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article number 278
article date 10-15-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
We Begin to Have Concerns about Conservation, 1890-1940
by Roger Burlingame

From the 1940 book, Engines of Democracy.

§ 1

WHEN the last frontier closed in the 1890’s a few realists made a rough sort of inventory and uttered the astounding pronouncement that the natural resources of the United States were not inexhaustible. This was such an affront to American tradition that the investigators were thought unpatriotic. Miners and lumbermen, who had organized their enterprises into large corporations which paid excellent dividends to absentee stockholders, were particularly grieved by such an un-American suggestion.

Yet the foreboding persisted in stern, unromantic minds. Generally speaking, doubts like this gain a hold in times of depression and lose it on the upswing. The early nineties were bad times. In these years the first Forest Reserve was created.

There was another depression around 1907 and Theodore Roosevelt was able to gain the public ear for the first serious suggestions on economy applied to forests, land and water. It was difficult to call the beloved Colonel either un-American or socialist, yet the “interests” fought him bitterly.

The first Roosevelt, though he had romantic intervals in some departments of thought, was not deceived about natural resources. His effort toward economy was on a large scale. In Gifford Pinchot he had a fighting aide.

There was another lapse after Roosevelt, though Wilson’s administration began with battles against waste. The World War interrupted them.

Thrift is not easy in wartime. When this one began in Europe, new frontiers of opportunity appeared in the United States. America’s entrance into the war bred new romanticism, which carried us over the first difficult post-war period into the halcyon twenties, when conservation was forgotten by the people.

It was not forgotten by the experts. The army of them which the first Roosevelt had mobilized, though ineffective in the apathy of fictional prosperity which now supplemented genuine wealth, went right on studying terrain and strategy. These men and women had become fascinated and no wonder. They saw beneath the surface into the science which must underlie any national economic scheme.

Famous picture of Teddy Roosevelt at Yosemite. He was a rugged outdoors-man and was able to gain the public ear for the first serious suggestions on economy applied to forests, land and water.

They understood the poverty of the ground on which the orgy was in full swing. They saw clearly into the dungeon beneath the banquet hall.

If any real basis of American prosperity were to be saved, a fourth dimension must be added to the three in which the exploitation of the physical country was already operating. The first two dimensions had been those of expansion. The third was depth, supplementing the surface yields. The fourth must be science.

The depression of the opening thirties prepared the people for the realistic demands of a new, revolutionary political administration. There was still a confusion in the public mind between money and physical wealth, a normal result of the decade of fictional values.

Quite naturally a program of extensive spending of money was alarming at a moment of such evident ruin. Yet, as the public became educated to certain basic conditions which underlay much of the nation’s unrest, it admitted the wisdom of the large outlays in one direction at least.

Except where there was a conflict with ancient business traditions, few Americans quarrelled with the second Roosevelt about his efforts to save the land on which the nation stands and from which it derives its sustenance. The effort of the new administration in this direction has all been centered upon introducing the fourth dimension. This chapter and the two which follow will concern themselves with applications of science to the use of natural resources.

The experts who had multiplied in the silent army, occupied for three decades in strategic study, were ready by 1930. In the stunned interval of the depression they flooded the country with spectacular accounts of their findings.

The product of mines and oil wells had been and was still being wasted on such a scale that the end of such resources was actually in sight.

But still more disastrous was the total disappearance of millions of tons of soil. A large part of the arable land was gone beyond recovery. Much of what remained was going fast. They drew a picture of the country as it would look within the lifetime of our grandchildren. It was a picture of famine.


Why? They asked the rhetorical question and answered it. Because of the belief of our ancestors that there were no limits to the physical wealth of America. Because under this delusion they had raped the land. Because they were encouraged in their ravages by a laissez-faire economy, a hands-off government which, nevertheless, had followed a profligate land policy.

Because government, terrified lest it interfere with the hallowed rights of the individual in his private property, had permitted, that individual to collectivize the forces of destruction in gigantic lumbering, mining and agricultural corporations or combinations.

The collective forces, assisted by rapidly advancing technology, had denuded the forests, torn up the grasslands, flooded and polluted the rivers, abolished the wildlife.

The experts blamed the railroad builders, the highway builders, the city builders, the planters and the farmers. They came at last to the beloved pioneers, the men and women who had settled the big river basins, the prairies, the Great Plains, who had pushed the nation west to the Rockies.

