Tuesday, 11 July 2006

Soil Science: Subterranean Support for Sustainability.

Richard Arnold, USDA-NRCS (retired), 9311 Coronado Terrace, Fairfax, VA 22031-3835

Conservation of land becomes a societal issue when the management of soil resources exceeds their natural limits of resilience, resistance, productivity, responsiveness, flexibility, residence time, or sustainability. Such excessive use causes a reduction of land use options and may, in some instances, impair the functions of soils so severely that the land is removed from rational sustainable use. Intensifying and expanding crop production in the early 20th century caused serious water and wind erosion of soils in the US, and the resulting Dust Bowl was the bellwether for conservationists lead by Hugh Bennett, a soil scientist, to get Congressional support for a Soil Conservation Service. Earlier soil surveys and experiments demonstrated the usefulness of identifying and locating kinds of soils as a means of reducing trial and error as the main tool for land use decisions. Although agriculture of private land was a main pathway for developing and using soil information, most types of land use and owners of land benefited as more soil scientists contributed to improved understanding of how soils function to provide desired personal and societal objectives. Support for agricultural and forestry conservation is found not only in the balance of nutrient management, but in the control of water and wind erosion, location and use of irrigation, and in the designation and use of wetlands and riparian areas. Conservation is not just a land concern, it is also a financial one and support of the design and construction of highways, roads, and trails, the renovation and restoration of highly disturbed land, and the infrastructure development of both rural and urban communities attest to the value of knowing better the available soil resources and their limitations. A striking example of the support of soil science for sustainability occurred when US production of crops was so much that world markets were unduly influenced. The 1995 Farm Bill proposed a strategy to reduce production by protecting erodible land from excessive use. For the first time it was possible to prepare maps and data about highly erodible land for all cropland in the US.. Coupled with wetland protection and restoration programs, most of the private lands were influenced, and similar measures extended to many of the public lands Forests, Range, Parks, Wilderness Areas and even Military Lands. A massive national soil information system, NASIS, has been developed by the National Cooperative Soil Survey which is a collaborative effort of soil scientists in federal, state, university and private consultant organizations. Digitized soil maps, lab data, and research results are becoming on-line tools for those interested in soil and land resource management. Everywhere there are examples of the excellent subterranean support for natural resource sustainability.

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