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Ecological Site Descriptions Developing a Foundation for Conservation Planning

Ecological Site Descriptions: Developing a Foundation for Conservation Planning

Story by David Hinojosa, USDA-NRCS Range Management Specialist, Robstown

Information is the most useful tool landowners and managers have when decisions have to be made about their property. The kinds of plants and soils present, and how they are affected by different management actions, are important factors to consider when making a conservation plan or before committing money and time to high input projects. Better management and conservation decisions can be made when a landowner is able to understand the possible outcomes of management decisions and the effect they will have on their overall goals for the property. Ecological Site Descriptions (ESD) are reports designed to provide information about plants communities, the soils they grow in, and how they are affected by different management decisions and natural circumstances. This information can help land managers realize or exceed their goals, and conserve natural resources by integrating the planning process with the potential of the property. These reports can also be used as a tool to evaluate the potential of a property before deciding to buy or lease.

ESDs contain climate, soil, hydrology, and vegetative information to describe the ecological potential of the land. ESDs are developed around ecological sites; the concept that certain types of plants grow together on certain types of soils. Technically, an ecological site is defined as a distinctive kind of land, with specific physical characteristics which differs from other kinds of land in its ability to produce a distinctive kind and amount of vegetation and in its ability to respond to management actions and natural disturbances. Among other information, the ESDs also describe the vegetation that is considered to be the reference plant community, or native plant community, which existed on the site before European settlement.

ESDs are a new twist on an old concept in the rangeland community, but can be a new idea for parts of the country considered forestland or areas that have traditionally focused on farmland. Landowners and consultants have been using Range Site Descriptions to guide management actions since the mid 20th century. ESD�s are expansions of existing Range Site Descriptions which reflect the demand for additional knowledge and diversification of land uses in our time.

Soils are not always considered the most important factor when planning or making decisions on the ranch, but they are the foundation from which everything grows. As Hugh Hammond Bennett put it �Out of the long list of nature's gifts to man, none is perhaps so utterly essential to human life as soil.� Information about soils and ecological sites can be accessed on the web at http://websoilsurvey.nrcs.usda.gov/app/HomePage.htm. It can also be found as a Web Soil Survey application for smart phones or in hard copy and DVD at local NRCS field offices.

A collaborative effort is underway by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the United States Forest Service to create a seamless map of ecological sites across the country. For some areas, these reports are already available to the public on the web at http://esis.sc.egov.usda.gov/Welcome/pgReportLocation.aspx?type=ESD.  They are being made available as an additional tool that landowners and managers can use when planning and making decisions on their property.

The soil in the foreground is a deep Monteola clay map unit and the soil in the background is a shallow Fashing clay map unit. In order to develop Ecological Site Descriptions individuals or teams collect detailed vegetative and soil data in the field.

This picture illustrates the affect soils can have on plants. This pasture has received the same management,
but shows a distinct line through the middle of the field right on the soil break, as if a fence had been there.
The soil in the foreground is a deep Monteola clay map unit and the soil in the background is a shallow Fashing clay map unit.

In order to develop Ecological Site Descriptions individuals or teams collect detailed vegetative and soil data in the field.