The statements of the experts were all true. No fair-minded reader of the whole story could dispute any of them. Even when they pointed out that there was no “alibi” in the plea of ignorance, the historical record bore them out. At the very start of the Federation, knowledge was abundant, there for the asking. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Ruffin and other highly influential persons understood soil conservation.

John Quincy Adams fought for the protection of the forests. Visitors from abroad were shocked by wasteful American agriculture and constantly printed their protests. Robert Barton of Virginia talked in vain for years about scientific farming, inspiring no one but the McCormicks, who introduced machines to abet the waste. The Germans and Swedes, who settled so much of the West, came from lands where conservation had long been practiced, so any suggestion of ignorance there must be discounted.

So all these “conquerors” of a continent whose conquest brought defeat for the soil were sinners against the light. If the exposition of their sins acts as a deterrent to future generations, then the end and result will be beneficial.


At the same time, the historian must accept these abuses as incidental to a large political and social pattern, and in such a view the sense of sin is somewhat tempered. He must remember, in looking back over the evolution of a continent-wide political domination, the importance of the time factor.

If the pioneers had proceeded by all the best available technics to conserve land resources in the places which they settled, we might have, today, some twenty nations instead of one.

There might still be large, scarcely expanded areas between them. Stretches like the Great Plains might have remained unorganized, inhabited, in 1940, by savage tribes. Such a continent might be a desirable place to live in but it would not be the United States we know today.

As it was, the lure of virgin land drawing men away from land which had been abused was the basic cause of our rapid expansion. If the forests had not been cut to make rafts, steamboats, railroad ties, plank roads and, finally, houses, the expansion could not have taken place. The large spaces to be covered imposed a necessity of speed which precluded scientific forestry.

The transcontinental railroad, an urgent necessity to a continent-wide political United States, laid out the geography of towns and farm lands, and undoubtedly laid it out wrong from the conservationist’s point of view.

But having drawn the pattern and at the same time sketched the plan of continent-wide industrial revolution, it was unavoidable that enormous masses of people should move upon its tracks, build cities along them and exploit the adjacent land for all it was worth.

Indeed, the circle becomes more intricately vicious here, for it was only through such exploitation that the railroad could be financed rapidly enough to achieve a coast-to-coast national integrity. This meant more forest-cutting, more quick, careless plowing, more eventual erosion.

Delay in the process would have caused national dissolution. Our history is dotted with attempted secessions, the embryos of separate national schemes. But for the industrial integrity of the North, the South would have been lost to the nation in the sixties. A Pacific republic was averted just in time by the railroad and by rapid, wasteful exploitation of mines.

Still earlier there was talk of an independent nation in the Louisiana Territory, which abated when thousands of rafts floated down the Ohio and the Mississippi to establish connection with the Atlantic fringe. Waste accompanied all of these salvages. It was an inevitable product of Manifest Destiny.


Perhaps a continent-wide nation achieved at such cost is not worth while. Perhaps we should be happier if, like Europe, we had gone more gradually at our building. To glance at Europe from 1914 to 1918 and again in 1939 and in 1940 suggests doubts. There seem to be advantages in a unified political commonwealth stretched between the oceans.

At any rate, there it is, and with it a tragic Dust Bowl, washed-out farms, naked, gullied hillsides, a dearth of wild life, polluted rivers, springtime floods. It does no good to say that if we had not cut the trees we should have no towns to be washed away. The vice is rotary and the whole of our civilization is caught in the whirlpool.

Our concentration, therefore, must be not on who started the circle but on the best means of striking a tangent. It is a consolation to know that nowhere in the world has such a colossal mechanism of salvage been set up as in the United States. Some things are forever lost. Others may, in time, be restored. Still others which we now possess may be retained.

§ 2

There are two kinds of erosion. One is caused by water, the other by wind. Erosion may occur without the intervention of man. Over a large part of the earth, however, this has been prevented by plant life. The erosion with which the conservationists are most concerned is man-made.

A plant is a hydraulic machine. It draws water in through its roots and “transpires” it from its leaves. The transpired water drawn upward by the sun is held for a time suspended in the form of vapor; condensing, it falls as rain or snow, after which the process is repeated.


Roots perform another function. Forming a network in the ground they hold the water, keep it from running away. This is a first-line reserve for later drinking. A second line of reserve is established by water slowly seeping down through the root labyrinth into the subsoil below and finally into an underground artesian lake. Thence it may bubble up into surface ponds, lakes, rivers from which, eventually, it finds its way back to the sky. From such a lake, also, it may be drawn up through drilled wells to supply men and their animals.

