Idaho’s settlement began with the exploration, use, and observation of the area for its natural resources. By 1840 early pioneers were using the Oregon Trail on their migration west. The trail crossed the southern part of Idaho, which is mostly desert. Gold was discovered in Idaho in the 1860s, which brought thousands of miners to the area. The influx of miners increased the need for food production. Small farms were started close to mining areas which included Lewiston, Idaho. The 1862 Homestead Act allowed citizens to acquire 160 acres of land provided they reside on it for five years and produce crops. The Act resulted in additional agriculture use of the area. Early tillage was accomplished by horse drawn equipment. The horsepower cultivation changed the land cover from grasslands to black farmland.
During World War I crop production was favorable which increased production and decreased conservation. By the 1920s many farmers were feeling economic pressure due to the nation-wide economic crisis. This pressure resulted in harder use of the land and less attention to sustainable inputs. Serious droughts in 1919, 1924 and during the Great Depression (1930s) resulted in the inability to pay farm mortgages and practice conservation. The drought and poor land use practices combined to produce an Idaho dust bowl as serious as that experienced in the Mid West plains. The serious erosion problems threatened many people’s way of life and conservation was essential.
Hugh Hammond Bennett recognized the problems associated with severe soil loss and published a bulletin, Soil Erosion, A National Menace in 1928. In addition, Congress authorized funds in 1928 for soil erosion investigations and regional soil erosion experiment stations. One station was located in Pullman at Washington State University in 1930. The station measured erosion and water runoff on control plots and developed recommendations for erosion control treatment.
The Great Depression (1930s) provided a focus on the seriousness of erosion. Congress developed programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to provide employment and treat erosion problems. An erosion condition summary for Idaho was completed in 1934 and pointed out some serious problems in the state:
A total of 27,207,836 acres of 51 percent of the state, was found to have been affected by sheet erosion. Of this area 7,267,272 acres were found to have lost generally more than three-fourths of the topsoil and on an additional area of 19,940,564 acres, the prevailing condition was a loss of on-fourths of the topsoil.
Gullying was extensive and occurred on nearly all of the sheet eroded lands. Severe gullying was found to prevail on 12,922,388 acres of the total area of 26,294,744 acres subjected to gullying.
The natural forces of geological erosion are accelerated in the unprotected forested areas by fires and by overgrazing because of the reduction of protective vegetative cover. Uncontrolled grazing is carried on over the public domain. Attempted dry farming in some area is now known to be futile in lower rainfall belts.
The rolling Palouse region has undergone severe losses of surface soil, with active gully cutting, due in large part to the system of fallowing land for the dry farming of wheat.
In 1934 the CCC established a camp at Moscow, Idaho. This camp remained in service from May 18, 1934 through May 27, 1942. Another camp was located at Genesee and operated from November 1, 1935 through September 30, 1937.
In 1935 the idea of creating soil conservation districts was created. The districts would provide the local responsibility for managing and planning conservation activities. President Roosevelt sent copies of the “Standard Soil Conservation Districts Law” to state governors on February 27, 1937 urging them to adopt legislation along the lines of the standard law.