August 19, 2008

Ground Lost and Gained in 75 Years of Conservation at Coon Creek

By Hart, Joseph

One spring morning, the back room at the local Eagles club in the tiny southwestern Wisconsin town of Coon Valley was filled to capacity with farmers, outdoorsmen, scientists, conservationists, and politicians. Over coffee and donuts, this unusual alliance gathered to pay homage to a humble element that ties together all their varied interests: soil. Interrupted by occasional camera flashes, local and national dignitaries, including senators, congressmen, and the chief of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Arlen Lancaster, stood at the podium extolling the virtues of the soil conservation methods pioneered in the region. "Every farmer in the nation has a tie to the Coon Creek watershed," Lancaster said. "You changed the course of our history."

Seventy-five years ago-during one of the worst environmental and economic disasters this nation has ever experienced-modern soil conservation was born in the surrounding farmland of Coon Creek. The watershed was a living laboratory to test soil science, conservation techniques, and private-public cooperation. Then, as now, collaboration among scientists and landowners resulted in dramatic gains: In a matter of years, a denuded landscape devastated by erosion was healed. And in the process, modern conservation was invented.


Farmers who lived through the "dirty '30s" faced double trouble: The stock market crash and the depression that followed dispossessed thousands who lost their farms through bank foreclosure. Those who held onto their homes watched their topsoil disappear, literally blown away in the dust storms of the 1930s.

Starting with the drought of 1931, windstorms whipped up dust from parched fields into clouds of soil that blotted out the sun for days at a time. The storms were choking. Farmers wore face masks and smeared their nostrils with Vaseline in an attempt to breathe outdoors, and entire farmsteads were buried in dirt.

By 1934, the US government estimated that 1.4 x 10^sup 7^ ha (3.5 x 10^sup 7^ ac) of cultivated croplands had been "essentially destroyed" by soil erosion, while 4.0 x 10^sup 7^ ha (1.0 x 10^sup 8^ ac) had lost "all or most of the topsoil" (USDA 1934).

This environmental crisis came as no surprise to Hugh Hammond Bennett, who had been proselytizing for decades about the "national menace" of soil erosion.

Bennett writes that his epiphany on the subject came all the way back in 1905, when he was working as a soil surveyor for the USDA. He and his partner were making a survey of a tract of Virginia landscape when they observed side-by-side fields demonstrating the dramatic results of what is now known as sheet erosion.

"The slope of both areas was the same," Bennett later wrote. "The underlying rock was the same. There was indisputable evidence that the two pieces had been identical in soil makeup. But the soil of one piece was mellow, loamy, and moist enough even in dry weather to dig into with our bare hands. We noticed this area was wooded, well covered with forest litter, and had never been cultivated. The other area, right beside it, was clay, hard and almost like rock in dry weather. It had been cropped a long time" (Cook n.d.).

The lessons of these field observations were as profound as they were simple: The time-honored farming techniques of Europe, imported by immigrants to the United States, were destroying the nation's soils-and by extension, its ability to feed itself.

The next 30 years only proved the point, and when the Dust Bowl hit, with its devastating loss of topsoil, Bennett was poised to do something about it. He approached President Franklin D. Roosevelt with a proposal. "He asked for funding to do demonstration projects to see how best to address the erosion problems," explains Wisconsin State Conservationist Pat Leavenworth. "Roosevelt was skeptical and said he would base additional funding on that initial project. And it had to be in a limited time period. So whether the Coon Creek watershed succeeded or failed was the basis for our future conservation programs."

In 1933, faced with this challenge, a budget of $5 million and the blessing of the president, Bennett launched a demonstration project designed to prove the lessons he learned back in 1905-that "vegetation, with minimal engineering, could check the runaway erosion that was ruining America's breadbasket" (Anderson 2002).

According to Renae Anderson, public affairs specialist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Madison, Wisconsin, Bennett settled on the Coon Creek watershed in part because it fay near to the south of La Crosse, Wisconsin, home to a federal Erosion Experiment Station, and in part because farmers in the watershed were open to trying something new. In other regions, anti- government sentiments prevailed, but in Coon Creek, farmers were either open enough-or desperate enough-to accept government help and payments for soil conservation.

"Bennett designated it 'Project No. 1,' and it became the first watershed project in the nation. It was 22 miles long and nine miles wide, encompassing 92,000 acres straddling three counties, with outlet directly to the Mississippi River" (Anderson 2002).

It didn't hurt that Coon Creek farms were undeniably scarred by erosion. The watershed is part of the Driftless region, an unglaciated landscape of springs and sinkholes, cold-water trout streams, and extremely steep wooded slopes that stretches from western Wisconsin into eastern Minnesota and northeastern Iowa.

