Conservation and Natural Resources
Division of Conservation Districts/Soil Conservation Commission
The dust storms of the 1930s brought attention to the economic plight of American farmers, already hard hit by the Depression. The problem was particularly acute in the Great Plains. It was widely believed that dust storms and other forms of erosion were the results of poor tillage practices. To combat the problems, a federal Soil Erosion Service was created in 1933 as a temporary agency in the Department of the Interior. It was transferred to the Department of Agriculture in 1935. Later that year it received a statutory basis and the name was changed to the Soil Conservation Service (SCS).
The early mission of the SCS was the propagation of the use of soil conservation practices in agriculture. Operations of the service included (1) the demonstration of practical and effective measure of soil conservation by (2) actual work upon the land in cooperation with landowners, and (3) the consistent development and improvement of such measures through research and investigation. Among the service's specific activities were flood control, the purchase and development of sub marginal land, making water available for crops and livestock in the sub-arid states of the West, research in cooperation with state agricultural experiment stations, and the promotion of farm forestry.
To better carry out these responsibilities the Department of Agriculture requested state participation. In fact, enactment of suitable State legislation became a prerequisite for receiving federal funds for erosion control. The department drafted a Standard State Soil Conservation Districts Law and in 1937 sent copies to the state governors, with a letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt urging adoption. With only a few minor changes, the Nevada Legislature passed the proposal unanimously; it became law on March 30.
The act established the procedures for organizing and administering soil conservation districts. To assist the districts and to coordinate their activities, a state Soil Conservation Committee was created. Three of its four members were ex officio: the Director of the state's Agricultural Extension Service, the Director of the Agricultural Experiment Station in Reno, and the State Coordinator of the Federal Soil Conservation Service. A fourth or "farmer member" was to be appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture upon the advice of the Committee. The members served without remuneration, except for expenses.
Each of the soil conservation districts was to have a board of five supervisors (two appointed by the Committee, three elected by the district's land occupiers, all for three-year terms). The districts, designated as subdivisions of the state government, were given the power to prescribe regulations for beneficial land use, especially for the control and prevention of erosion. The regulations, to be adopted by referendums of the land occupiers in the district, would have the force of law. The act provided for the enforcement of the regulations by court order, and for punishment by fines of those violating the regulations. Each district was to have a Board of Adjustment, which was granted the authority to permit variances. Funding for the districts was to come from direct appropriations from the state treasury and federal grants-in-aid. The Nevada Soil Conservation Districts Law defined "land occupier" as "any person, firm, or corporation who shall hold title to, or shall be in possession of, any lands lying within a district organized under the provisions of this act, whether as owner , lessee, renter, tenant, or otherwise."
The act also authorized the districts to carry out research on erosion control, conduct demonstrations, enter into contracts with farmers and assist them financially, lend or give them equipment, operate state and federal erosion control projects, and recommend land-use plans.
Other contents of the law pertained to the formation of the districts, determination of their boundaries, and finances.
Although the programs required close cooperation with the Soil Conservation Service and several other federal and state agencies, the emphasis was on local control and the autonomy of the districts. Public meetings, petitions, and referendums were among the democratic means by which the activities of the districts were to be conceived, changed, and implemented.
The 1937 act was amended in 1945, 1947, 1951, 1955, and 1960. These and later changes mostly affected the electing of supervisors, their powers and duties, qualifications of electors, the creation and discontinuance of districts, and the changing of their boundaries. The amendment of 1951 enlarged the Committee's membership to six. The directors of the State Extension Service and the Agricultural Experiment Station, along with the State Conservationist (formerly Coordinator) of the Soil Conservation Service remained the members ex officio. The Governor was to appoint four members, chosen from a list of ten names submitted to him by the Nevada Association of Soil Conservation Districts. The appointed members had to be or have been farm operators in Nevada. Their terms were for two years. The 1960 amendment designated the Dean of the University of Nevada's Max C. Fleischmann School of Agriculture, the Executive Officer of the State Department of Agriculture, and the Director of the State Department of Conservation and Natural Resources as members ex officio; there was no change in the status of the appointed members.