If a surplus falls on the ground, it moves slowly over the leafy labyrinth of plants to a river, which carries it away to nourish remote places. Meanwhile, the watered and nourished plants grow, wither in their time, decay upon the ground and form humus for new growth. The humus, fibrous, absorbent, rich in plant food, accumulates for centuries and becomes what is known as topsoil.

The story of man-made water erosion is extremely simple. Men cut the trees on a hill and pull or burn the stumps. In any case the roots cease to function and soon disappear. When water falls on the hill, there is nothing to hold it. It is drunk by nothing, its flow is interrupted by no tangle of roots, it runs over the surface. This cheats both the soil and the artesian reserve.

Below the timber line the rushing water may encounter thick grass and there be dispersed and perform its normal functions. But if men have also plowed out the grass, there are no roots to disperse it. Here men may have employed art and plowed their furrows at right angles to the rushing stream in which case some of the water may be held in little reservoirs to nourish the crops.

But if they are extensive farmers like the pioneers, they have plowed up and down the hill creating channels instead of reservoirs. In these the torrent gains momentum. As it erodes the furrows it takes the topsoil with it. It deposits this in the river which, now swollen by many such free torrents, carries it to the sea where it is forever lost to man.

Millions of acres of topsoil—the accumulation of centuries—have thus been transported in the course of a few years into the Gulf of Mexico. But some of it, too, has stuck in the rivers in the form of “silt,” raising the level of the river and ruining power enterprises.

The great wheel. The total water on the planet is believed a fixed quantity but runs through a perpetual cycle. Evaporation and transpiration are followed by precipitation and infiltration—rivers carrying the run-off back to the ocean for subsequent evaporation.

The story of the Dust Bowl is equally simple. Vast stretches of grassy plain have been recklessly plowed. There are no more grass roots then, to hold the water in its natural reserves. In a region where the rainfall is slight, a drought follows.

The plains are wide and flat and hence constantly wind-blown. The winds blow the dry topsoil, which now has nothing to hold it in place, from Kansas or Oklahoma as far east, sometimes, as Vermont.

A natural question arises at this point. Why do the farmer’s crops not hold the soil as the grass has done? There are several answers. One is that the roots of clean-tilled crops like corn are too far apart to form thick networks as native grasses do. But the main reason is that between harvest and planting, the fields are bare.

These two activities, deforestation and careless plowing plus the highly important one of overgrazing, are the main causes of land loss. They have other effects, too, such as the destruction of cities from flood, and dust pneumonia.

But there are other causes of land loss. There are forest and prairie fires, factory fumes, concrete pavement, river poisoning, destruction of wild life, excavation, exhaustion from the over-cultivation of certain crops, and improper attempts at flood control. These subjects have been abundantly treated by specialists. We can do no more than summarize them here.

A handful of statistics suggests the extent of the damage already suffered. Out of our total area of about two billion acres, about seven hundred million or some 37 per cent, are slightly eroded and must be watched.

“Moderate” erosion, which means that a good deal of soil is already lost, is operating on a still larger acreage—about 41 per cent. Some 12 per cent of the land suffers severe erosion and only a fractional salvage is possible here. Three per cent has been wholly destroyed and cannot be recovered.

These figures were published by the Department of Agriculture in 1938. They had been compiled somewhat before that, so it may be assumed that there has been considerable destruction since that time.


How much is suggested by the single estimate that about three billion tons of topsoil are annually washed away from overgrazed pastures, cultivated or barren fields.

The destruction follows no simple arithmetical formula. Erosion breeds more erosion at an undetermined rate. This rate grows more rapid as more and more topsoil disappears. Bigger gullies carry more water, lead more water into land which is still good.

The momentum can be slowed down only if the methods used against it are on as large a scale as nature’s means of destruction.

An enormous “If” is posed by the Department of Agriculture. If present practices are continued, 61 per cent of our present crop land will be progressively destroyed. This leaves only 39 per cent which may be safely cultivated under prevailing practices—a bare hundred and sixty million acres.

Certain land not used at present may be reclaimed by irrigation or otherwise adjusted to crops. This brings the total which may safely be cultivated by current methods to a little more than two hundred million acres—less than one half of the total crop area now being exploited.

