[Los Angeles, CA Permaculture] FYI/THE STATE AND FUTURE OF U.S. SOILS Framework for a Federal Strategic Plan for Soil Science PRODUCT OF THE Subcommittee on Ecological Systems, Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Sustainability OF THE NATIONAL SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY COUNCIL December 2016

Wesley Roe and Santa Barbara Permaculture Network lakinroe at silcom.com
Tue Dec 6 10:03:30 PST 2016


Framework for a Federal Strategic Plan for Soil Science

Subcommittee on Ecological Systems, Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Sustainability

December 2016

Framework for a Federal Strategic Plan for Soil Science
Executive Summary
Soil is essential to human life. Not only is it vital for providing most of the world’s food, it plays a critical role in ensuring water quality and availability; supports a vast array of non-food products and benefits, including mitigation of climate change; and affects biodiversity important for ecological resilience. These roles make soil essential to modern life. Thus, it is imperative that everyone—city dwellers, farmers and ranchers, land owners, and rural citizens alike—take responsibility for caring for and investing in our soils. Given their importance, soil must be protected from degradation, as the alternative is the loss of an array of important ecosystem services. The Soil Science Interagency Working Group (SSIWG) was established to support interagency coordination of research activities and ensure the long-term sustainable use of soil resources.

Enhanced coordination will ensure tools and information for improved soil management and stewardship are made available, and help land managers implement soil-conservation practices to maintain, enhance, or restore this nonrenewable resource. A collaborative, whole-of- government approach will help inform related policy development and coordination related to soil research and conservation.

This Framework organizes the key threats to U.S. soil resources into three broad categories:

 Land-Use and Land-Cover Change, including expansion of urban and industrial land and infrastructure at the expense of productive lands; management of resource extraction sites; expansion of cropland into vulnerable areas such as wetlands; and inappropriate land-use intensification.

 Unsustainable Land Management Practices, including insufficient soil surface cover, excessive application or poor management of nutrients and pesticide, poor water management, agricultural and forestry practices that excessively disturb the soil, and other practices that may degrade soil.

 Climate and Environmental Change, including potential effects of changes in temperature and precipitation patterns on erosion rates and degradation of soil organic matter, potential feedback mechanisms from release of greenhouse gases caused by different forms of soil degradation (such as the drainage of wetland soils), opportunities for terrestrial carbon

A future in which the Nation manages its soils to support healthy ecosystems, vibrant communities, and a secure world.

The establishment of a whole-of-government approach for interagency coordination and collaboration on soil research, conservation, and restoration priorities.

Framework for a Federal Strategic Plan for Soil Science
sequestration, effects of atmospheric deposition on forest soils, and changes in invasive species distribution.
To address these challenges, the SSIWG makes five recommendations for future cross-agency science and technology priorities:

1. Support applied social-science research in soil sciences and enhance public awareness of soils, including developing incentives for implementing sustainable soil-management strategies, growing citizen-science networks, educating potential scientists on the role and importance of soils in human society, and engaging academics in a wide range of disciplines.

2. Advance the national research infrastructure for soil-data storage, analysis, and sharing, including standardizing methods for obtaining data, storing large volumes of data, developing more sophisticated predictive models, and working with land managers to expand research opportunities.

3. Support a coordinated research effort on the interactions between soils and the global climate, including better understanding soil-atmosphere carbon exchanges, improving the resolution of climate models in their interpretation of soils, and studying the effects of temperature and precipitation changes on soil properties.

4. Support the expansion of, and increased investment in, long-term research programs and collaborations to better understand, document, and manage the effects of land-use and land-cover change on soils, including expanding existing Federal research networks and long-term studies to include more soil properties and a wider diversity of land use and land cover types, strengthening long-term research partnerships with land managers, and exploring opportunities for developing landscape-scale resilience to environmental change.

5. Prioritize programs and technical assistance designed to promote sustainable land- management practices and to minimize unsustainable land-management practices, including supporting and enhancing Federal, State, and local conservation programs that provide financial and technical assistance to land managers for adoption of sustainable practices, implementing routine review of technical methodologies used by Federal agencies in assessing soil function and the effectiveness of conservation practices, developing more-precise and less-expensive sensors for deployment by land managers, and developing a consistent set of benchmarks and targets against which to measure progress in protecting U.S. soils.