In 1969 and 1971 the legislative appropriations for the Soil Conservation Committee were included within those for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, an agency established in 1957. By an act of 1973 the Soil Conservation Committee was renamed the State Conservation Commission and placed under the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. This legislation created the Division of Conservation Districts and placed it also in the Department. The Governor was to appoint the Commission's seven members.
The 1973 act expanded the responsibilities of the Conservation Districts (formerly Soil Conservation Districts) to include not only soil but other renewable natural resources: "land . . . , water, vegetation, trees, natural landscape and open space." The section declaring the "legislative determination" eliminated the federally-conceived rhetoric of the 1937 law and replaced it with: " . . . persons in local communities are best able to provide basic leadership and direction for the planning and accomplishment of the conservation and development of renewable natural resources through organization and operation of conservation districts." The principal conservation practices the districts have promoted include: land leveling; irrigation systems; improved water application; range seeding; pasture seeding; drainage of excess ground water; crop rotation; windbreaks; farm and ranch ponds; land newly irrigated.
The districts, the Soil Conservation Committee, and the State Conservation Commission have worked with a number of federal agencies, chiefly the Soil Conservation Service. They include the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, Farmers Home Administration, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Geological Survey, U. S. Navy, Army Corps of Engineers, Agricultural Research Service. Among the cooperating state agencies are the Department of Agriculture, Department of Highways, the Division of Forestry, State Environmental Commission, Department of Fish and Game, State Engineer, Agricultural Extension Service, and Experiment Station. Local governing units that have been involved with conservation programs include irrigation districts, weed control districts, county and municipal governments, and watershed projects. In addition, the Commission, Division, and districts have cooperated with private agencies.
By the early 1990s the State Conservation Commission was no longer a coordinating and advisory body, but rather a policy-making and regulatory board that "directed the Division of Conservation Districts. Similarly, the Division was defined as an agency that regulates the activities of the state's locally elected conservation districts.
Records of the Division of Conservation Districts/State Conservation Commission
Top: Rip-rap construction of inlet to Walker Reservoir on W. Walker's Artesia Ranch, 1962. Photo by Fred Baker of the Soil Conservation Service. SOIL-0056.
Bottom: View looking east from the proposed dam site upstream on the East Fork of the Quinn River, upstream 1/4 mile of the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation, 1968. Photo by Kim. SOIL-0354
Geiger, Robert L., Jr., comp. A Chronological History of the Soil Conservation Service and Related Events. Washington, DC: U. S. Department of Agriculture, Soil Conservation Service, 1955.
Hardman, George. Memoirs of Pioneer Work with the University of Nevada Agricultural Experiment Stations at Reno and Las Vegas, and the U. S. Soil Conservation Service. Reno: Oral History Project, Center for Western North American Studies, University of Nevada System, 1968.
Helms, Douglas. Readings in the History of the Soil Conservation Service. Washington, D. C.?: U. S. Department of Agriculture, Soil Conservation Service, Economics and Social Sciences Division, NHQ, 1992.
Nevada. State Soil Conservation Committee. Accomplishments and the Job Ahead in Nevada Soil Conservation Districts: Report of the Nevada State Soil Conservation Committee, 1953-1957. Carson City: State Printing Office, n. d. (1957?).
-----. A Guide for Nevada Soil Conservation District Supervisors. Reno: The Committee, 1953.
-----. The Role of Nevada Soil Conservation Districts in Conservation and Development of Intermingled Public and Private Lands. Carson City: The Committee, 1961.
Nevada and Oregon State Soil Conservation Committee and Western Associations of Soil Conservation Districts. The Project Approach to Conservation and Development Work on Intermingled Private and Public Lands. n. p.: The Committee, 1965.
U. S. Department of Agriculture, Soil Conservation Service. Conserving Nevada's Soil, Water, and Plant Resources. Portland, OR: USDA-S.S., 1962.
Wheeler, S. S., et al. Conservation and Nevada: A Textbook for Use in Nevada Schools. Carson City: Nevada State Department of Public Instruction, 1949.
Records in the National Archives http://www.nara.gov/
Record Group 114. Records of the Soil Conservation Service. In NARA--Pacific Sierra Region, San Bruno, California: Records of the Pacific Southwest Regional Office (Region 10), 1939-1940, and of the area offices in Caliente (1935-1942) and Yerington, Nevada (1936-1942).