That is the black cloud which now hangs over American agriculture. It seems to annihilate our fond hopes for an agricultural revolution, a “back to the land” movement, the new opportunities for “chemurgy.” Fortunately the cloud has a silver lining. It is visible only when we begin to take seriously the Department of Agriculture’s giant “IF.”

If, adds the department, the best known practices are applied to the land, the cultivable area could be increased to an acreage even greater than the total under cultivation today.

The difficulty is that the “If” involves many old American traditions, customs, faiths; among them are rugged individualism, more ingrained, perhaps, in the farmer than in any one else; notions of private property and states’ rights and ignorance of the new concept of the public interest. Incidental among these are price structures, corporate ownership, industrial impingement, obstruction by utilities, absentee stockholders and many other collective factors.

To preserve the delicate balance between a democratic pattern and large public necessity is an extremely difficult task. A nation like the U. S. S. R. can force certain measures upon the people at a sacrifice which, happily, is inconceivable to Americans.

It is our practice to bring about reforms by education, a process which entails no loss of social liberties. An American, educated in public needs, will voluntarily make the kind of concession to government control which under the super-states is imposed from above.


It is certain that the farmer, by himself, cannot effect a reform. He must have the co-operation of his neighbors. Thus, in the Great Plains, a farmer who “lists” or deep-plows his land against dust will accomplish nothing unless his neighbor does likewise. When the dust starts to blow on his neighbor’s acres, his own efforts at conservation are lost.

In such an area it is all or no one. This means regulation for salvage and is much like fire ordinances in a city.

The degree to which American farmers have shown themselves amenable to instruction in soil conservation is a proof of the fundamental soundness of our scheme. Freedom, after all, can derive only from a voluntary alliance with natural law.

The farmers are learning the “best practices.” These are less difficult, in fact, for the individualist farmer than for the large corporation which must pay dividends to absentee stockholders. If large blocs of land can be transferred to individualist farm-owners and if corporation-owned land can gradually be eased into the hands of government, with the eventual intent of returning it (after its repair) to true private ownership, much of it can be saved.

But behind the efforts of the farmer in contour-plowing, strip-cropping, rotation, grass and tree culture there must be a secure background of engineering. None of these careful tricks will avail much if a swollen river tears over them every spring, destroying, with its billions of gallons of wasted water, the farmer’s buildings and his stock.

Nor, in the arid lands which, nevertheless, have extremely fertile soil will the farmer prosper unless he can control and tap the rivers. Such a region exists on the coastal plain of southern California, and because its extreme necessities have mothered a host of engineering inventions which form the background of water control, it simplifies understanding of conservation to look at it first.

§ 3

For centuries the wild Colorado River has been looked on by man as something to be approached with extreme caution. Hundreds of intrepid explorers have been washed away through its mammoth canyons simply because they tried to cross it. Navigation in any of its seventeen hundred miles of flow has been abandoned. Its only practical use has been to furnish a strip of natural fertility along the banks of its lower basin in the California desert and artificial irrigation through the Imperial Valley by a canal starting near the river’s mouth in Mexico and thus subject to political difficulties.

But after farming began in occasional places along the Colorado, the river became every year more exasperating. Drawing down to a trickle in the parched summer, it would rise to terrible proportions in the spring so that the farmer was forever between the devil of drought and the deep sea of flood. It irked him no end to see water enough to keep him happy for a full year wash by him in a few weeks, carrying his property with it.

And the coastal cities, too, skimping through the summer on domestic water, grew angry at the spendthrift Colorado. Was there not some engineer smart enough to hold back part of this water and distribute it evenly over a suffering land?

There were plenty of them by 1920. It seemed, by that time, that there was nothing beyond the talents of the best engineers. But all the problems did not lie in the engineer’s province. American tradition had it that engineers were hired by private capital; that vast enterprises of this sort were initiated by corporations for profit. When corporations looked at the Colorado they were worried about capital, profit, the time factor.

How, then, about state governments? But the Colorado affected seven states and each of them had a different opinion of its usefulness. Arizona for instance, could scarcely be expected to spend millions of dollars to enrich California and thought the Colorado, which had helped carve her precious Grand Canyon, was more valuable for other purposes.

Modern map of Colorado River after dams show the numerous states affected.

