TSSH Part 602

Historical Overview of Technical Soil Services

Background (602.00)

The soil survey program in the United States celebrated its centennial in 1999. This celebration highlighted and recognized the skills and abilities of soil scientists to effectively provide soil survey information, including information about the geographic complexity of soils, to a diverse group of land operators and users.

This quality assistance in the use of soils information has been a major factor in the success of the long-lived continuous local, State, and Federal soil survey program. The first official U.S. soil surveys, dating back to 1899, were in the Pecos Valley of New Mexico, in the Salt Lake Valley of Utah, in the Connecticut Valley of Connecticut and Massachusetts, and in Cecil County, Maryland. The major thrust of these pioneer surveys was directed toward the investigations of soils used for farming, ranching, and forestry. Soil scientists using this early soils information were able to assist land users by suggesting the most productive crops and management techniques for a given type of soil.

Historically, the emphasis of the technical soil services concept and application has been dynamic. During the first 50 years of the soil survey, soil scientists of the Bureau of Plant Industry, Soils, and Agricultural Engineering made predictions about the productivity and use of land in soil survey reports published by the Department of Agriculture. Work was directed largely toward the production of soil surveys, and only a minimal amount of individual assistance was provided to users for the purpose of promoting the use of soil survey interpretations and information. The interpretations centered on farming and included qualitative estimates of the suitability and limitations of land used for commonly grown crops, for hay, or for grazing.

As experience was acquired in the use of soil surveys, predictions were made about other uses, such as highways, airfields, and residential and industrial developments. As the making and use of soil surveys expanded, the understanding of soils—their nature, occurrence, and behavior under defined uses and management—also increased. “The Value of the Soil Survey,” published by the American Association of Soil Survey Workers in 1921, describes several uses of the soil survey. Soils information affected farm loans, road construction, agricultural extension, placement of applied immigrants, public health, experiment stations, and land selection. The Highway Department of Michigan applied soil survey knowledge in planning highway construction in the late 1920s. At the same time, soil surveys in North Dakota were used in tax assessment. The role of the resource soil scientist is not new. Many functions of the resource soil scientist have been with us throughout the past 100 years.

The Soil Erosion Service (later the Soil Conservation Service), established in 1935, required soil maps and interpretations for working with individual landowners to design erosion-control measures. Soil scientists working during this era commonly served a dual role, similar to the role of many of our current soil scientists. They made the requested soil maps as the first part of their job and then commonly worked with soil conservationists in educating, training, and helping land operators with the selection of conservation practices.

Consolidated Soil Survey Program (602.01)

The merging of the Soil Survey Program of the Bureau of Plant Industry, Soils, and Agricultural Engineering with the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) in 1954 resulted in major shifts in work duties and priorities for soil scientists. In the new consolidated soil survey program, high priority was given to the field soil survey mapping and the publication of soil surveys. Soil scientists often were redirected from providing technical soils assistance and training to local Soil Conservation District cooperators and SCS District Conservationist staffs to making soil surveys with assigned mapping acreage goals. Where soil scientists were providing assistance in the use of soil surveys, this assistance generally was a collateral duty. The top priorities were soil survey field mapping and the production of the soil survey publication.

The demand for soils information to assist in solving urban and shifting land uses by planners was evident in the late 1950s. In the 1950s, Fairfax County, Virginia, made extensive use of soil survey information in urban land development. During the late 1950s, soil survey information was applied to subdivision design in suburban areas of Chicago, Illinois. Soil surveys provided important resource information in regional land use planning in southeastern Wisconsin. During this period, soil surveys gained a wider audience than just the agricultural community.

Reorganization (602.02)

The reorganization of the soil survey program within the Soil Conservation Service in 1985 gave new life to the interaction of soil staffs with agency and other personnel in the use of soil survey information and data. Soil interpretations staffs were established in each of the four SCS Regional Technical Service Centers at Ft. Worth, Texas; Portland, Oregon; Lincoln, Nebraska; and Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. The mandated requirements of the Food Security Act of 1985 and the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990 firmly established the demand for soil scientists to work with people in making effective use of the vast accumulated knowledge about soils. Experience has shown that implementation of Federal, State, or local programs is much more successful in states where soil scientists are actively involved in implementing the program than in states where the input of soil scientists is minimal. There is a critical need for a cadre of soil scientists experienced in the use of soil survey information in programs to assist and counsel in writing policy and procedures for implementing new programs. Soil scientists in Technical Soil Services are crucial in the rule-making process and in drafting internal policy and procedures for implementing these rules.

During the early 1990s, staffing of Technical Soil Services was quite visible at the national and regional levels. The 1995 reorganization of the Natural Resources Conservation Service eliminated the Regional Technical Service Center offices. This reorganization increased the visibility of Technical Soil Services at the state level. Seventeen Major Land Resource Area (MLRA) offices were established to conduct the business of production soil survey. The State Soil Scientists in these offices had a dual role of providing technical soil services for their state and production of soil surveys for the assigned MLRAs. All other State Soil Scientists were given a major responsibility role in developing and maintaining a Technical Soil Services program for their states.

Soil scientists were given an increased opportunity and responsibility to provide technical soil services during the late 1990s. An inventory made in the fall of 1999 showed that about one-third of the 700 NRCS soil scientists at the state and field level were working in technical soil services. A significant number of soil scientists were spending 100 percent of their time working in the field of technical soil services. A number of field soil scientists were working in production soil survey but were spending 10 percent or more of their time providing technical soil services.