Saving the soil -- by private initiative

Wasting good farmland is senseless, both for today's well-being and for future security. Yet as a nation we are busy wasting the greatest body of prime farmland on the face of the earth. That is foolish and, if history is any lesson , it can be suicidal.

This problem springs from many roots, not the least of which is the disastrous state of the farm economy. Farmers are allowing their capital assets - including soil - to deter-iorate.

A national sense of stewardship for the land must be revived - one that can be supported by all Americans, not just the few who work the land. This sense of stewardship is what a recently formed organization - the National Endowment for Soil and Water Conservation - is all about.

Why national endowment? Because it is needed as the third leg in a conservation system which includes older efforts by the federal government and more recent programs carried on by state and local governments.

The federal efforts began on a substantial scale after the dust bowl days of the 1930s. They continue today and are indispensable, but they cannot do the complete job. State and local governments, which earlier made few contributions to conservation, have been increasing their efforts substantially since 1970. The gap now in the shift away from total federal reliance is an organized involvement of the private sector in promoting conservation - and that, too, is changing.

In 1977 several of us - alarmed by the growing problems affecting our soil and water resources - began discussing alternatives. We were looking for new ways to involve the American public to energize the conservation effort. As work progressed, we looked to the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for Humanities as models. Now, after several years of effort, we take pride in the formation earlier this year of the National Endowment for Soil and Water Conservation - a privately funded and controlled nonprofit organization.

The endowment is a tax-exempt financial mechanism for channeling private support for improving soil and water conservation practices. The endowment's goal is to encourage and help private land users to upgrade their conservation management. It will accomplish this by using tax-exempt contributions to fund innovative yet inexpensive conservation projects and activities. Contributions from the general public, businesses, corporations, and foundations will provide the base of support.

The time to act is now. As Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute says, ''We have not inherited the earth from our fathers, we are borrowing it from our children.'' The endowment is based on the belief that the American people do not want their children to pay future penalties for our failure to act today. It is a private sector initiative whose time has come.

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