Framework for a Federal Strategic Plan for Soil Science
Soils: The Foundation for Civilization

The Soil Science Glossary published by the Soil Society of America (SSSA) defines soil as:
“The unconsolidated mineral or organic matter on the surface of the Earth that has been subjected to and shows effects of genetic and environmental factors of: climate (including water and temperature effects), and macro- and microorganisms, conditioned by relief, acting on parent material over a period of time.”1
Under natural conditions, one inch of topsoil can take 500 years or more to form.2
 Soil scientists categorize soils into 12 broad classifications called soil orders (Map 1: Soil Orders of the United States.3) The soil characteristics that define these orders are fundamental to each soil’s ability to provide ecosystem services and govern responses to different management practices. A wide range of land-use and land-cover conditions occur across the United States (Map 2: Land Uses and Land Cover in the United States). 
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Resources Inventory (NRI) groups the U.S. land-use and land-cover classes into six broad categories: crop land, pasture, rangeland, forest land, developed land, and other rural land. Federal lands are treated as a separate category in the NRI, as is land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), a USDA conservation program that retires agricultural land to protect its natural resources (Figure 1: Land-Use Distribution in the United States). 

This document focuses on land use and management rather than land ownership, so Federal land and CRP land are not treated separately. The interaction of inherent and dynamic soil properties with existing and potential land-management practices across the Nation are the basis for this document.
The ecosystem services provided by a soil vary among land uses. There is a common need for the development and implementation of management strategies that maximize the ability of a specific soil to provide the desired services for the future and to reduce the risks of irreversible negative effects on that soil. In working lands (crop land, pastures, rangeland and much of the Nation’s forest lands), the primary management objective is to provide food and fiber for a growing world population. The most significant challenge is to minimize negative effects such as soil erosion and loss of organic matter as well as unintended on- and off-site environmental risks resulting from inappropriate application of agricultural inputs (such as fertilizer and pesticides).

A Brief History of Soil Management in the United States
The Dust Bowl period of the 1930s, which devastated agriculture throughout the Great Plains, resulted from a severe drought, the effects of which were magnified by poor land management in the region. The event caused a severe loss of ecosystem services and agricultural productivity. In response to this crisis, the U.S. Congress established the Soil Conservation Service in 1935 (which later became the Natural Resources Conservation Service) through the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act.4 The Act authorized USDA to administer conservation programs and acquire lands to conserve their soil, to encourage “...the protection of land resources against soil erosion.5” 

With these actions, the Federal Government began what
Framework for a Federal Strategic Plan for Soil Science
would become a long-standing policy of encouraging and supporting the use of conservation practices on agricultural land.
New pressures on soil resources have emerged as a result of changing societal needs and norms. For example, the co-development of new crop varieties and more efficient irrigation equipment has facilitated the expansion of high-yield and high-input agriculture into more arid and cooler areas, creating new threats to soils that formerly had been managed less intensively for livestock production or lower-input agricultural systems. The pursuit of additional acreage for crop production has led land managers to drain wetland soils to expand agricultural activity, often causing significant soil loss and carbon release to the atmosphere.6 The growth of bioenergy and bio-product markets and the rise of industrial-scale confined livestock operations have also contributed to the spread of monocrop agriculture (primarily corn) through wide swaths of the central United States.7 These changes in cropping systems have decreased species diversity, which can lead to accelerated soil degradation.8 Furthermore, as urban populations continue to expand, demand for more housing and urban development has increased pressure on agricultural or forested lands; the associated increase in impervious land cover in these areas creates challenges for both soil and water management. Industrial activities, including mining and resource extraction, also continue to present soil-management challenges.

