil and water conservation district structure for identifying, discussing and managing these problems. The long persistence and stability of the soil and water program is a credit to its founders, including North Carolina’s own Hugh Hammond Bennett. Soil and water districts can teach us all some things about how water and the soil itself bind together cities, towns and the farms in between. One of the great needs in environmental policy, if not public policy as a whole in the U.S.A., is figuring out how to make the city and the country work well together. So get to know your local soil and water conservation supervisors and staff. If you are interested in agriculture and environmental policy and your local conservation needs, consider running for a supervisor position or volunteering as an associate (non-voting) supervisor. At the very least, put a little time into that bottom-of-the ballot choice we have every other year. The better our soil and water district supervisors, the better our soil and water.