Visionaries of Conservation: Hugh Bennett

The region encompassed by Ogallala Commons is gifted with a history that is rich and integral to its identity.  The people and the land of the High Plains region are tied to one another in a tapestry that is as beautiful as it is intriguing and diverse.  One of the most notorious times of this history (and the land itself) is the Dust Bowl.  From this period arose Hugh Hammond Bennett, one of the first visionaries of conservation and land management.

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During the 1930’s, a combination of a large movement of people to the plains (due in part to government Homestead Acts), poor farming techniques, and drought, led to severe dust storms that severely damaged the region ecologically and economically (not to mention physically and mentally).  All of this occurred at a time when the nation was still reeling from the shock of the Great Depression.  Most citizens were more consumed with keeping food on their plates than trying to understand the effects of the devastation wreaked upon the farmers of the Plains.  Few of them realized how connected the two issues were.

Hugh Bennett was one of the few men who truly understood the value of the American farmer, and more importantly, the soil in which he grew the country’s food.  He had joined the Department of Agriculture in the early 1900s, but was a minority in his view of soil and land conservation.  At a time when the government heralded soil as “the one indestructible, immutable asset that the nation possess…the one resource that cannot be exhausted…,” Bennett worked to show the land as an exhaustible resource that required proper care and management.

Bennett’s efforts were not lost upon President Roosevelt.  FDR made Bennett the director of the new Soil Erosion Service in 1933.  The organization’s purpose was to combat the erosion created by the dust storms and to change farming methods and land management to help ensure another Dust Bowl did not occur.

Bennett was known for a grit and tenacity as tough as the land which he worked to protect.  He was not afraid to announce where blame for the Dust Bowl lied:  directly with Americans themselves.  The settlers of the plains were trying to use farming methods from the East coast, methods that only served to rip up the native grass of the Plains and leave the soil fully exposed to the elements.  Bennett knew a change in methods was the only hope of saving the Plains, and thereby the nation.

Besides being a bold conservationist, Bennett was also quite the salesman.  Initially, his tactics were met by resistance from politicians and farmers.  Not surprisingly, they didn’t appreciate hearing that the loss of the topsoil of several states was their fault.  But, Bennett learned to change his tactics.  Instead of pointing blame, he he appealed to the salvation of a region (and its importance to the entire country).  Slowly, he won favor with the President and farmers of the region.  A well-timed storm served as the final tipping point to convince Congress the truth of his words.

Bennett was scheduled to speak in Washington. Shortly before his meeting, he received word of a storm that had swept across the Plains and would soon reach Washington.  Bennett was able to move the meeting back a week, and stalled the meeting long enough that the storm struck while he was with Congress.  Two sentences were all it took to make his point:  “This, gentlemen, is what I’m talking about.  There goes Oklahoma.”

Finally, Bennett was heard, and granted free reign to begin his conservation efforts.  After teaching the farmers the value of contour planning and planting native grasses (and some from Africa), the Plains began to return.  Today, the results of Bennett’s work are seen throughout this region.  Without his work and efforts, we can only imagine where the grasslands of the plains would be today.  Bennett’s own words provide a perfect summary to his life and his work:  “If we are bold in our thinking, courageous in accepting new ideas, and willing to work with instead of against our land, we shall find in conservation farming an avenue to the greatest food production the world has ever known – not only for the war, but for the peace that is to follow.”

To learn more about Hugh Bennett, and the Dust Bowl that devastated the Plains for a decade, consider reading Timothy Egan’s, The Worst Hard Time:  The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dustbowl.