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TSSH Part 604

Delivery of Technical Soil Services

Duties and functions (604.00)

The Technical Soil Services program is dedicated to providing leadership and assistance in all aspects of soil data collection, interpretation, application, and presentation and in the integration of this data with other natural resource information for sound resource management by internal and external customers.

These services 1) identify and address soil survey information needs and opportunities within NRCS and the National Cooperative Soil Survey (NCSS); 2) help users to understand what soil survey information is relevant and how to integrate that information into their technologies and applications; 3) obtain feedback that helps to identify the need for additional research or additional soil survey information; 4) provide training to NRCS field staff and external customers on the variety and use of soils information and training that helps soil scientists to carry out their assigned duties; 5) provide soils information that meets NRCS policy and program needs, such as the Environmental Quality Improvement Program (EQIP), the Farmland Protection Policy Act (FPPA), the Food Security Act, and the NRCS Field Office Technical Guide (FOTG); and 6) facilitate the implementation of other agency programs and policies, such as wetlands programs, Land Evaluation and Site Assessment (LESA), and the Clean Water Act.

Areas of activity in long-range plan (604.01)

The Technical Soil Services Long-Range Plan prepared by progressive states identifies several activity areas. These areas are (a) technical support to NRCS programs, (b) education and training, (c) soil survey support, (d) customer awareness, and (e) assistance to local units of government. Following is a list of some of the activities in each of these five program areas.

  1. Technical Support to NRCS Programs
    1. Conservation Planning (CTA)
      1. Soils, soil quality, and other resource assessments
      2. Running and interpreting P index
      3. Onsite soil mapping and pedon descriptions and interpretations for water and sediment basins
      4. Hydric soil determinations and HEL/PHEL determinations
    2. Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)
      1. HEL/PHEL confirmations
      2. Soil criteria used to define Geographic Priority Area
      3. Soil criteria for CRP program eligibility (evaluate NCCPI for local conditions)
    3. Conservation Security Program
      Collect dynamic soil properties on cropland systems to support SCI evaluations
    4. Wetland Reserve Program (WRP)
      Hydric soil determinations
    5. Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)
      Soil quality and dynamic soil property assessments and recommendations regarding appropriate practices
    6. Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP)
      Prime, unique, and important farmlands spatial products and reports for program requirements
    7. Conservation of private grazing lands
      Soil quality assessments (compaction, crusting); soil sampling for nutrient analysis for pasture management
    8. Complete NRCS requirements for FPPA
    9. National Resources Inventory (NRI)
      1. Special inventories (soil quality)
      2. Soil identification for PSUs, RUSLE factors for PSUs
      3. Assist RIAD on questions related to PSU feature ID
    10. Air Quality Program (Agriculture)
      Obtain and interpret soil properties related to wind erosion and fugitive dust issues
    11. Water Quality Program
      1. HEL/PHEL confirmations
      2. Onsite investigations for seasonal high water table, flooding, and ponding
      3. Onsite investigations for irrigation water management factors related to soils (intake rates, tillage pan identification, structure, porosity)
    12. Field Office Technical Guide (FOTG)
      1. Maintenance and quality assurance of Section 2 FOTG data
      2. Collection of data to populate and validate soil property data in NASIS
      3. Use and application of Soil Survey Geographic Database (SSURGO)
      4. Review of physical effects of conservation practices and standards and specifications for conservation practices to ensure that appropriate soils information is included
    13. Update and maintenance of Web Soil Survey (WSS), Soil Data Mart (SDM), and Soil Data Viewer (SDV)
    14. Use of soils information through SDM, SDV, and WSS
    15. Land Evaluation and Site Assessment (LESA)
      1. Soil productivity ranking, capability classification, soil classification
      2. Prime farmland, unique farmland, farmland of statewide and local importance
      3. Reconstruction of prime farmland after surface mining
    16. Nutrient Management
      1. Assist conservation planners and engineers in sampling soils for analysis
      2. Review and interpret soil test results (in consultation with soil fertility specialists)
      3. Ensure that lab interpretations reflect cooperators’ and NRCS goals
      4. Conduct field assessments for soil factors affecting nutrient management (pans, wetness, leaching potential, droughtiness, N volatilization, etc.)
    17. Provide soils input for rapid watershed assessments (RWA)
    18. Assist in identification of cultural features
  2. Education and Training
    1. Training in soils vs. irrigation water management for growers, conservation districts, and NRCS employees
    2. Use of soil survey data for resource planning and management for NRCS and other agencies
    3. Urban interpretations, workshops, displays for urban planners, realtors, developers, builders, landscape architects
    4. Training in saline/sodic, alkaline, or acid soils (identification, management, and reclamation)
    5. Land judging training and assistance for high schools
    6. Hydric soils training for representatives of state and local government
    7. Envirothon and Agriculture in the Classroom training and assistance
    8. Global Positioning System (GPS) training
    9. Presentations on careers in soil science for job fairs and career days
    10. Site inventory and assessment training
    11. Training in soil sampling for special projects
    12. Training in soil mapping, classification, and interpretations for new NCSS soil scientists
    13. Participation in and training on university field trips
    14. Coordination of education and training activities with other organizations that promote soil awareness or improved soil management, such as professional soil scientists and farming organizations
    15. Training for conservation planners in the use and features of SDV in Toolkit (CST) and the use of SDV externally
  3. Soil Survey Support
    1. Providing support as requested for initial and update soil mapping
    2. Participating in initial, progress, and final field reviews by providing information on needs of local users
    3. Coordinating soil interpretations within and between major land resource areas (MLRAs) and regions
    4. Providing GIS applications of soil survey data
    5. Assisting with MLRA soil survey interpretation activities
    6. Participating in review of regional interpretations being considered for national adoption
    7. Assisting in NASIS data development for published soil surveys
    8. Field checking and validation of soil interpretations within MLRAs
    9. Providing analysis and evaluation of existing soil surveys for updates
    10. Assisting in development and testing of custom interpretations for a specific locality/use
    11. Obtaining data on dynamic soil properties and populating database
    12. Assisting in mapping subaqueous soils and developing interpretations
  4. Customer Awareness
    1. Exploring opportunities for cooperative projects and partnerships
    2. Seeking input from and designing programs and products for minorities and socially disadvantaged customers
    3. Assisting in the design of special projects and products
    4. Demonstrating soil survey products, such as WSS, SDV, and SDM, and providing training in their use
    5. Seeking input on desired future products and providing input on additional roles for resource soil scientists
    6. Arranging listening sessions for soil survey users to provide customer input on soil survey products
    7. Developing new customers (e.g., planners, builders, realtors, landscape architects)
  5. Assistance to Local Units of Government
    1. Conducting workshops and training on the use of soil surveys
    2. Designing special interpretations for county users
    3. Providing site-specific soil investigations, testing, and evaluations (with agreements)
    4. Developing Geographic Information System (GIS) applications and products for resource planning
    5. Assisting with stormwater management planning (understanding and using such interpretations as hydrologic soil groups, infiltration vs. Ksat, use-dependent properties affecting runoff and intake)
    6. Providing technical policy and program services to local soil conservation districts to assist them in the development of plans that include conservation practices and resource management systems
    7. Providing expert services for judicial requests involving soil resource data
    8. Actively participating in multidisciplinary groups (internally and externally)

