Fort Collins Conservation District

Ron Neher

Conservation programs, - part of American history

By: Ron Neher, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Retired

Just a few hundred years ago, two men, along with a contingency of assistance, set out under the direction of President Thomas Jefferson to research the "West." Those two men, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, reported of their findings.

What those findings were, and later confirmed by other explorers who followed them, gave rise to a large immigration of people from the East, seeking a new start in life, to head west and settle on this "new land." Imagine what it was like back then with plenty of open space for thousands of new families to settle.

With the initial occupation of the settlers being involved in some form of agriculture, many of those entering this vast new "promised land" sought the opportunity to break sod and get involved in crop production. That was the American spirit back then, much like it is today, 200 years later.

It is probably safe to say that controlling erosion or worrying about water quality or air pollution was farthest from their minds. However, with the onslaught of the Dust Bowl and other devastating events, private landowners began to re-evaluate how they were treating the soil and other natural resources.

Today, farmers, ranchers, and those owning private forests own and manage two-thirds of our nation's land. They, in fact, are the stewards of our soil, water, and air quality. Soil losses due to land use are dramatically lower than in those earlier days. This vast reduction is due to several reasons that stem from changes in agricultural technology and research, to conservation policies and new inventions of farm machinery. Presently, our natural resources are being conserved and used in dramatic fashion.

Since 1985, with the signing of the 1985 Farm Bill, conservation programs, administered through agencies of the USDA, have played a major role in conservation of our natural resources. According to the National Resources Inventory, as a whole, soil erosion and wetland losses have declined with water quality improving. Much of this reduction can be attributed to farmers and ranchers implementing conservation practices through various conservation programs such as the Great Plains Conservation Program, the Conservation Reserve Program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and other government conservation programs. Although soil erosion has declined during the past four or five decades, with much of that decline due to implementation of these conservation programs, it is obvious to see that erosion is still occurring and will continue to occur as land is used to produce food and fiber.

So will resource losses ever end? When do we get to a point whereby we cease the use of conservation programs, - based on various conservation practices, education through research, or other attempts, - and finally arrive at that magical pinnacle point in time when soil erosion and water quality degradation cease to exist? We simply do not. It is something we must always be working toward as we strive to not only produce food for the world, but also to sustain our own families.

Conservation programs have played an important role over the past several decades in American agriculture. Through continued attention toward agricultural policies that sustain not only conservation of our natural resources, but also our rural lifestyle, American agriculture will continue to prosper in the 21st century.