Some farmers didn't like it, but in 1985, Congress required all farmers to make plans to prevent soil erosion if they wanted to continue to receive federal agricultural subsidies.

While this could cause radical changes in the way some farmers do things - and even require an end to farming on some land - the idea was a good one that would benefit farmers themselves in the long run.Soil erosion in the U.S. is a critical problem. Two billion tons of topsoil wash away from croplands each year. Another three billion tons is lost from rangelands, forests, and pastures.

What do those numbers mean? They mean a loss greater than the "dust bowl" years of the 1930s. It takes nature 100 years to create an inch of topsoil, an inch that can blow away in less than an hour if not protected against erosion. Soil erosion is considered by many to be a greater threat to the future than all the pollution problems put together.

The soil erosion prevention rules imposed on farmers in 1985 called for them to have federally-approved conservation plans for their farms by 1990, and to have them in effect by 1995. Most farmers understand the need for such actions.

Unfortunately, recent policy decisions by the federal Soil Conservation Service mean that the erosion rules may not be as demanding as everybody thought. In fact, the SCS chief, Wilson Scaling, is accused of weakening the rules so much that the whole concept is being undermined.

Gov. Richard F. Celeste of Ohio has protested that the less stringent rules mean soil erosion figures could be five times higher than allowed under the previous policy.

It's shocking that the head of the SCS, the very agency designated to help save topsoil, is actually weakening the policy laid down by Congress - and doing irreparable damage in the process.

Soil conservation rules ought to be as strict as effective farming will allow. The consequences of failing to do so are too high.

If the world runs out of oil, civilization will somehow manage to survive. But it cannot survive the wholesale loss of topsoil needed to grow food.