So a group of Californians, in 1922, jumped tradition and called on the Federal Government, thus inviting paternalism, centralization and many other dread bogeys. We may imagine how distressing conditions had become when we see them driving good Republicans to such a step in the middle of a prosperous era.

Naturally, the Swing-Johnson Bill, which followed, was carefully worded. The harnessing of the Colorado, which the bill proposed, must, first of all, be self-liquidating. This was to be managed by the sale of the by-product, electric juice, over a period of fifty years, the total cost to be covered in advance by contracts.

Second, construction must be done by private companies under contract to the Government. Third, there must be no competition with private enterprise.

Fourth, states’ rights must not be infringed, so at least six of the seven states in the Colorado basin must ratify the act. The protected bill was signed in December, 1928, by the retiring Calvin Coolidge. Work began in 1930, the second year of the administration of the first engineer-president, Herbert Hoover.

The Boulder Canyon project was, perhaps, the most difficult engineering feat ever attempted in America. It consisted of three dams, a canal, reservoirs, power stations and lesser adjuncts. The largest (Boulder) dam would meet the full flow of the Colorado in Black Canyon—nearly a quarter million cubic feet per second—turn it back into a lake 115 miles long and, under perfect control, let enough water through to provide an evenly flowing river for three hundred miles below.

Incidentally, the controlled water would develop nearly two million horsepower and furnish more than four billion kilowatt hours annually to go toward liquidation. The dam itself was to be 726 feet high, almost a quarter-mile long across the river from Arizona to Nevada and about an eighth of a mile thick at the bottom.

A hundred and fifty miles below Boulder Dam a second dam (Parker) would divert enough of the river to deliver domestic water to thirteen cities including Los Angeles, and three hundred miles below Boulder Dam still another would send enough water through an eighty-mile All-American Canal to irrigate the whole of Imperial Valley.

A proof of the extent to which invention had adopted the scientific method by 1930 is in the fact that work on Boulder Dam was continuous and was completed in five years. There was no stopping to admit failure and try something else. The Colorado was thoroughly harnessed on paper before the first blast. Moreover the job was timed so that the concrete was ready-mixed at the exact moment it was needed (three and a quarter million cubic yards of it), the machinery was there to be installed not a second too late.

The first job was to throw the wild Colorado out of its course, to lead it gently into tunnels so that the bottom above the dam site would be dry.

The tunnels were fifty-six feet in diameter and some 4000 feet long; there were four of them, blasted through solid rock. The blasted rock was carted away to crushers and concrete mixers, where it was made into the material of the dam.

Railroads built along the precarious sides of Boulder Canyon carried the material, on time, from point to point; giant cables swung it across the river. Where the railroads could not go, motor trucks could and did.

The workers were as disciplined as an army, as automatic as soldiers in close-order drill. A model city was built for them, a clean, air-conditioned city which defied the scorching heat. To it the shifts returned for their rest. But day and night the work never stopped; hot sun or darkness did not alter the comings and goings of the workers.

One day the great wall was finished; the angry Colorado was let flow back, the torrents dashed out their fury against the concrete and bounded back through the dark canyons until among the naked hills stretched a peaceful lake, deep, navigable, giving healthful recreation to the people of two states and a refuge for wild fowl in a spot which had been as forbidding as the circles of Dante’s Inferno. The view of it today from the dam is scarcely real, for heaven, here, has flowed into hell.

Boulder Canyon Dam under construction, dedicated as the Hoover Dam.

The huge penstocks, turbines and generators were in place when the engineers saw fit to lead the Colorado into its new job. Carefully they measured flow, lake and river content, temperatures, salt, silt, revolutions of machines, electric pressures.

They looked upon their work and saw that it was good. So did the people of dozens of cities in three states, exulting in plenty of new cheap light and power. So did the farmers of the Imperial Valley, where the canal would carry peaceful waters to make an oasis in the dreadful desert two million acres big.

So did the water consumers of Los Angeles. The farm lands stretch over the rich soil, ignoring rainfall, ignoring flood. The farmers may build today in security—the force of the Colorado is with them, not against them.

The Boulder Canyon project is a triumph of American invention.

On a still larger scale, though scarcely more difficult as an engineering enterprise, the Columbia River is being controlled by Grand Coulee Dam. On a smaller scale, reclamation projects are dotted over the country. The inventions involved are children of the sternest necessity, proofs, indeed, of the hackneyed adage.

From the purely technical point of view, the waste of a century seems worth while. From such inventions a future may grow into reality which will make us forget the whole of the sinful past.

