The town of Coon Valley hosted a celebration yesterday to mark the 50th year of one of America’s conservation success stories. Coon Valley is located in the Coon Creek watershed in southwestern Wisconsin. The picturesque valley with fields of strip-cropping winding around the hillsides, offers a startling transformation from the 1930s’ scene of rectangular fields with straight rows that induced soil erosion.
In 1933 a new federal agency, the Soil Erosion Service, selected Coon Creek as the first watershed in which to demonstrate the values of soil conservation measures. This agency became the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) in 1935. Under the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, soil erosion control was included as one means of public employment. The announcement caught the attention of a soil scientist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Hugh H. Bennett. For years Bennett had been making speeches and writing articles to alert Americans to the need to do something about soil erosion. After discussions between public works administrator Harold L. Ickes and Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace, Bennett became head of the Soil Erosion Service in September 1933.
Bennett had $5,000,000 to demonstrate how farmers could plan farming operations to include soil conservation for long-term productivity. He decided to select a number of erosion-prone areas for demonstrations. Through cooperation with farmers, he would demonstrate the validity of his ideas about soil conservation. In addition to the long-range value of sustained productivity, Bennett was convinced soil conserving measures would increase the farmers’ incomes.
To head the watershed-based demonstration projects, Bennett would appoint acquaintances who were also working on soil erosion problems. At La Crosse, Wisconsin, Raymond H. Davis was conducting research on soil conservation as superintendent of the Upper Mississippi Valley Erosion Experiment Station. Thus, Bennett wanted one of the demonstration projects in the Driftless area of narrow, fairly steep valleys where research results from the La Crosse experiment station could be tried. As the Coon Creek watershed was representative of a much larger area, the methods that proved successful could be spread throughout the unglaciated section of the Midwest.