History of Conservation Districts

In the early 20th century, there was increasing recognition that soil erosion was a problem on farms, but the efforts of Hugh Hammond Bennett and the severe erosion that occurred during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s highlighted the critical need for soil conservation. The first soil conservation action taken by the U.S. Government was the creation of the Soil Erosion Service in 1933, which was transferred to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in March 1935.

On April 27, 1935, the Soil Conservation Act (Public Law 74-46, which was passed unanimously by the House and Senate) was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt on April 27, 1935. The law stated, “that it is hereby recognized that the wastage of soil and moisture resources on farm, grazing, and forest lands of the Nation, resulting from soil erosion, is a menace to the national welfare…” The law also directed the Secretary of Agriculture to establish the Soil Conservation Service* (SCS) as a permanent agency in the USDA.

However, to effectively address the nation’s soil erosion concerns, a totally new, locally administered unit of government was needed – the Soil Conservation District.  On February 26, 1937, President Roosevelt sent a letter to all state governors with draft of legislation called the Standard State Soil Conservation Districts law, which would allow landowners to form voluntary soil conservation districts.

The Iowa soil conservation program was initiated in 1939 when the Iowa General Assembly passed enabling legislation to allow soil conservation Districts to organize and to provide for their administration. Legislation of the 48th General Assembly was responsible for the Conservation Districts Law and establishment of the State Soil Conservation Committee.

Iowa’s first Soil Conservation District** was organized in 1940, and by 1952 all Iowa counties had Districts and commissioners. Iowa has 100 Soil Conservation Districts (one in every county, except for Pottawattamie County, which is divided into two Districts).

On September 19, 1942, a referendum was held on the “Creation of Proposed Madison County Soil Conservation District, Embracing Lands Lying in the County of Madison, in the State of Iowa” and there was an election of commissioners for proposed district, with seven candidates running for three positions. The referendum passed, and Melvin H. Jones, Robert Macumber, and R. Edward Baur were elected as the first commissioners.

The Madison County Soil Conservation District was officially organized on October 5, 1942.  By December of 1942, a Farm Planning Technician with the Soil Conservation Service, Ralph Harvey, had arrived and established an office in Winterset to assist farmers and others cooperating with the Soil Conservation District.

*Congress changed the SCS’s to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in 1994, to better reflect the broadened scope of the agency’s concerns.

**Iowa’s Soil Conservation Districts later became Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs).

Learn more about the history of soil and water conservation in the U.S. and Iowa here
Learn more about the history of the NRCS here.
Watch a video about the “Past, Present and Future of Conservation Districts