§ 4

But experiments in such arid or semi-arid regions are remote from the experience of Americans accustomed to diversified country and the normal changing seasons of the temperate zone. The struggles with the Colorado and Columbia rivers seem combats with exotic, unreasonable nature rather than with the man-made destruction of good, natural farm land.

To the majority of Americans, therefore, the regional planning in the great humid basin of the Tennessee River seems nearer home. Here we find higher than average rainfall, large diversity of country, land adapted by nature to forests and farms. Once heavily wooded, the rich loam held the water and the river moved gently.

When the forests were cut, there were great tracts of good farm land. It was planted, however, with exhausting crops like cotton and tobacco which began the depletion of plant food. Erosion followed. The flooding of the river, a normal consequence of tree destruction, wrought its usual havoc among towns and farms.

By 1930, the devastation of much of the valley had made such progress that an attempt to redeem it seemed courageous indeed. The experts knew that, here, erosion must be stopped in mid-career, that correction must be applied on a large scale or the valley would presently become a desert.

Then engineers, studying the river, estimated the size of an engineering project to give adequate water-control and here again, as in the West, it seemed obvious that only a great federal undertaking could achieve true conservation.


But the vision of such experts had grown. The pioneer concept that nothing was impossible in America was a part of their heritage. The rest was experience and scientific understanding based upon it. If nothing was impossible to the expanding, creative energy of the pioneer American, then nothing was impossible in salvage and economy to the American technology of the 1930’s.

There was still a political hurdle. It was jumped by the administration whose primary job was emergency salvage.

There was a vague background of effort by the department of government which concerns itself with Inland Waters to make the Tennessee navigable. This, surely, was a federal job, and the new planners wisely took off from this prerogative. But once navigation was achieved, the collateral opportunities loomed large before the eyes of the conservation technologists.

Why not turn the entire valley into a vast laboratory, a demonstration ground from which the whole country might learn to recover desperate regions?

But what about the people, citizens of a democracy? The people, it appeared, were as desperately in need of salvation as the land. But to rescue people in a democracy was a ticklish business. The administration understood this and contemplated no charity, no paternalism, no socialization.

The plan was intended simply to provide the people with certain normal basic opportunity to which citizenship and taxes entitled them. Part of that opportunity was education. Given it and given certain fundamental physical controls which they were unable to organize without expert administration, they would then have a start in salvaging themselves.

The inhabitants of the rural areas in the Tennessee Valley were a sad people. They were a discouraged people. Year after year they had watched their farms slide away. Poverty had driven them into dark, stinking cabins. Their self-respect was as patched as their clothes.

Many of them were tenants working depleting and depleted cotton crops for the barest subsistence. A hundred dollars a year provided a moderate budget for a sizeable and growing family, even if there were a few perquisites not reckoned in cash. Degradation, degeneracy, ignorance follow poverty and discouragement. These developments were well under way in the Tennessee Valley.

Under the Tennessee Valley Authority some 40,000 square miles were set aside for regional planning. For flood and navigation control of the Tennessee and its tributaries, ten dams have been estimated as necessary. Two of these already existed for power purposes, one being the celebrated Wilson Dam at Muscle Shoals which operated an explosives plant during the War. (The chemists at once saw the possibilities of this plant in making fertilizer.)

When the others are completed, a nine-foot navigable channel will run through the Tennessee River for a distance of 530 miles. This will create a true waterway from Knoxville to the Ohio where only a highly capricious stream ran before.

It will be a national, not a local benefit. Apart from navigation, the undertaking will reduce floods as far away as the Lower Mississippi Valley, with resulting benefits estimated at close to four hundred million dollars.

Plan of Tennessee Valley project showing seven great dams. Morris Dam, 265 feet high, 1872 feet long; Gunterville Dam, 80 feet high, 3980 feet long; Wheeler Dam 72 feet high, 6335 feet long; Wilson Dam, 137 feet high, 4860 feet long; Pickwick Dam, 107 feet high, 7755 feet long; Chickamauga Dam, 104 feet high, 5685 feet long; Fowler Bend Dam, 300 feet high, 1265 feet long.

Local improvement is largely a by-product of the dams. They have provided electrification in districts which would never have been reached by private enterprise. So that dark, cold houses are now lighted, powered, heated, equipped with cooking and refrigerating facilities at minimum cost. They have created lakes for recreation, the preservation of wild life, water storage. They furnish power to a valuable fertilizer plant.

