There are two ways to apply conservation to land. One is to superimpose some particular practice upon the pre-existing system of land-use, without regard to how it fits or what it does to or for other interests involved.
The other is to reorganize and gear up the farming, forestry, game cropping, erosion control, scenery, or whatever values may be involved so that they collectively comprise a harmonious balanced system of land-use.
Each of our conservation factions has heretofore been so glad to get any action at all on its own special interest that it has been anything but solicitous about what happened to the others. This kind of progress is probably better than none, but it savors too much of the planless exploitation it is intended to supersede.
Lack of mutual cooperation among conservation groups is reflected in laws and appropriations. Whoever gets there first writes the legislative ticket to his own particular destination. We have somehow forgotten that all this unorganized avalanche of laws and dollars must be put in order before it can permanently benefit the land, and that this onerous job, which is evidently too difficult for legislators and propagandists, is being wished upon the farmer and upon the administrator of public properties. The farmer is still trying to make out what it is that the many-voiced public wants him to do. The administrator, who is seldom trained in more than one of the dozen special fields of skill comprising conservation, is growing gray trying to shoulder his new and incredibly varied burdens. The stage, in short, is all set for somebody to show that each of the various public interests in land is better off when all cooperate than when all compete with each other. This principle of integration of land uses has been already carried out to some extent on public properties like the National Forests. But only a fraction of the land, and the poorest fraction at that, is or can ever become public property. The crux of the land problem is to show that integrated use is possible on private farms, and that such integration is mutually advantageous to both the owner and the public.
Such was the intellectual scenery when, in 1933, there appeared upon the stage of public affairs a new federal bureau, the United States Soil Erosion Service. Erosion-control is one of those new professions whose personnel has been recruited by the fortuitous interplay of events. Previous to 1933 its work had been to define and propagate an idea, rather than to execute a task. Public responsibility had never laid its crushing weight on their collective shoulders. Hence the sudden creation of a bureau, with large sums of easy money at its disposal, presented the probability that some one group would prescribe its particular control technique as the panacea for all the ills of the soil. There was, for example, a group that would save land by building concrete check-dams in gullies, another by terracing fields, another by planting alfalfa or clover, another by planting slopes in alternating strips following the contour, another by curbing cows and sheep, another by planting trees.
It is to the lasting credit of the new bureau that it immediately decided to use not one, but all, of these remedial methods. It also perceived from the outset that sound soil conservation implied not merely erosion control, but also the integration of all land crops. Hence, after selecting certain demonstration areas on which to concentrate its work, it offered to each farmer on each area the cooperation of the government in installing on his farm a reorganized system of land-use, in which not only soil conservation and agriculture, but also forestry, game, fish, fur, flood-control, scenery, songbirds, or any other pertinent interest were to be duly integrated. It will probably take another decade before the public appreciates either the novelty of such an attitude by a bureau or the courage needed to undertake so complex and difficult a task.
The first demonstration area to get under way was the Coon Valley watershed, near LaCrosse, in west-central Wisconsin. This paper attempts a thumbnail sketch of what is being done on the Coon Valley Erosion Project. Coon Valley is one of the innumerable little units of the Mississippi Valley which collectively fill the national dinner pail. Its particular contribution is butterfat, tobacco, and scenery.
When the cows which make the butter were first turned out upon the hills which comprise the scenery, everything was all right because there were more hills than cows and because the soil still retained the humus which the wilderness vegetation through the centuries had built up. The trout streams ran clear, deep, narrow, and full. They seldom overflowed. This is proven by the fact that the first settlers stacked their hay on the creek banks, a procedure now quite unthinkable. The deep loam of even the steepest fields and pastures showed never a gully, being able to take on any rain as it came and turn it either upward into crops or downward into perennial springs. It was a land to please everyone, be he an empire-builder or a poet.
But pastoral poems had no place in the competitive industrialization of pre-war America, least of all in Coon Valley with its thrifty and ambitious Norse farmers. More cows, more silos to feed them, then machines to milk them, and then more pasture to graze them- this is the epic cycle which tells in one sentence the history of the modern Wisconsin dairy farm. More pasture was obtainable only on the steep upper slopes, which were timber to begin with, and should have remained so. But pasture they now are, and gone is the humus of the old prairie which until recently enabled the upland ridges to take on the rains as they came.
Result: Every rain pours off the ridges as from a roof. The ravines of the grazed slopes are the gutters. In their pastured condition they cannot resist the abrasion of the silt-laden torrents. Great gashing gullies are torn out of the hillside. Each gully dumps its load of hillside rocks upon the fields of the creek bottom and its muddy waters into the already swollen streams. Coon Valley, in short, is one of the thousand farm communities which, through the abuse of its originally rich soil, has not only filled the national dinner pail, but has created the Mississippi flood problem, the navigation problem, the overproduction problem, and the problem of its own future continuity.
The Coon Valley Erosion Project is an attempt to combat these national evils at their source. The “nine-foot channel” and endless building of dykes, levees, dams and harbors on the lower river, are attempts to put a halter on the same bull after he has gone wild.
The Soil Erosion Service says to each individual farmer in Coon Valley: “The government wants to prove that your farm can be brought back. We will furnish you free labor, wire, seed, lime, and planting stock, if you will help us reorganize your cropping system. You are to give the new system a 5-year trial.” A total of 315 farmers, or nearly half of all the farms in the watershed, have already formally accepted the offer. Hence, we now see foregathered at Coon Valley a staff of technicians to figure out what should be done: a C.C.C. camp to perform labor, a nursery, a seed warehouse, a lime quarry, and other needed equipment, and a series of contracts with farmers, which, collectively, comprise a “regional plan” for the stabilization of the watershed and of the agricultural community which it supports.
