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Natural Resources

Cooperation advances Wyo soil survey work

Written by Christy Hemken
    According to Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Watershed Coordinator Nephi Cole, soil surveys are extremely valuable because soil will always be the most limiting natural resource.
    Because of their value they’ve been a priority for many years, even pre-dating the NRCS by 25 years. Currently the NRCS is in the midst of an effort to finish soil surveys throughout the entire U.S. by 2012.
    In Wyoming that goal has become a cooperative effort with funding coming from federal, state and private parties.
    Specific results from the soil survey can be found online by searching for a state and county, address or latitude and longitude. The tool uses the latest imagery available from USDA.
    “If you’re a developer, rancher, farmer or county planner you can type in the location you want and it’ll bring up all the different types of soils in the area,” explains Cole.
    A feature called the Soil Data Explorer breaks down the database information, interpreting the numbers into useful information for the everyday user. “Soil scientists have developed the data and figured out what it means to most people,” says Cole. “They’ve covered things like how the soil properties will affect what you want to do.”
    For example, under ‘vegetative productivity’ one can find numbers of expected range production for dry, normal and wet years, defined as pounds per acre.
    “The soil surveys come down to the ecological site descriptions,” says Cole. “What’s going to ultimately determine where the vegetation can go is always the soil, and an ecological site description is a look at all the types of vegetation at a location, and it can tell you what the range is capable of.”
    He says the ecological site descriptions are useful for the BLM, Forest Service and private landowners to use when deciding how to manage a certain piece of ground for a given condition. “I can look at an ecological site description to get a baseline for the potential of a piece of land,” he explains.
    “All of our planners use soil surveys as the backing for all their planning, and it’s the smart way to do it,” says Cole. “It’s going to give you a really good idea of whether or not you’re wasting your money on a location.”
    He gives an example of septic systems for home sites, and the location and cost of leach fields given the specific type of soil.
    All the soil mappers in Wyoming right now are working on initial soil surveys, and in Wyoming there are many areas with old soil survey data. “Previously, soils leadership decided they wouldn’t use any of that old data, but the new leadership made the decision we’d take the old information, data and field sheets from years ago and digitize them and that’s shortened the work load significantly – as in years,” says Cole.
    He explains GIS specialists are looking at the old polygons and finding the valuable data. “Rather than throwing away thousands of man-hours of work they’re figuring out productive ways to use it now.”
    Several years ago the estimate was that Wyoming wouldn’t be done with its soil mapping for at least 40 years, but now, with the help of the old data, the project’s completion is expected by 2012. “The eastern portion of the state, with the ag lands, is basically done,” says Cole. “Most of the areas that remain are those with large tracts of public rangelands.”
    “We’ve had great local support from conservation districts,” says Cole. “They, along with county commissioners, have really stepped up and been good about helping in whatever way they can. It’s not a lot, but every dollar of local funding makes a big statement to NRCS national leadership that the project is important to people on the ground.”
    Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts Executive Director Bobbie Frank says in 2002 WACD passed a resolution to make it a priority to get soil survey work done in Wyoming on an accelerated basis. “We’ve worked with the State Land Office, NRCS, local conservation districts and counties, along with the congressional delegation, to pull together multiple pots of money,” says Frank, noting that another goal is to make sure people know where survey data is available, how to access it and how to use it.
    As a result, the state, which hadn’t previously funded soil survey efforts, stepped in this year with funding for mapping on state lands.
    “We have a program called the Trust Preservation and Enhancement Account, and the legislature has twice appropriated money from the School Foundation Account with the idea that we can only spend that money on projects to preserve or enhance the underlying value of the real estate,” says Lynne Boomgaarden, Director of the Office of State Lands and Investments.
    “The benefit of mapping is that it helps with everything from grazing management practices to proposed special use leases,” she explains. “If we have a proposed sale, exchange or development the surveys give us good base information on what the soils are like, the forage potential or the building potential. It’s basic land inventory information for all of our land management practices.”
    To date the Board of Land Commissioners has approved $195,360 for soil survey work, $63,360 in February 2007 and $132,000 in December 2008.
    Cole says Wyoming’s conservation districts stepped up in a new way this year with lobbying efforts. “NRCS can’t lobby, so when conservation districts identified soil surveys as a priority they talked to the congressional delegation, which was able to increase funding significantly and retain the staff we have here at this time.”
    He credits Wyoming’s congressional delegation for their help with the project’s funding. “They deserve a huge pat on the back for what they’ve done,” he says. “They caught some flak for the earmarks they helped with, but because of them NRCS took funding and dedicated it to the soil survey effort, which benefits the entire state. Soil survey data is important for many reasons.”
    “We’ve got really good leadership here right now, and a really good plan and good staff,” says Cole, giving State Soil Scientist Astrid Martinez a lot of credit for the progress. “If they can hold it together it’s going to be done by 2012, but it’s a tall order and it’s not easy.”
    Last year Wyoming led the nation in acreage mapped and percentage above goal, at 152 percent. “That’s a credit to the staff here and how hard they worked and their innovation,” says Cole.
    To use the database, visit websoilsurvey.nrcs.usda.gov. For help using the database, Cole says contact your local NRCS office. Christy Hemken is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..