The Lewis and Clarke expedition into the sprawling prairies and thickets of the Western wilderness may be romanticized today, but some 200 years ago it was an undertaking inspired by hard political reality.

President Thomas Jefferson, who had just completed the purchase of the vast region known as Louisiana, dispatched the two explorers to take a thorough inventory of the resources in this virgin land.  He wanted to know what in this vast territory could be exploited by a young farming nation as it pushed relentlessly into the deep reaches of the so-called Western back country.

And exploit Americans did — for more than a century before nature began pushing back with a vengeance, says Charles Mitchell, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System agronomist and Auburn University professor of agronomy and soils.

Long before the laying of the Continental Railroad, hundreds of thousands of farm families had pushed beyond the Mississippi into the Plains, over the Rockies and ultimately to the California coast. Railroads only made this relentless pushing easier — and faster.

“There was nothing we couldn’t exploit — and we did,” Mitchell says.

Even as early as the 1860s, a few foresighted statesmen had perceived that Americans were dealing with limited resources — thinking reflected in the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, which established a network of agricultural schools to impart scientific farming methods to young farmers.

“Congress perceived we were running out of land and that we had to come up with some way of sustaining agricultural production with the resources that we had,” Mitchell says.

With the establishment of agricultural research stations following passage of the Hatch Act of 1887, scientists, including the late John Duggar of what was then Alabama Polytechnic Institute began laying the groundwork for what we know today as sustainable agriculture.

“His (Duggar’s) basic premise was that we could sustain cotton production by following a few simple practices — rotating crops, keeping the land covered in winter,” Mitchell says. “(That) underscored that so long as land remained productive we could sustain agricultural production.”

Duggar is remembered for affirming that “agriculture will come into its own when her fields are green in winter.”

Unfortunately, few farmers then were heeding the calls of Duggar and other conservation-minded scientists. By the 1930s, the proverbial chickens had come home to roost in the Midwest. A decade-long drought was made worse by farming practices that paid little heed to the environment.

Precious topsoil that had accumulated over centuries crumbled in the summer heat and was blown hundreds of miles by brisk prairie winds.

Environmental tragedy

The worsening effects of this Dust Bowl drove about 25 percent of the population of the Great Plains off their farms — and environmental tragedy explored recently in The Dust Bowl, a four-hour PBS documentary by renowned filmmaker Ken Burns. 

When historians contend that the Dust Bowl changed the face of America, they are not exaggerating.

The Deep South, blessed with plentiful rainfall, escaped the Dust Bowl’s effects, but plowing was nonetheless eroding topsoil at an alarmingly rapid rate and exacting a heavy environmental toll.

“By the 1930s, Alabama farmers had five-million acres of cotton under cultivation and about that much corn,” Mitchell says, adding that “irresponsible farming practices had ravaged the land, much as they had in the Midwest.”

Instead of being blown into the wind though, topsoil in the South was washed by ample rains into lakes, rivers and streams. After more than a century of row-crop agriculture, much of the state’s soil had settled at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

The personal fortunes of individual farmers were not all that were bound up in this tragedy—so, too, was the nation’s long-term security.

The Dust Bowl forced policymakers to see the nation’s soil reserves in a new way: As a national security issue, because without adequate reserves, the nation couldn’t sustain farming.

“Over time you lose your productivity and your ability to feed yourself not only as a person but as a state and country,” says William Puckett, director of the Natural Resource Conservation Service in Alabama.

Alabama and other Southern states turned out to be the indirect beneficiaries of the national response to the Dust Bowl crisis.   

The Soil Conservation Service, now known as the Natural Resource Conservation Service to reflect its expanded mission, was established in 1935 to provide farmers incentives to preserve eroding topsoil.

Borrowing the demonstration models that had been perfected by an earlier generation of Cooperative Extension educators, soil conservationists have always prided themselves on using voluntary approaches to enlist farmers in soil conservation.

Puckett says that, from the beginning, his agency has operated on the principles of Hugh Hammond Bennett, the pioneer of soil conservation and the first Soil Erosion Service administrator.  Hammond always emphasized that direct interaction between a farmer and a government employee was typically not the best way to propagate good soil conservation practices. 

Instead, soil conservation districts were organized to serve as an intermediary between farmers and the agency employees, underscoring that soil conservation efforts represented as much an innovation in thinking as it did in technology.

Efforts initially aimed at securing soil and sediment control have since been expanded to conservation efforts targeted to soil, water, air, plants, animals and energy.

Burn’s documentary has provided Puckett and other conservation advocates with an opportunity to remind 21st century Americans of the myriad of ways that conservation practices that grew out of the Dust Bowl crisis literally have changed the face the country.

Perhaps no other natural event in recent times underscored the value of soil conservation more than the severe drought of 2012. Despite one of the driest summers on record, U.S. farmers produced more corn and other crops in 2012 than they did in the 1980s.

Puckett says the effects of these advances are plainly visible today— almost 80 years later.

“One thing I like to tell people is that if they take a Sunday afternoon drive with the family, they will see the mark of conservation efforts wherever they go,” he says.