Many Federal agencies have conducted research and developed programs to address these issues. A few examples include:
1) Agricultural soils: Within USDA, NRCS, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), and Agricultural Research Service (ARS)) have implemented—and continue to implement—coordinated programs of field and laboratory research, demonstrations, outreach, and financial assistance to quantify and control soil erosion processes better. Programs have focused on designing appropriate management practices (such as terraces, waterways, and reduced- and no-tillage systems) and working with landowners to support implementation of these practices. Although erosion continues to be an important resource issue, significant improvements were made in the late 20th century (Maps 3a and 3b: Sheet and Rill Erosion in the United States). Even though erosion management has been a primary focus for USDA agencies, most are now trying to develop a better understanding of biological and physical processes in soil.
2) Urbanandindustrialsoils:Brownfieldsaresitesthatmaycontainhazardoussubstances, pollutants, or contaminants due to prior human use. To remediate soils at these sites, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed the Brownfields Program to provide grants and technical assistance to communities, states, tribes, and others to assess, safely clean-up, and sustainably reuse previously contaminated sites. Cleaning up and reinvesting in Brownfields protects human health and the environment and takes development pressures off greenspaces and working lands. EPA estimates 450,000 to 1,000,000 Brownfield sites exist nationwide9—but only about 17,000 sites have applied for and received grants for assessing or cleaning up the contamination (Map 4: Brownfield Sites across the United States). These investments have been successful;
Framework for a Federal Strategic Plan for Soil Science
every dollar invested in the Brownfields program has leveraged $17.79 in additional investment,10 and as of 2014, Brownfield investments have led to the creation of over 97,000 jobs.11 Other Federal agencies also work to protect urban soils; for example, NRCS has expanded its work on soil mapping into urban areas to further characterize soils that exist in close interaction with human populations. The Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) program also surveys urban sites.
3) Contaminatedsites:TheDepartmentofEnergy(DOE)operatesdozensofresearch facilities across the country that manage large quantities of contaminants, including radionuclides, toxic metals, organics, and dense liquids such as mercury.12 DOE’s inventory of degraded soil and debris is 40 million cubic meters.13 The Department invests hundreds of millions of dollars each year to ensure the appropriate cleanup of contaminated soils, and the Office of Soil and Groundwater Remediation operates research programs to develop improved technologies for solving specific technical challenges associated with contamination. For example, DOE’s proposed Fiscal Year 2017 budget includes an additional $3 million to help develop and test technologies to stabilize mercury pollution in soil from activities at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.14
Public Perception of the Importance of Soil
Soil is one of the least recognized national resources. No mascot along the lines of “Smokey the Bear” has widely popularized the importance of soil. The benefits of soil are more likely to be recognized only after they have been degraded or eroded, or after extreme events— such as landslides or land subsidence—have occurred.
Soil is often viewed as “just dirt,” and the general public rarely hears of the importance of healthy soil or soil ecosystem services, but in fact, it is one of three pillars—along with water and air—of the Earth’s capacity to support human life. That this precious resource is underappreciated is due in part to an increasingly urbanized society that separates people from soils and the services they provide. Raising awareness and engaging the public on the complexity and importance of soil ecosystem services could lead to better soil management decisions at the local level, more support at all levels of government for efforts to protect soil, and opportunities for scientific workforce development. Educating the public on the different roles soil plays beyond agriculture in, for example, filtering drinking water, storing water, supporting the plants that provide oxygen, and mitigating climate change, is also important.

In addition to increasing overall public awareness of the importance of soils to human society, addressing the needs and concerns of farmers and other land managers and increasing their knowledge of practices that protect and improve soils remains a significant challenge. While every grower knows the importance of soil, there can be considerable resistance to changing soil-degrading practices.

Framework for a Federal Strategic Plan for Soil Science
The State of the Nation’s Soils
The United States features diverse soil types, formed over time by site-specific factors including local climate and hydrology, biological activity, topography, and geologic parent material (referred to collectively as soil forming factors). Different soil types vary in their sensitivity to degrading practices, the rate at which ecosystem services can be regenerated, the management practices that will enable restoration, and the level of soil function that can be restored.

