Can Soil Survey become the basis for land management?
Submitted by joel brown on Fri, 09/26/2014 - 08:59
One of the most challenging aspects of land management and restoration is to balance the generation of new information and the application of existing accepted knowledge. At one end of the spectrum is the argument that we can always learn more but we should not wait to get on with the job. At the opposite end is the rationale for a learning-based approach (adaptive management)-as we do more, we should learn more and we should constantly be revising the information base. These questions are complicated by the lack of a centralized decision-making structure in most landscapes. There are also competing uses and groups, many of whom don’t even know they are in the mix. But long-term adaptive management is critical for land management into a future with changing climate and land use pressures.
We are at a turning point with regard to the development of a national-level adaptive management approach in the United States. The National Cooperative Soil Survey (NCSS) has been a model for effective use of taxpayer funds to collect, store and disseminate information relative to land use and management (Miller 2012). It has been so good in fact, that it has just about completed the initial soil survey (Figure 1). While it is certainly not perfect, the information associated with the NCSS is accurate, highly accessible and exceptionally useful. There are some gaps, but on the whole, this effort represents a standard that most of the rest of the world can only dream about. The measured and interpreted information in this survey is far from an esoteric or academic exercise; basic information about soil performance provides a basis for decision-making for farmers, agribusiness and local, state and federal government. On the global level, readily available resource information provides a competitive advantage that helps insure efficiency in production systems and government programs, even when the analysis is confined to on-site benefits (Giasson et al 2000). Generally, the return on investment is far greater than most other potential agriculture investments (Pradhan 2009).
While we can be confident that the existing information in the NCSS has been well worth the investment, what is next? One school of (non) thought is “Well, it’s done. Now we can close the program and save the money”. Another, almost as ill-conceived idea is “Good, now we can use the money to do more conservation”. Both of these illogical options are based on the assumption that we have garnered sufficient knowledge from the existing work to solve conservation challenges and that the problems of the 20th Century are also the problems of the 21st Century. Neither of these premises requires much effort to invalidate, simply because our existing interpretations are based on some pretty shaky assumptions about climate stability. There is way more than enough evidence to dictate that we reexamine the way we interpret our existing data.
Added to climate change implications are a variety of changing assumptions about what we expect from land. Most of our existing interpretations are limited to ideas about how to optimize and maintain production of a fairly narrow range of commodities. As the pressure on land, and ecosystems, increases to produce not only more, but a wider variety of goods and services, our interpretations have to consider a broader array of inputs, processes and outputs. For example, we struggle mightily with trying to predict the effects of changes in land use and management on hydrologic processes when we only consider landscapes as collections of fields. Land ecology is, without overstating it, complicated.
Initiatives to reinterpret existing soil and vegetation information that we have collected as part of the existing NCSS effort, as well as emerging ideas about how to extend the concepts are loaded with promise. Far from winding down, the early efforts at rethinking our basic assumptions and developing new ideas are really starting to pay off. Not the least of which are the soil systems initiative and the ecological site effort that the NCSS has elevated in importance. The questions that appear on the horizon demand that we put some serious effort into developing completely new, and sometimes seemingly contradictory, approaches.
So the idea that we can get finished with the soil survey--call it a day and head to the house--may be appealing to bean counters and soon-to-be-retirees who thought they would complete their careers and the job on the same day, it’s a siren song that we have to actively resist. But we have to realize that the contribution of soil science to land ecology does not have a finish line.
Miller, B.A. 2012. The Need to Continue Improving Soil Survey Maps. Soil Horizons. 53.
Giasson, E., C. van Es, A. van Wambeke and R.B. Bryant. 2000. Assessing the economic value of soil information using decision analysis techniques. Soil Science 165: 971-978.
Pradhan, A. 2009. Economic benefits of the National Cooperative Soil Survey Program. Ph.D. Thesis Publication No. 3381204. West Virginia University, Morgantown WV.