Following old-world farm methods, European settlers had stripped the countryside of trees and planted neat-as-a-pin rows of oats, wheat, and other crops. After mere decades of such treatment, fields were gashed by gullies too deep to cross with a wagon. Topsoil washed downhill into the bottomlands where it settled 3 to 5 m (10 to 15 ft) deep in some places, turning cold-water freshets into sluggish sloughs.

In short, the land was in crisis. Bennett assembled a team that included regional director Raymond H. Davis, conservationists Herbert A. Flueck and Marvin F. Schweers, forester/wildlife management specialist Aldo Leopold, biologist Ernest G. Holt, economist Melville H. Cohee, and agricultural engineer Gerald E. Ryerson.

It was an immersive, collaborative experience. "Aldo Leopold writes about sitting around the canipfires at night talking about the day-what worked and what didn't," Leavenworth says. "They were all living together onsite." Together, they devised a system of soil conservation that relied on terracing, contour planting, pasturing, crop rotations, and replanting: all of which have since become the hallmarks of modern conservation.

No less important were the techniques used to implement these reforms. Farmers then as now were suspicious of self-proclaimed "experts."

Bennett and his team could offer farmers the incentive of government payments, but that in itself wouldn't be enough to convince wary farmers to convert. Instead, the scientists had to demonstrate that erosion could be halted, and that yields could be improved. They had to show that their notions would actually work. "That's a real key to working with private landowners, versus public lands," Leavenworth says. "You have to get them to believe in you."


Ernest Haugen remembers the day the work crews with their bulldozers began constructing the first terraces in the Coon Creek conservation project on his father's farm. Today, the 87-year-old still farms with his brother Joseph on their fathers spread, although in recent years they've reduced their stock to a half- dozen cows, and a neighbor cuts the hay on their terraced fields.

When Bennett's team began work on his father's farm, supported by a crew of unemployed men trucked in by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the success of the demonstration project was far from assured. Some of Haugen's neighbors signed up along with him, but many others held back. Even true believers figured maybe they'd go back to their traditional farming practices after the five-year government payout program ended.

Instead, farmers rapidly enlisted in the program as they witnessed its success. "After the first year, they had to put additions on their barns for the increased hay yields," says Leavenworth. Eventually, most of the watershed adopted some form of conservation, while Bennett and his followers, their case proven, spread the practices honed in Wisconsin across the country, and indeed, the world.

Today, the fruits of the project are evident, as Haugen can point out. Here and there, an old gully dating from the early part of the 20th century has grown over with grass and trees. Slopes that once were grazed have grown over with soil-protecting forests. Haugen points out a massive culvert at the bottom of one steep field. Years ago, he says, road crews installed the culvert to handle runoff from the field, but in his tenure on the farm, it has remained dry.

Stanley W. Trimble, a professor of geography at UCLA, has studied the Coon Creek watershed since the 1970s (e.g., Trimble 1975, 1981, 1983, 1999), and his research confirms what Haugen has observed in his lifetime: Soil resilience is improved, sediment is reduced, and water quality has improved. Every year, Trimble measures stream sediment against baselines set by researchers immediately following the completion of the federal project. By these investigations, he can report that the watershed is healing. A more visible measure, he says, is the return of the cold-water-loving native brook trout to the watershed. "Stream quality is so much better than it was; it's gone from brown trout to brook trout that can reproduce themselves." In 2007, the project faced its greatest threat yet-a massive flood with rains so heavy that many in the area have come to call "the 1,000-year flood." Many of the erosion control structures built in the 1930s were designed to withstand a heavy ram of 10 to 15 cm (4 to 6 in) in a 24-hour period, says Sam Skemp, head of Wisconsin's Vernon County Natural Resources Conservation Service field office. After 38 cm (15 in) of rain fell, "I imagined all our conservation work was over." instead, what he saw amazed him. "Fifty years ago, 15 inches of rain would have wiped out the town of Chaseburg," he says, referring to a town that lies on Coon Creek. "Instead, there were places it was hard to tell there had been a rain storm."


On a spring day, Ernest Haugen's farm is vibrant with life, glowing green in the electricity of threatening thunderstorms. In later years, the Haugen brothers added to the system of check dams and terraces, creating a whole-farm system of water control. The earth is springy, and acres of thriving alfalfa pastureland are divided by barbed wire strung along hand-hewed posts of black locust- some of which were planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

Walk over the crest of the hill, however, and you'll see a study in contrasts as striking as the one that set Bennett on the warpath back in 1905. The next field over is brown and lifeless, last year's corn traced in straight lines across the field. Hangen shakes his head. "They came in and got rid of all the terraces," he says with a frown.

