One of the most serious problems of the '80s for farmers and gardeners will be better control of soil erosion, according to staff members of Science and Education Administration (agricultural research) of the Department of Agriculture. Some scientist estimate the U.S. loses more than four billion tons of soil alone to water erosion each year.

Erosion is slow wherever the soils are covered by trees and grass. The rate of erosion in any storm depends on the force with which raindrops stir up the soil and the amount and speed of runoff water. Wind also takes loose soil away.

Control can be achieved only through protection of the soil by farmers and gardeners and that is the program being developed by scientists.

One key lesson to be learned from history, according to Dr. Stanley M. Brooks, Washington State University agronomist, is that a civilization maintains its greatness only so long as it is able to feed itself, and it is able to feed itself only so long as it maintains its rich, food-producing soil. The once proud and mighty civilizations of ancient Egypt, Babylon and Greece were literally washed away, he says.

The 8.5 million acres of cropland in the Palouse region of eastern Washington, northwestern Idaho, and north-eastern Oregon, includes some of the world's most fertile and productive topsoil. Area agricultural expertst boast that no place in the world, under dryland conditions, grows more wheat per acre. Barley, peas, and oats also flourish.

Each year more than 110 million tons of the topsoil responsible for this splendid production are lost to erosion. It's estimated that during the last 100 years erosion has removed more than 40 percent of the original topsoil, a loss of an inch of topsoil every 15 years -- an inch that took at least 800 years to form.

The land beneath this topsoil is drastically less productive and increasingly more erosive. Unless the soil erosion in the Palouse is checked, one day in the not too distant future, food production may simply stop.

Complicating the problem of soil erosion is the difficulty in drumming up public support for efforts to control it, Dr. Brooks says. Erosion is insidious, unlike, for example, water pollution. People support efforts to control water pollution because people are readily aware of the problem and can react to it.

Anyone can look at a river or a stream, see that it is dirty. But the ravages of erosion are often not so readily apparent, nor does the implication of the damage, when visible, register so easily with an untrained beholder.

In the Palouse region, something is finally being done about the situation.

The USDA Science and Education Administration has joined with the Agricultural Experiment Stations of Idaho, Oregon and Washington, and with Palouse growers, in a coordinate research program to develop the knowledge necessary to cope with soil erosion in the Palouse.

This program is called STEEP -- Solutions to Environmental and Economic Problems. Federal and state researchers, enveloping a wide range of scientific disclipines have been brought together for the first time ever to focus on this problem.

The relentless on-going devastation of the Palouse is taking place elsewhere across the United States and throughtout the World, the scientists say. Solutions to the problem are neither simple nor easy, nor are remedies likely to be soon forthcoming.

In the U.S. the original pine forests of the East were the first victims. As the plows dug into the prairie sod, the grasslands withered. Soon erosion by water in the East was matched by erosion by wind and water in the West. Floods increased dramatically.

The most spctacular damage probably occurred during the "Dust Bowl" years. From bare, abandoned land, from abused pastures and from fields, there arose billowing clouds of dust that hid the midday sun. The evidence of the destructive processes had been everywhere, but few saw it in time. Today we know we can never totally stop wind and water erosion, but we have learned ways to soften their effect, the scientists say.