One can readily visualize from the extensive list of activities identified above that the demand for the time and skills of resource soil scientists is extremely high. In 1999, the Soil Survey Division conducted a review of the needs for technical soil services within the NRCS. The data were collected by telephone interview in June of 1999 by six soil scientists, each assigned a different region of the country. These interviews were with 42 resource soil scientists and 34 interdisciplinary NRCS employees, including agronomists, soil conservationists, biologists, foresters, and range conservationists.

Two broad categories of recommendations were summarized. The first pertained to technical issues, such as making soil survey information more accessible to users, providing access to different kinds of data, recording collected field data, providing new soil interpretations, sharing of data, data reliability and risk analysis, and data products and delivery.

The second category of recommendations was related to day-to-day operations and management. Concerns included additional training needed to do the job and the ability to report Technical Soil Services accomplishments. For many years the number of acres mapped by production soil scientists has been the major product reported to management and Congress by the Soil Science Division of the NRCS. Resource soil scientists were isolated and stretched too thin by their workload, and their position classification and grade structure needed to be updated to reflect current responsibilities.

Resource soil scientists are widely recognized by USDA agencies and other Federal agencies, State governments, and local governments, including Soil and Water Conservation Districts, for providing excellent soils assistance to field office staff and other customers. A National Soil Survey Program Evaluation in December of 1997 showed that field conservationists were highly satisfied with the quality, timeliness, and understanding of technical soil services provided by NRCS soil scientists.

Opportunities for resource soil scientists (604.02)

