A Giant in the Earth: Paul Johnson & the Geography of Hope

NOTE: The Land Stewardship Project is saddened to learn that Paul Johnson, a giant in the promotion of working lands conservation on America's farms, passed away this week. We send our condolences to Paul's family — he will be sorely missed. Below is an excerpt of a 2020 Land Stewardship Letter article on Paul and a groundbreaking government publication he was involved with developing 25 years ago.

It would be difficult to imagine a publication like America’s Private Land, A Geography of Hope being produced by a branch of the federal government today. That it was released in 1996 by an agency housed within the United States Department of Agriculture is even more astounding, given the authors’ acknowledgement that industrialized, monocultural farming systems have caused significant problems when it comes to the health of our landscape, and changes are needed if we are to head off ecological catastrophe. To top it off, it quotes Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, and Wallace Stegner, writers who were never shy about critiquing the philosophy that farmland, and all land for that matter, is there for the taking, and that humans have an innate right to do with it what they will.

ImageBut when the 80-page booklet was published by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), A Geography of Hope represented not just a report card on the negative impacts of farming and ranching when it comes to our soil, water, and wildlife — it was also seen as an inspiring argument for the positive role diversified agricultural systems could play in developing a landscape that is ecologically and economically viable. So inspiring, in fact, that when then-Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman read a draft of the document, it brought tears to his eyes.

One of the reasons A Geography of Hope was not your typical, dry government document was that it was the brainchild of Paul Johnson, an Iowa farmer and former state legislator who has long promoted the idea that conservation of our natural resources and food production are not mutually exclusive. Before becoming the head of the NRCS in 1994, Johnson studied forestry and farmed near the Upper Iowa River in northeastern Iowa. During his tenure in the Iowa Legislature, he was instrumental in establishing Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and the creation of a groundwater protection law that is seen as a national model.

Throughout his career, Johnson has adhered to a core philosophy that if we are to see conservation agriculture become more commonplace, it will require a “social compact” between farmers and the rest of society. It wasn’t just about enforcing certain rules or putting in place specific programs — care of the land had to become seen as the right thing to do, and society had to figure out a way to give farmers the emotional, and economical, support to do that.

He brought that philosophy with him to Washington, D.C. As a dairy and sheep farmer and someone who had run for office based on his farming background, he had the agricultural credentials. But Johnson was not afraid to wear his environmental colors. In his D.C. office, he displayed a picture of Rachel Carson, the author of the seminal environmental book, Silent Spring. “I put her up there and within two days somebody came over and said, ‘You should take that picture down,’ recalls Johnson. “ ‘And I said, ‘No way, leave it up there.’ ”

Johnson is a student of conservation history and knows the power of words. In 1994, the “Soil Conservation Service” became the “Natural Resources Conservation Service,” a name that Johnson felt better reflected the holistic view agency staff should take when it came to working with landowners. He also pushed staff to look beyond just controlling erosion with specific structures and practices, and to consider the overall health of the soil resource. In many ways, the buzz around soil health that permeates the NRCS and much of agriculture today can trace its roots to Johnson’s work two decades ago.

And he played a key role in the creation of the conservation title of the 1996 Farm Bill. Any farmer who has used Environmental Quality Incentives Program funds to put in a rotational grazing system or a season-extending high tunnel has Johnson to thank.

But A Geography of Hope may be his most public legacy. Johnson felt such a publication was needed not only to justify the NRCS’s existence as a stand-alone agency (there were threats to make it part of the Farm Service Agency at the time), but to highlight the key role private agricultural lands play in the health of the overall landscape. As the publication points out, half of the United States is in cropland, pasture, or rangeland. That meant (and still means) care of 50% of the country is the hands of less than 2% of its citizens.

Johnson got the title of the publication from Stegner, who had written that the preservation of the nation’s last tracts of wildlands represented a “geography of hope.”

“Stegner was right…Yet today we understand that narrowly circumscribed areas of natural beauty and protected land alone cannot provide the quality of environment that people need and want,” Johnson wrote in the foreword to the booklet. “We must also recognize the needs of America’s private land and private landowners for us to truly have a geography of hope.”

Through maps, graphics, and writing that veers from the matter-of-fact to downright lyrical, Geography of Hope lays out the environmental problems facing private lands that have been exposed to intensive tillage, too many chemical inputs, and overapplication of manure from CAFOs. But then it goes on to, through case studies and big picture examples, describe the potential sustainable farming systems have for correcting these problems. Johnson feels strongly that farming should produce more than food and fiber — it should generate ecological health.

His audience was policymakers (every member of Congress got a copy, as well as then-President Bill Clinton). But Johnson also saw A Geography of Hope speaking to the farmers who were in a position to put in place effective conservation practices. After all, he wanted them to be proud of the role they had played, and could play in the future, when it came to land stewardship.

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter and author of Wildly Successful Farming: Sustainability and the New Agricultural Land Ethic.