Home News True to our Roots: NRCS and Soil Conservation

True to our Roots: NRCS and Soil Conservation

Washington, D. C., (April 19, 2018) – The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) was built, quite literally, from the ground up. Originally known as the Soil Erosion Service in 1933 then the Soil Conservation Service starting in April of 1935, the agency was created in response to the high rates of soil erosion seen across the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

A dust storm rolling across the Littlefield Farm in Swisher County, Texas in 1935. Dust storms were common across the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl, when severe drought and extensive tillage caused unprecedented rates of soil erosion. Photo Credit: Littlefield Family Album, USDA-NRCS Texas

Then and now, NRCS is comprised of a network of people working together to fulfill one common mission: helping people help the land. As we pause this month to celebrate our roots, we look at where we’ve been, where we’re at and where we’re going to conserve one of our nation’s most valuable natural resources – our soils.

Dave Hoover, Director of the National Soil Survey Center, provides a unique glimpse into the progression of soil conservation across the nation. Hoover has been a soil scientist with NRCS for over 40 years. He has mapped over one million acres of soils throughout the United States, and has seen more than 50,000 unique soil profiles during his career with the agency.

Soil Mapping: Past to Present – Soil surveying is a cornerstone of NRCS, both historically and currently. “Technically,” says Hoover, “the National Soil Survey Program has been mapping the soils of the United States since 1899. This included some of the early mapping work done by Hugh Hammond Bennett, Father of Soil Conservation and our agency’s founder, and extends to currently include the majority of land acres across the country.”

The above soil profile is from a field in North Carolina. The visible layers are called soil horizons. Photo Credit: John A. Kelley, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

Technology has changed many things since Bennett’s days of mapping, particularly public access to soils information. We now have the Web Soil Survey, a public online tool that provides soil maps and data for over 95 percent of all counties in the United States. Web Soil Survey is designed to help any user, regardless of experience level, find information on soils across a given tract of land.

Soil Surveys: Tools for Conservation – “Web Soil Survey provides soils data, maps and interpretations for general users and experts alike,” explains Hoover. “If a landowner is interested in finding the soil type of her cropland, for instance, she can use Web Soil Survey on a home computer to access that information. If she then chooses to work with NRCS to adopt conservation practices across her operation, the Soil Conservationist working with her can use Web Soil Survey to learn more. Properties of the soil and associated site characteristics play a large role in determining the appropriate conservation practices we as an agency might recommend to any given landowner.”

Beyond supporting one-on-one work with producers, NRCS soil scientists use Web Soil Survey data to predict the suitability and limitations of soils for a variety of uses. For instance, critical Gopher Tortoise habitat can be identified for targeted conservation through the use of site suitability rankings based on soils data. This application – interpretation – is a large function of NRCS’s Soil Science Division. Many interpretations are available to the general public through the Web Soil Survey.

As technology advances, more interpretations will become available for increasingly small land areas. “Eventually,” says Hoover, “we will likely develop tools that provide suitability interpretations based on the exact characteristics of specific sites. We aren’t there yet, but we’re working towards that goal.”

The Future of Soil Conservation – As the global population grows towards a projected 9.8 billion people by 2050, so too does demand for the food, fuel and fiber grown in America. Our nation’s farmers, ranchers and foresters will rely on the productivity of one common resource – their soil – to meet this need. Put simply, soil conservation has never been more important.

“Through this work,” says Hoover, “we are helping people understand and better manage one of the most important – but often unseen – resources available throughout the country. We can see air and water, but people rarely see the soil. And, though we don’t always see it, can you name a single thing that isn’t tied to it? I have asked that question to many people; no one yet has been able to give me an answer. The soil is tied, in some way, to every single thing we use as a society. I can think of no charge more important than helping to conserve it.”

Story by Elizabeth Creech, NRCS – Contact Elizabeth on Elizabeth.Creech@wdc.usda.gov

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