Soil Degradation
Soil degradation is a general term often applied to the process of rendering a soil incapable of providing its expected level of ecosystem services. Originally, the term was applied to agricultural productivity, but the concept has expanded to cover the broader range of services that soils provide. Degradation reduces the availability of soils for food and fiber production, water filtration and storage, carbon sequestration, and other important ecosystem services upon which society depends. In many instances, degraded soils can be remediated by implementing improved management practices or soil amendments, such as organic matter, that ameliorate physical or chemical limitations. Degraded soils can take hundreds or even thousands of years to recover naturally.15 For example, organic matter depletion is a common type of degradation in agricultural soils, commonly due to intensive tillage that is often accompanied by leaving the land uncovered in the non-growing season. 

Changes in management can halt and often reverse soil organic matter losses.
Soil Loss across the United States
Soil loss, primarily through wind and water erosion, can be thought of as the most extreme type of soil degradation, as its effects cannot be alleviated by simply replacing lost soil with soil from another location. An inch of soil can take more than 500 years to form,16 and since soil is also a living community and the microbial community structure needed for healthy and functional soil varies by location and use, physically replacing lost soil with soil from another location is not enough to restore its function. The average rate of soil erosion from cropland decreased by over 30 percent from 1982 to 2012,17 the last year for which NRI data are available (Figure 3), largely due to the adoption of reduced tillage management by a growing number of farmers. Despite this improvement, the current estimated rate of erosion (an average of 4.6 tons per acre per year18) results in significant soil losses. These estimated losses are not evenly distributed, with some areas of the country still experiencing average losses of nearly twice that amount19 (Maps 3a and 3b).

Soil formation rates cannot on their own offset the current rates of soil losses due to erosion. Despite numerous attempts to quantify the rate of soil formation under a wide range of conditions, the only consensus from these efforts is that soil formation rates are highly variable. Recent estimates suggest that average soil formation rates are close to 0.5 tons per acre per year.20,21 Therefore, it is not possible to rely on natural soil formation alone to make up for the high rates of soil loss in agricultural and other soils.

Framework for a Federal Strategic Plan for Soil Science
Current Availability and Quality of Federal Data on Soils
Considerable data document the state of soil resources in the United States. The primary source for soil information is the Soil Survey Geographic (SSURGO) database, which is accessible through the USDA’s Web Soil Survey.22 This database, maintained by NRCS, contains hundreds of estimated properties for soil landscapes and components that cover over 90 percent of the continental United States mapped at a 1:24,000 spatial scale. The State Soil Geographic (STATSGO) database, also distributed through Web Soil Survey, provides a smaller set of estimated properties for the entire country at a 1:250,000 scale. The spatial resolution of the chemical data in SSURGO is sufficient for large, homogeneous landscapes, but in variable terrain with multiple soil parent materials, such as those found in much of the East and Mountain West, this dataset is limited. Therefore, SSURGO data usually do not provide detailed information on surface waters or forest conditions, nor provide useful estimates of soil-carbon storage; however, NRCS continues to invest in improved soil resource mapping programs that are expected to help resolve current limitations.

The National Cooperative Soil Survey (NCSS) Soil Characterization database contains measured data on over 1,000 soil properties obtained from over 63,000 sites throughout the United States and the world, though measurement is limited by low spatial resolution in many parts of the country.23 The NCSS also contains calculated data on many other soil properties. All of these datasets are based on consistent, well-documented standards and specifications. NRCS is able to leverage significant information on global soil resources through international collaborations, including with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Global Soil Partnership and international organizations such as ISRIC—World Soil Information.
NRCS also maintains the NRI, a longitudinal sample survey of the Nation’s land-use characteristics based upon statistical principles and procedures. The NRI is conducted in cooperation with Iowa State University’s Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology. Current estimates cover the contiguous 48 States, Hawaii, and parts of the Caribbean. Separate estimates also cover Alaska. The NRI approach to conducting inventories facilitates examination of trends in rural and developed land characteristics and uses over time, because:
• the same sample sites have been studied since 1982;
• the same data have been collected since 1982;
• the inventory accounts for 100 percent of the surface area;
• quality assurance and statistical procedures are designed and developed to ensure that trend data are scientifically legitimate and unambiguous; and
• it is easy to track lands as they change in their characteristics and uses.