The soil survey information of the National Cooperative Soil Survey is the most detailed and comprehensive natural resource information available in the United States. Soil scientists are using soil survey information for an increasingly diverse array of applications that go well beyond the traditional use for agricultural planning and management. The increased interest in soil survey information reflects the diverse and sometimes competing options that are proposed or implemented for the use of natural resources. These options include broad social concerns about overlapping issues, such as resource sustainability; global climate change; soil, air, and water quality; biodiversity; and environmental protection. Resource soil scientists are challenged to formulate soil survey information in a sufficiently robust and reliable manner to meet existing and emerging applications.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and allied technologies for organizing existing soil survey information have emerged as powerful tools available to resource soil scientists. Much of the current soil survey information, however, has been prepared over a span of 45 years. Changes in scale, cartographic techniques and technology, landscape concepts, land use interpretations, and classification systems have occurred during this time. As a result, technical problems and concerns about data quality should be addressed before data can be reliably incorporated into automated systems. Automated technologies also provide a means of improving the amount and use of information contained on soil maps and in their associated databases through application of spatial, analytical, and display techniques. Electromagnetic induction meters and better quality low-level imagery satellites, with improved resolution, have high potential for useful applications. Digital elevation models provide data that will improve our understanding of soil-landscape relationships for onsite investigations. We need to use new soil technology information critically, and we need to ensure that the technology deals with an appropriate content. Deciding just what is and what is not correct content is a task for the intelligent soil scientist, the information specialist, and others working together as a team.

Consulting soil scientists are major suppliers of technical soil services in the private sector. The National Society of Consulting Soil Scientists, Inc., is a growing organization. The consulting soil scientists provide a wide variety of soils information to private industry. They have done extensive work in wetland assessment, land valuation, onsite investigation for urban development, environmental assessment, site-specific management, and other areas. They use the technical and quality standards of the National Cooperative Soil Survey in preparing “order one” soil surveys and interpretations.

The work of resource soil scientists, as well as that of soil survey production soil scientists, must be guided by sound scientific theory. We shall never really know enough about a soil because we will always be trying to sharpen our predictions and include new and innovative alternatives. It is through a series of approximations that we progress toward truth. Agricultural development, urban expansion, environmental degradation, global climate change, and natural resource economics offer a wide range of challenges and opportunities to create or mobilize soils information.

The role of soil scientists who provide technical soil services has been firmly established. As all soil surveys are digitized and soil survey information is more easily accessible to users, the general public will need increased assistance from competent soil scientists in effective use of this vast store of complex soils information. The future of resource soil scientists is exciting and challenging. Soil scientists working in technical soil services will lead and market the continued long-term success of the National Cooperative Soil Survey.

Responsibilities (604.03)

  1. Resource soil scientist
    The responsibility of the resource soil scientist is to provide technical soil services for NRCS field offices. These services are variable and individual in nature. Common activities of a resource soil scientist include:
    1. assessing the role of soils in the environment and the impact of soils on human activities and the impact of humans on soils;
    2. developing and maintaining the soils information in the FOTG;
    3. conducting onsite soil investigations and special soil-related studies for NRCS and other client agencies;
    4. providing soil consultative assistance to users of geographic information systems that are cosponsored by NRCS;
    5. serving as a member of interdisciplinary teams to address resource problems and the implementation of NRCS programs;
    6. training NRCS employees and the technical staffs of other agencies or groups in the use of soil survey information;
    7. participating in public awareness programs involving the soil survey and its uses;
    8. monitoring the availability of soil surveys and conducting evaluations of the surveys;
    9. collecting soil and site data on soil performance and behavior; and
    10. assisting with the development, testing, and verification of new soil interpretations.
  2. State Soil Scientist
    The responsibilities of the State Soil Scientist are:
    1. coordinating the development of local soil interpretations;
    2. providing for training in generating interpretations;
    3. providing leadership in developing state soil survey marketing plans;
    4. developing an overall technical soil services strategy in the state, including identification of needed services and potential clients, working agreements, memoranda of understanding, budgets, staffing plans, position descriptions, and locations for providing technical soil services;
    5. coordinating and communicating the technical soil services program objectives with all NRCS offices within the state;
    6. encouraging the development of interdisciplinary, multi-agency teams to address regional issues;
    7. providing statewide technical soil services to other state office disciplines and outside clients;
    8. providing training to potential users of soil survey information;
    9. providing technical guidance to resource soil scientists;
    10. coordinating research and application technology development among NCSS cooperators; and
    11. providing quality control of technical soil services and related activities, including the FOTG.
  3. National Soil Survey Center
    The responsibilities of the National Soil Survey Center are:
    1. providing technical soil services to divisions at the NRCS National Headquarters;
    2. participating in interagency or multidisciplinary teams and task forces to address national concerns related to soils;
    3. providing technical soil services to other national government organizations;
    4. providing technology support for technical soil services; and
    5. coordinating research and application technology development among NCSS cooperators.
  4. National Technical Support Centers
    The responsibilities of the soil scientists at the National Technical Support Centers are:
    1. providing direct assistance and technology transfer to states, and
    2. acquiring and developing new science and technology.
  5. National Headquarters
    The responsibilities of the soils staff at National Headquarters are implementing an outreach program for, and building alliances with, potential users of soil survey information.

  6. NCSS cooperators
    The responsibilities of cooperators in the NCSS are outlined in each Statewide Memorandum of Understanding.