Had all the changes wrought by the introduction of Europeans to north America warranted the search for conservation plants? Was there even a need to stop or slow the loss of top our soil? Did such a search justify the use of introduced plants? “Why the Plant Materials Centers Program Was Needed?” makes a case for an affirmative answer. The North American continent ceased to be a virgin somewhere in the middle of the sixteenth century. The tipping point came when the country realized it was being raped, and was jolted into action. The time and the place can be pinpointed: April 27, 1935, soon after a dust cloud of Great Plains soil darkened the skis over the national capital and Hugh Hammond Bennett had testified before the Senate Public Lands Committee. [i]
When looking at the issue of introduced plants, i.e., using plants that have evolved elsewhere, the most important quote to remember may be “In 1492, Christopher Columbus reached the Western Hemisphere. The impact of that landing has dramatically altered every ecosystem in North America.”[ii]Was Columbus a good or bad introduction? Remember Pogo’s words, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”[iii]
T-4464 buffel grass has fallen from grace, discontinued as a cultivar,[iv] but James Smith knew success when he saw it.[v] While the glimmer of a named, superior performing, widely adapted cultivar shines a little less than did the early ones, Smith’s feeling of accomplishment must be appreciated. They had been told, and had every reason to believe, that the Great Plains soil landing in the Atlantic Ocean was the resource that must be saved. T-4464 is still doing that, but once the soil was safe, the priority seemed to shift to saving the native flora, which had failed when the land resource fell in the path of human use.
Read more in Conservation Plants, A USDA Success Story, W. Curtis Sharp
[i] Dust Bowl Trough, loc. cit.
[ii] Charles C. Mann, 1493, Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (Knopf Doubleday Pub. Group, 2011).
[iv] USDA-NRCS Discontinued Conservation Plant Releases, http://plant-materials.nrcs.usda.gov/releases/discontinued.html (Aug. 14, 2012).
[v] The Dust Bowl and Black Sunday, http://www.altereddimensions.net/earth/DustBowlAndBlackSunday.aspx/ (December 28, 2012).
In 1935, after the dust storms of the Great Plains gripped the attention of the nation, the Soil Conservation Act acknowledged “the wastage of soil and moisture resources — is a menace to the national welfare.” The black clouds carrying the richest soil in the world over Washington, headed for the Atlantic, had to be stopped. From this evolved the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which included the Plant Materials Program. Conservation Plants, A USDA Success Story explains why such a program was needed, and who the people and the products were that made it so successful.
The priorities were to stabilize millions of acres of water and wind ravaged land totally despoiled by poor farming practices, degraded rangeland by wanton overgrazing, and bleeding, unrestored mining and similar sites. How well did they do? James Smith spent the summer of 1935 around Delhart, TX, the epicenter of the Dust Bowl, collecting grass seed. He knew wind erosion. One can feel his pride years later when he wrote of a new grass quelling that wind on 500,000 acres in South Texas, thinking “There’s a half million acres that won’t blow again.” John Schwendiman and Dr. A. L. Hafenrichter can look down upon the Great Basin of the West, knowing their fingerprints are on the plants now producing forage and protecting millions of acres of rangeland. Paul Tabor and Johnny Powell certainly realized the value of their bringing a new grass to the commercial market which converted abandoned cotton fields into high quality pastures for Southeast livestock.
This story documents the history, activities, and products of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Plant Materials Program over 75 years. Decide for yourself, but we think this is a success story worth telling.
Available now at