The plan, in a nutshell, proposes to remove all cows and crops from steep slopes and to use these slopes for timber and wildlife only. More intensive cultivation of the flat lands is to make up for the retirement of the eroding hillsides. Gently sloping fields are to be terraced or strip-cropped. These changes, plus contour farming, good crop rotations, and the repair of eroding gullies and stream banks, constitute the technique of soil restoration.
The steep slopes, now to be used for timber and game, have heretofore been largely in pasture. The first visible evidence of the new order on a Coon Valley farm is a C.C.C. crew stringing a new fence along the contour which marks the beginning of forty per cent gradients. This new fence commonly cuts off the upper half of the pasture. Part of this upper half still bears timber, the rest is open sod. The timbered part has been grazed clear of undergrowth, but with protection this will come back to brush and young timber and make range for ruffed grouse. The open part is being planted, largely to conifers-white pine, Norway pine, and Norway spruce for north slopes, Scotch pine for south slopes. The dry south slopes present a special problem. In pre-settlement days they carried hazel, sumac, and bluestem rather than timber, the grass furnishing the medium for quick hot fires. Will these hot dry soils, even under protection, allow the planted Scotch pine to thrive? I doubt it. Only the north slopes and coves will develop commercial timber, but all the fenced land can at least be counted upon to produce game and soil cover and cordwood.
Creek banks and gullies, as well as steep slopes, are being fenced and planted. Despite their much smaller aggregate area, these bank plantings will probably add more to the game carrying capacity of the average farm than will the larger solid blocks of plantings on slopes. This prediction is based on their superior dispersion, their higher proportion of deciduous species, and their richer soils.
The bank plantings have showed up a curious hiatus in our silvicultural knowledge. We have learned so much about the growth of the noble conifers that we employ higher mathematics to express the profundity of our information, but at Coon Valley there have arisen, unanswered, such sobering elementary questions as this: What species of willow grow from cuttings? When and how are cuttings made, stored, and planted? Under what conditions will sprouting willow logs take root? What shrubs combine thorns, shade tolerance, grazing resistance, capacity to grow from cuttings, and the production of fruits edible by wild life? What are the comparative soil-binding properties of various shrub and tree roots? What shrubs and trees allow an understory of grass to grow, thus affording both shallow and deep rootage? How do native shrubs or grasses compare with cultivated grasses for rootbinding terrace outlets? What silvicultural treatment favors an ironwood understory to furnish buds for grouse? Can white birch for budding be planted on south slopes? Under what conditions do oak sprouts retain leaves for winter game cover?
Forestry and fencing are not the alpha and omega of Coon Valley technique. In odd spots of good land near each of the new game coverts, the observer will see a newly enclosed spot of a half-acre each. Each of these little enclosures is thickly planted to sorghum, kaffir, millet, proso, sunflower. These are the food patches to forestall winter starvation in wild life. The seed and fence were furnished by the government, the cultivation and care by the farmer. There were 337 such patches grown in 1934—the largest food-patch system in the United States, save only that found on the Georgia Quail Preserves. There is already friendly rivalry among many farmers as to who has the best food patch, or the most birds using it. This feeding system is, I think, accountable for the fact that the population of quail in 1934-35 was double that of 1933-34, and the pheasant population was quadrupled. Such a feeding system, extended over all the farms of Wisconsin, would, I think, double the crop of farm game in a single year.
This whole effort to rebuild and stabilize a countryside is not without its disappointments and mistakes. A December blizzard flattened out most of the food-patches and forced recourse to hopper feeders. The willow cuttings planted on stream banks proved to be the wrong species and refused to grow. Some farmers, by wrong plowing, mutilated the new terraces just built in their fields. The 1934 drought killed a large part of the plantings of forest and game cover.
What matter, though, these temporary growing pains when one can cast his eyes upon the hills and see hard-boiled farmers who have spent their lives destroying land now carrying water by hand to their new plantations? American lumbermen may have become so steeped in economic determinism as actually to lack the personal desire to grow trees, but not Coon Valley farmers! Their solicitude for the little evergreens is sometimes almost touching. It is interesting to note, however, that no such pride or tenderness is evoked by their new plantings of native hardwoods. What explains this difference in attitude? Does it arise from a latent sentiment for the conifers of the Scandinavian homeland? Or does it merely reflect that universal urge to capture and domesticate the exotic which found its first American expression in the romance of Pocahontas, and its last in the Americanization of the ringnecked pheasant?
Most large undertakings display, even on casual inspection, certain policies or practices which are diagnostic of the mental attitude behind the whole venture. From these one can often draw deeper inferences than from whole volumes of statistics. A diagnostic policy of the Coon Valley staff is its steadfast refusal to straighten streams. To those who know the speech of hills and rivers, straightening a stream is like shipping vagrants—a very successful method of passing trouble from one place to the next. It solves nothing in any collective sense.
Not all the sights of Coon Valley are to be seen by day. No less distinctive is the nightly “bull session” of the technical staff. One may hear a forester expounding to an engineer the basic theory of how organic matter in the soil decreases the per cent of run-off; an economist holds forth on tax rebates as a means to get farmers to install their own erosion control. Underneath the facetious conversation one detects a vein of thought—an attitude toward the common enterprise-which is strangely reminiscent of the early days of the Forest Service. Then, too, a staff of technicians, all under thirty, was faced by a common task so large and so long as to stir the imagination of all but dullards. I suspect that the Soil Erosion Service, perhaps unwittingly, has recreated a spiritual entity which many older conservationists have thought long since dead.
This article was originally printed in American Forests magazine in 1935. It was reprinted in The River of the Mother of God, a collection of Leopold’s writings published in 1991 by UW Press. Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation archives, www.aldoleopold.org