By the time of the Great Depression, natural resource use and environmental change in the Appalachian region had become a national issue. In terms of conservation, the Depression accomplished what the USDA Forest Service had been unable to do: it reduced timber cutting throughout the Southern Appalachians. The slowdown in mining and other industries reduced pressure on mountain resources and environment, but subsistence agriculture became a major cause of land degradation in the 1930s.
In the coal-producing counties, the mill towns, and the cities, many people lost their jobs and joined the movement back to the land. Farm acreage remained steady during the Depression, but the number of farms increased to about 400,000. Because most farms were too small to allow fallowing, and fertilizer was too expensive, farmers eked out a precarious existence from exhausted and eroding fields.
Enter FDR. New Deal reforms led to the purchase of large quantities of land by the Federal government. National forests expanded using New Deal money to buy out farmers and company lands. These new national forests and parks began to moderate human impact on the land in places once devastated by mining & lumbering. Reforestation and wildlife restock programs attempted to reverse the worst excesses of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Of course Federal agencies provided employment for local residents. But as always in Appalachia, there was a dark side to their presence. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration was a prime example.
In 1933, the AAA was created to buy “submarginal” farmlands and resettle farm families on better farms elsewhere. This program was moved to the Resettlement Administration, then to the Farm Security Administration, and later died of insufficient funding under the Bureau of Agricultural Economics. Because funding was insufficient, many farm families received payment for their land but no further aid. Because the money from the sale of their land was often not enough to pay for a new farm, help from the AAA actually worsened the financial situation of some families. Most of the land removed from farming went to the national forests and parks, but many tenant farmers remained on Federal land. The National Park Service moved the mountaineers off park lands, but the USDA Forest Service allowed them to stay on the national forests.
Source: “The Southern Appalachians: A History of the Landscape,” US Dept of Agriculture/Southern Research Station, 1998, Susan L. Yarnell