- This Land, This Nation: Conservation, Rural America, and the New Deal
This Land, This Nation is a story of the transformation of conservation policy during a period of economic, environmental, and social crisis. Sarah T. Phillips illuminates the process of state building and its relationship to natural resources, ideology, and capitalism. In the eyes of influential agrarians of the 1920s and 1930s, the health of America’s rural land and people was essential to national health. Poor land, conservationists argued, meant poor people and vice versa. Rural rehabilitation was simultaneously a conservation strategy and a way out of the Great Depression. Policy makers acted on this agrarian underconsumption ideology when Americans’ faith in the free market was at an all time low. The tenuous New Deal conservation consensus fractured as the economy rebounded during World War II, although elements of New Deal conservation survived into the 1950s.
Phillips shows the rise and influence of “New Conservation,” the idea that regional natural resource planning would “alleviate farm poverty, modernize farm areas, and restore the viability of rural living” (22). New Conservationists such as Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot, agricultural economist M. L. Wilson, and United States Department of Agriculture researcher Hugh H. Bennett, believed that inexpensive rural power, retirement of sub-marginal and marginal lands from production, and soil conservation could restore American prosperity. Reformers, frustrated by President Herbert Hoover’s unwillingness to use federal muscle to promote New [End Page 843] Conservation, welcomed New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt. As governor, FDR attempted to broker a deal for cheap hydroelectric power with Ontario and promoted reforestation of sub-marginal New York farmland. In 1931, Roosevelt solidified the support of New Conservationists when he declared that government planning would yield a “permanent agriculture” and reconcile discrepancies between urban and rural standards of living.
New Deal farm policies reflected the tension between short-term and long-term approaches to conservation and recovery. Programs that rewarded farmers for cutting production were temporary measures to revive commodity prices and restore rural purchasing power, but most rural programs focused on long-term change. The Tennessee Valley Authority provided cheap power for farmers and industrial customers, spurring consumption of consumer goods and creating jobs for what administrator David Lilienthal believed would be an industrial South. Resettlement advocates wanted the federal government to purchase 75 million acres of land in the South, West, and Great Lakes cutover districts that they believed were unable to support settlement. As Phillips demonstrates, Americans disliked long-term planning and preferred “technical and noncoercive measures to halt soil erosion and to increase the productivity of private cropland” (126). Furthermore, opponents of rural rehabilitation for poor farmers charged that socialism and race mixing would be the inevitable result. Federal farm policies emphasized voluntary participation and financial incentives, which rewarded middling and prosperous farmers who were the most aggressive natural resource users.
Texas Congressman Lyndon Johnson embodied the New Conservation mentality. In 1937, Johnson obtained federal investment in the development of the Lower Colorado River Authority to construct dams for flood control and hydroelectric power for farmers. These projects would encourage stability and prosperity in the Texas Hill Country, a region known of poor land and poor people. Johnson eventually altered his views about rural development, conceding that industry was a key component of rural uplift. In Phillips’ analysis, Johnson and other New Dealers shifted from agrarian to industrial liberalism, paving the way for postwar political alliances and increased government intervention in the economy. After World War II, the United States exported New Deal policies to developing nations, originally for humanitarian purposes, but more often as part of Cold War diplomacy. By the 1950s, US policy makers favored a mix of industrial and agricultural development. Like Johnson, even the most ardent advocates of New Deal conservation policies adapted to changing conditions and modified their agrarian fundamentalism. [End Page 844]
Phillips contributes to our understanding of the role of conservation in a capitalist society...