When these benefits were achieved, both technical and social experts got to work. The hollow-eyed farmers watched skeptically the experiments in diversified farming, soil study, treating with phosphates (mined in the region), terracing, reforestation, preservation of fruits and vegetables, sorghum processing, tobacco curing, bookkeeping.

Slowly—for they had known much bitter experience—they became fascinated. They wanted to try these things on their own land. More and more of them became “Test-Demonstration farmers.”

Test-Demonstration served two purposes: first it improved the farmer’s own condition, second it provided an enlightening spectacle for his neighbors. This was voluntary, not enforced. Presently, therefore, in communities which had been dead or dying for years, there sprung up intense activity: for the first time meetings, committees, clubs, county organizations brought isolated folk together.

The Civilian Conservation Corps was turned loose in the region. Under TVA supervision, they planted some sixty million trees. By 1938, farmers had become interested in reforestation and in that year planted more than a million and a half on their own farms. By the end of the fiscal year, 1938, tree-planting had protected 6300 farms covering 950,000 acres.

Social inventors were busy, too, in the new, hopeful tract. As a result good schools have been established, effective medical service, education in sports and recreation are operating. In some of our enlightened communities we sometimes deplore over-organization in these directions. No one who has known the scattered solitary families of the Tennessee Valley can fail to understand the normal hunger of such people for social activity. TVA gave it a start and the people have carried on under their own leaders.

§ 5

The planners of TVA have encountered a difficulty in tabulating “self-liquidation” on a balance sheet which did not embarrass the planners of the Colorado project. Their imponderable figures do not easily reduce to dollars and cents over a definite period. There are a lot of curious items on their books.

Item: clean, healthy children in good schools. Item: mental activity, release from the eternal boredom of impoverished soil. Item: home-owning farmers. Items: a good, diversified diet, light, washing machines, heat, electric ranges, refrigerators, community interests, recreation, amusement. Item: education for thousands of people in the preservation of fruitful land. Item: the return of self-respect to a large degraded population.


Because TVA has concentrated so hard upon such things, they have neglected their publicity department. Against it an extremely talented lot of propagandists have operated under good pay from utility companies. Ineffectually trying to combat this army, untrained enthusiasts have talked about “yardsticks,” forgetting how literally such a word will be taken up by the enemy—applied wholly to electric power.

As a result of this uneven conflict, many a businessman in New York and Chicago thinks the entire TVA is one dam erected for the sole purpose of competing with private enterprises occupied in generating electricity.

It is not altogether fair to blame him. He has been subjected to a skillful, interested attack from one side only. Habitually, he will utter the most fantastic improbabilities as established facts. His education will take longer, in the end, than that of the Tennessee farmer.

The controversy, however, is not part of our story. Our focus, as always, must be on the social history of invention in America. We have had a brief glance at the background of conservation, the control of river water. This is a background of engineering. In the foreground are simple farming methods for which machines and implements have already been designed.

Part of the Dust Bowl can probably never be reclaimed. But the dust can be anchored by grasses. This will prevent the desert from spreading.

Other parts of the Great Plains area, threatened by the Dust Bowl, are being conserved. By 1936, “foreground” farming practices had been applied to 600,000 acres there. One hundred and fifty-five thousand were being strip-cropped—a strip of grass between crop rows. Two hundred thousand acres were being plowed on the contour to conserve rainfall and impede wind.

More than 3600 miles of terraces had been built to hold the moisture on 65,000 acres. Some 200,000 acres of grassland were carefully controlled to prevent overgrazing. Behind this improvement were 2100 dams in the Great Plains region, providing storage of 32,000,000,000 gallons of water.

In the report of the Great Plains Committee, a chapter on Attitudes of Mind is highly revealing. Here are the destructive attitudes: that man conquers nature; that natural resources are inexhaustible; that habitual practices are the best; that what is good for the individual is good for everybody; that an owner may do with his property as he likes; that expanding markets will continue indefinitely; that free competition co-ordinates industry with agriculture; that values will increase indefinitely; that tenancy is a stepping-stone to ownership; that the factory farm is generally desirable, and that the individual must make his own adjustments. All our land troubles today may be traced to one or more of these legendary beliefs.

The present of the farmer in America is hard. The future is hopeful. He has much to look for in the chemical laboratory.

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