Key information collected over time includes land cover and use, water and wind erosion, and wetland characteristics, paired with soil properties. The NRI’s applicability, however, to developing responses to threats to soil ecosystem services is limited, because it is principally a land-use database, not a soil-property database, and therefore lacks detailed information about soil characteristics.

Framework for a Federal Strategic Plan for Soil Science
Another USDA agency, the Forest Service, leads the FIA, which produces an annual survey of the state of U.S. forests, including forest soils, and reports on issues such as land-cover change, carbon sequestration, and effects of pollutants and fires. The survey includes approximately 125,000 plots for core data collection, of which approximately 7,800 are sampled intensively and include forest-health and soil characteristics.

Several public-private collaborations aggregate and analyze large quantities of soil data. For example, scientists have created the International Soil Carbon Network (ISCN), a platform working to develop a globally integrated database of soil carbon measurements.24 ISCN partners with several Federal programs, including the interagency U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) and the NSF-funded National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON)25,26 (NEON’s scientific steering group includes several U.S. and foreign government agencies as well as universities and research institutions.) Federal agencies including EPA, DOE, and others host numerous other datasets. Despite all of these efforts, however, many existing datasets lack the requisite resolution for effective policy and soil-management decisions, and many higher- resolution datasets are regional and lack integration into national databases.27 

The United States lacks a single clearinghouse for soil data or infrastructure for intercomparison of heterogeneous datasets, especially those containing data collected via different methods and with different goals (for example, when two researchers measure the same properties at different depths). 

Aggregation and intercomparison are inherently difficult due to the wide range of soil properties, the varying degree of importance of each property depending on the location and land-use or land-cover type, scale, and the different research needs for different soil-management goals. For example, the Soil Moisture Active-Passive (SMAP) satellite is designed to measure soil moisture to a depth of 5 centimeters, while a hydrologist might study groundwater flows down to 10 meters. Ensuring data are discoverable (searchable through metadata formatting and the use of Digital Object Identifiers to tag datasets) and accessible (allowing for consistent data formats and methods of installation and synthesis) is also challenging. An important component of a planned interagency approach to managing soil resources will be the coordination of these types of datasets across Federal agencies to maximize the discoverability, accessibility, and usability of information and analytical tools on which to base important policy decisions.

A Global Perspective on the Importance of Soils
The historical success of American agricultural, livestock, and forestry production rests largely on the Nation’s highly fertile soils. Mollisols, which are among most productive soils in the world,28 are also the most common soils in the United States, comprising approximately 22 percent of the Nation’s land area but less than 7 percent of global land area.29 Generally formed

Framework for a Federal Strategic Plan for Soil Science
under grassland vegetation, Mollisols contain high levels of organic matter that store large amounts of carbon and nutrients important for plant health. The especially rich soils of the United States provide American farmers, ranchers, and foresters a considerable competitive advantage over producers in other regions of the world.

Many parts of Africa, for example, struggle to produce adequate food from the continent’s widespread highly-weathered and nutrient- depleted soils.30 Only about 16 percent of Africa’s soils are optimal for crop and livestock production31,32 (see Map 5, Global Soil Orders), while the rest present one or more major challenges to successful agriculture, such as low levels of organic matter or high acidity. Farmers managing such soils are vulnerable to crop and livestock losses during droughts and extreme weather events. These losses can lead to famines or severe food shortages that are less likely in the United States. Through Federal agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Federal Government helps countries around the world avoid such tragedies by supporting agricultural development projects, many of which focus on helping smallholder farmers conserve and improve their soils.

Due to the global nature of both the threats to
soils and their diverse roles in society, a range of
international entities exist to address soil
sustainability issues directly or indirectly. Among them are the FAO, which operates the Global Soil Partnership and the Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils (ITPS); the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which combats land degradation around the world; and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)’s International Resource Panel (IRP). These entities work with countries around the world to produce data and databases for use in addressing important soil-related research questions.

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