At the turn of the century, the railroads and others promoted the Southern Plains area of the United States by suggesting that prosperity was available for anyone with the courage to go out and challenge the land. Thousands of farm families moved into the area and began to farm using the same farming practices they had used in other parts of the country. The tractor and the self-scouring plowshare had recently been invented and with these tools they were able to plow out millions of acres of virgin prairie in a relatively short time. Sure of rains, the farmers planted their wheat.
When they arrived, the land looked like all it was billed to be. Grass and shrubs grew thickly and some said the soil settlers pronounced the soil was so rich it looked like chocolate when it was turned over by the plow. For several years, they enjoyed abundant harvests and rushed to plow every bit of ground they could. What they didn’t know was that they were seeing a break in the normal pattern of drought and rain.
The plains had always been subject to wind, but while the rains were present, the growing crops held the soil in place. In the summer of 1931, the rains didn’t come and the crops died. As the land dried out and the winds picked up, the dust storms began. Topsoil that had taken thousands of years to build was blown away, seemingly overnight. The dust storms were so large they blotted out the sun, engulfing whole areas in darkness. After each storm, the fine dust was everywhere – in food, in water, even in the lungs of people and animals. The whole area was devastated economically and ecologically. Over the next several years, scores of people would die from what was called dust pneumonia, but was really suffocation as their lungs shut down.
Because of the devastation caused by the Dust Bowl, a prominent agricultural expert named Hugh Bennett developed a plan to help conserve the topsoil. He lobbied Congress to approve a federal program that would pay farmers to use new farming practices that he and others had developed. He hoped that if he could get farmers to try the new practices, they would see the benefits and adopt them.
In 1935, the Soil Conservation Act made soil and water conservation a national priority and established the Soil Conservation Service, which was later changed to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Each State was encouraged to form local soil conservation districts, which were to work directly with local landowners to address conservation concerns and encourage conservation practices.
In 1947, the Territory of Alaska established the Alaska Soil Conservation District. The Salcha-Big Delta Soil and Water Sub-District was created in 1950. Later the name was changed to Salcha-Delta. Today there are 12 conservation districts in Alaska. Districts are legal subdivisions of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, authorized under Alaska State Statute Chapter 41.10, Soil and Water Conservation Law.