Reflecting on 75 Years of Conservation in Washington County

On July 16, 1939, the front page of the St. Paul Sunday Pioneer Press was filled with images of eroding farm fields and crumbling ravines in the St. Croix Valley. “War has been declared on erosion that has cut into mutilated hillsides of the St. Croix Valley…Under the direction of the Soil Conservation Service, and in cooperation with farm owners, CCC boys will plant trees on these naked and mutilated hill pastures to stop gullies that are wreaking havoc on pasture land…” The story continued, in similarly dramatic fashion, with descriptions of how the erosion began and what the impacts had been for the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers. Conservation in Minnesota was front page news.

The tale of the eroding hills and valleys had actually begun more than a decade earlier when farmers began clearing native prairies and woodlands to plant fields of crops. Then, the stock market crashed in 1929, sending the nation reeling into economic depression for more than ten years. The rain stopped falling, and drought swept through the country as well. Without irrigation, the shallow roots of the crops shriveled and died, leaving acres of top soil unprotected. During the ensuing Dust Bowl, millions of Americans struggled to survive as fertile farmland across the country dried up and blew away.

The U.S. government created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933, to provide much-needed jobs for out-of-work Americans. Over the course of ten years, the CCC built more than 800 parks and planted billions of trees. In 1937, Minnesota passed legislation allowing for the creation of Conservation Districts and five years later in 1942, the Washington County Soil and Water Conservation District (now Washington Conservation District) was established.

Soil and Water Conservation Districts are local units of government that work directly with farmers and other landowners on projects to protect valuable farmland, nurture soil health, repair damage caused by erosion, and preserve the quality of local natural resources. This year, the Washington Conservation District (WCD) celebrates its 75th anniversary.

The landscape of Washington County has changed tremendously since 1942, but many of our conservation challenges and solutions remain the same. Erosion is still a problem, especially in hilly areas along the Mississippi and St Croix rivers. Six years ago, the Washington Conservation District surveyed and identified 50 top locations in the county where erosion is sending sediment and phosphorus into the St Croix River. With the help of grant funding from the Minnesota Clean Water Fund and South Washington Watershed District, the WCD has been able to repair ten of those hot-spots so far.

During a 2014 tour, members of the Washington County Water Consortium visited one of the locations along the St. Croix River where the Washington Conservation District worked with a local farmer to reduce runoff pollution and repair an eroding gully.

Many of the WCD’s early conservation projects focused on planting trees along the edges of farm fields to create windbreaks, on steep slopes that were ill-suited for farming, and in less-productive corners of fields to create habitat. Thanks to these efforts, the Washington County actually has more woods today than it did in the 1940s. Though the WCD no longer helps landowners to plant their trees, it continues to sell 15,000-20,000 bare-root saplings per year for habitat and conservation plantings.

Planting trees for a windbreak in Langdon on the WC Nelson property in 1944. With three men, the machine could plant 43 trees per minute.


In his 1949 A Sand County Almanac, famed conservationist Aldo Leopold writes that “Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land,” then continues, “conservation still proceeds at a snail’s pace…On the back forty we still slip two steps backward for every forward stride.”

Looking forward to the next 75 years of conservation in our county, we know that there will be new challenges to address. The farms that once replaced prairies and woods are now themselves disappearing beneath subdivisions and rows of stores. Washington Conservation District will continues to work with farmers, homeowners, and communities across the county to maintain fertile farmland and restore pockets of natural habitat that provide homes for pollinators, birds, and wildlife and help to keep our water clean.

What seeds of conservation would you plant for the future?