These two fields illustrate what may turn into the nation's next great soil crisis. In the 1930s, most of the farmers in southwestern Wisconsin were converting from crops like oats and wheat to diversified, small-scale dairies-operations that were tailor-made for the kind of reforms that Bennett brought there. Farm plans called tor longer crop rotations, contour strips of hay, and pasturelands, all crucial elements in a small dairy operation.

In the past few decades, however, family-owned dairies have been replaced by massive feedlots with tens of thousands of cows. Many farmers, like Haugen's neighbor, are converting conservation reserve land to cropland, a trend that is poised to accelerate as the government subsidies for biofuels drive up the price of corn.

Fortunately, conventional farm practices have improved since the 1930s. In particular, the advent of no-till farming has reduced soil erosion on croplands, albeit with an increased reliance on chemical herbicides. "It's not the disaster it could be if farmers were using conventional techniques," says Trimble.

If the loss of conservation land continues, however, it could pose a threat to the fragile balance regained since the 1930s.

Ernest Haugen's family farm in the Coon Creek watershed was part of the first federal conservation project in the 19305. Haugen still farms in the conservation tradition. Photo by Joseph Hart.

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Arlen Lancaster speaking at the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Coon Creek Watershed Conservation Project in Coon Valley, Wisconsin, April 25, 2008. Photo by Joseph Hart.

Hugh Hammond Bennett (second from left) and other conservation leaders at the Coon Creek watershed, 1955. Photo courtesy of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Leopold on the conservation significance of Coon Valley

In an essay about conservation in the Coon Creek watershed (Leopold 1935), Aldo Leopold stated, "Coon Valley is one of a thousand farm communities, which through the abuse of its originally rich soil, has not only filled the national dinner pail ... but has created the Mississippi flood problem, the navigation problem, the overproduction problem, and the problem of its own future continuity."

Cohee on the conservation planning process

In a panel discussion in the Journal of Soil and Hater Conservation around the time of the 50th anniversary of the Coon Creek Watershed Conservation Project (Browning et al. 1984), Melville H. Cohee stated, "In the Coon Creek, Wisconsin, project, the first in the United States, specialists-an agronomist, engineer, farm management man, soil scientist, wildlife specialist, and forester-helped directly in preparing the first 40 or 50 plans. Thereafter, a sou erosion specialist, dubbed the 'contact man.' worked on the plan with the landowner or operator, and the specialists checked the plan with the contact man. In some cases, a specialist would check the farm to assure that his respective part of the plan was workable. In my travels with SCS [Soil Conservation Service] to projects throughout the country, I found the pattern for technical assistance to be about the same."

Civilian Conservation Corps encampment in Coon Valley. Wisconsin, August 1934. The Civilian Conservation Corps "crushed the locally available limestone to provide lime needed to establish the hay and pasture planting. Terracing required considerable labor, as did the fencing and reforestation work.... The workers also tried to control gullies, especially where they hindered farming operations" (Helms 1992).

Joseph and Ernest Haugen have preserved documents related to their family farm over the years, including an early conservation plan map.


Anderson, R. 2002. Coon Valley days. Wisconsin Academy Review 48(2).

Browning, G.M., M.H. Cohee, N.J. Fuqua, R.G. Hill, and H.W. Pritchard. 1984. Out of the dust Bowl: Five early conservationists reflect on the roots of the soil and water conservation movement in the United States. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 39(1):6- 17.

Cook, M.G. n.d. Hugh Hamnmnd Bennett: The Father of Soil Conservation. Raleigh, NC: Department of Soil Science, North Carolina State University. hugh.html.

Helms, D. 1992. Coon Valley, Wisconsin: A conservation success story. Readings in the History of the Soil Conservation Service. Washington, DC: USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. http://

Leopold, A. 1935. Coon Valley: An adventure in cooperative conservation. American Forests 41(5):205-208.

Trimble, S.W. 1975. Response of Coon Creek watershed to soil conservation measures. In Landscapes of Wisconsin, ed. B. Zakrzewska- Borowiecki, 24-29. Washington DC: Association of American Geographers.

Trimble, S.W. 1981. Changes in sediment storage in the Coon Creek basin., Driftless Area, Wisconsin, 1853 to 1975. Science 214:181- 183.

Trimble, S.W. 1983. A sediment budget for Coon Creek basin in the Driftless Area, Wisconsin, 1853-1977. American Journal of Science 283:454-474.

Trimble, S.W. 1999. Decreased rates of alluvial sediment storage in the Coon Creek basin, Wisconsin, 1975-1993, Science 285, 1244- 1246.

USDA.1934. Yearbook of Agriculture. Washington, DC:Yearbook of Agriculture.

Joseph Hart is a writer in Viroqua, Wisconsin.

Copyright Soil and Water Conservation Society Jul/Aug 2008

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