Faces From the Past
Mac Meginnis battled soil erosion and beat it
By James Barnett
Harvest of the pine overstory and failure of agriculture on the rolling hills of north Mississippi and Tennessee resulted in massive erosion and flood problems. A 1930 survey of several counties in north Mississippi showed nearly 35 percent in active gullies, from a foot or two to 8 or 10 feet deep. Similar problems occurred in the hill country across the South, but usually to a smaller degree.
In 1929, H.G. Meginnis was recruited by the Southern Forest Experiment Station to work on the problems of soil erosion and flood control. Due to the scope of the problem in north Mississippi, Meginnis established headquarters at Holly Springs, Mississippi, and made arrangements for experimental use of an old, badly gullied field. He worked largely single-handed with visits of guidance, advice and assistance. He depended on temporary local labor for help.
His research, which was both basic and applied, was exemplary. He devised small plots, surrounded by wide strips of galvanized iron with the lower edges sunk into the ground, where he obtained data on erosion and run-off on several soil types, on several degrees of slope, on bare surfaces, and under both grass and tree cover. Meginnis early established that soil protected by leaf litter had very little erosion and run-off compared to bare soil. The results established his reputation and demand for his research information.
The magnitude of erosion and flooding problem and success of Meginnis' work resulted in job offers from other agencies and universities. Since he was the Forest Service's sole specialist in the South, he was promoted from Junior Forester P-1 to full Silviculturist P-4 to keep him.
Meginnis, with approval, purchased a small abandoned chicken house for about five dollars to place on his site to use as a laboratory. It was heavily infested with chicken lice. To rid the lice, he purchased some insecticidal spray for seventy-five cents. This expenditure was disallowed on his expense account by the General Accounting Office on grounds that getting rid of the distracting lice was for the personal benefit of the employee, not for the benefit of the government. How times have changed!
At the time of his work, locust trees were recommended for erosion control plantings. Meginnis' results showed that planting pine seedlings was more effective and they would survive, grow on a wider array of sites and provide valuable products. His data resulted in establishment of a congressionally funded program, the Yazoo-Little Tallahatchie (Y-LT) Flood Prevention Project. This program began in 1948 over 25 years rehabilitated 835,900 acres of highly eroded lands in North Mississippi. It has been called the Forest Service's largest tree-planting project.
After Meginnis established his guidelines for gully restoration, he was transferred to the Appalachian Forest Experiment Station in Asheville, North Carolina. There he continued his efforts in understanding in effects of forests in controlling erosion and flood damage in mountainous terrain. Mac Meginnis was highly regarded by his contemporaries and almost single-handed developed guidelines for restoring some of the South's most devastated lands.
(The Philip Wakeley's 1964 document entitled "A biased history of the Southern Forest Experiment Station through fiscal year 1933" was used as a resource for this article)