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2024 NCSS Awardees

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Cooperator Achievement Award:
Soil Water Balance Initiative U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Collaborators

Career Achievement Award:
Greg Taylor

Scientist of the Year:
Kirt Walstad

Cooperator Achievement Award

Soil Water Balance Initiative U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Collaborators

Team Leader: Stephanie Connolly, Forest Soil Scientist Liaison, USFS Northern Research Station

Headshot of Stephanie Connolly.

Stephanie Connolly has served USDA for more than 25 years as a soil scientist. She holds degrees from West Virginia University (B.S. in Agronomy – 1995) and Colorado State University (M.S. in Agronomy with an emphasis in Soil Chemistry – 1998). She initially began her federal career as a journey level soil scientist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) in Preston, Idaho, mapping the Bear Lake Wildlife Refuge for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She moved to western North Carolina in 1999 to work on the Smoky Mountain National Park Soil Survey. This is also where she began working on USFS soil survey contracts on the Nantahala National Forest. In 2001, Stephanie transferred to the USFS Monongahela National Forest (Elkins, WV) to serve as the forest soil scientist. In 2005, Stephanie received the lifetime achievement award as the USFS’s Forest Soil Scientist of the Year for her excellent program management and accomplishments.

During her tenure on the Monongahela Forest, Stephanie served in many other roles. She led the effort for landscape scale conservation projects in the high-elevation mountains of Central Appalachians and helped to oversee two USDA USFS NRCS Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Projects (2014–2019). She managed the Range Program and cooperated with NRCS by using NRCS range improvement projects and funding to improve conditions on USFS pasture lands for grazing. Stephanie also served as a representative to the Northeast Cooperative Soil Survey, and in 2018, she cohosted the northeastern regional meeting with NRCS and West Virginia University. For her role as a long-time successful soil survey cooperator, she was bestowed the prestigious Silver Spade by her peers. She was the first woman to receive this award as well as the first USFS employee. In 2020, Stephanie moved on to a new career with the USFS Office of Sustainability and Climate under the leadership of Dr. Cynthia West where she started to focus her skills on soil carbon and soil moisture for the agency.

In 2022, she moved to the Northern Research Station within the USFS Research and Development branch. In her role as a forest soil scientist liaison, Stephanie manages projects and acts to bridge research and development to land management. She works internally and externally to connect people and their ideas. Stephanie helps them to implement projects that benefit land managers and users of soil science research and long-term data sets. She continues to lead the agency’s effort in developing the Forest Soil Moisture Monitoring Network. Stephanie works with all levels of government to discuss the importance of incorporating forest soil moisture data into national models that are used to inform drought, wildfire risk, and other forest management actions. Periodically, she assists the USDA Chief Meteorologist in the Office of the Chief Economist with incorporating soil science into the National Drought Monitor program and advocates for in situ soil moisture networks to inform that program. Stephanie’s passion for the soil resource drives her to work with resource managers to integrate soil science in all aspects of natural resource management to meet the USDA’s mission for sustainable land management and serving people.

In all this time, Stephanie has never forgotten her roots. Her dedication to a ONE USDA concept has allowed her to be a successful cooperator and bring new cooperators from her agency to the table to work with NRCS. Her current project with NRCS involves more than seven USFS Experimental Forests and their cooperating research scientists, the USFS Washington Office, Regional Office, and Forest level soil scientists. Stephanie believes in public service, and she believes in the people she works with. Her beliefs and her dedication are shown in the projects she manages and the relationships she has fostered throughout the years of her service.

Team Members:

  • Stephanie Connolly – USFS, West Virginia (Lead)
  • Scott Bailey – USFS, Hubbard Brook Experimental Range and Forest Agriculture Conservation Experienced Services (ACES)
  • Russell Briggs – USFS, New York – Volunteer and Mentor
  • Mark Casillas – USFS, New Mexico – Region 3 Soil Scientist
  • Robert Colter – USFS, Washington, DC – National Soils Program Lead
  • Claudia Cotton – USFS, Kentucky – Assistant National Soils Program Lead
  • David D’Amore – USFS, Alaska – Pacific Northwest Research Scientist 
  • Wallace Dillon – USFS, Georgia – Former Region 8 Soil Scientist
  • Jacqueline Foss – USFS, Alaska – Alaska National Forests Lead Soil Scientist
  • James Gries – USFS, Wisconsin – Assistant Director Region 9
  • Katherine Heckman – USFS, Minnesota – Northern Research Station Research Scientist
  • Coeli Hoover – USFS, New Hampshire – Northern Research Station Research Scientist
  • Jackson Leonard – USFS, Arizona – Sierra Ancha Experimental Range and Forest Lead
  • Erik Lilleskov – USFS, Minnesota – Northern Research Station Research Scientist
  • Frank McCormick – USFS, Colorado – Director Rocky Mountain Research Station 
  • Christopher Oishi – USFS, North Carolina – Coweeta Experimental Range and Forest Lead
  • Andrew Ouimette – USFS, New Hampshire – Northern Research Station Research Scientist
  • Rich Pouyat – USFS, Maryland – Emeritus Scientist, ACES Mentor
  • Carlos Quintero – USFS, Florida – Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education Fellow
  • Benjamin Rau – USFS, West Virginia – Fernow Experimental Range and Forest Lead
  • Stephen Sebestyen – USFS, Minnesota – Marcell Experimental Range and Forest Lead
  • Seth Strickland – USFS, North Carolina – Coweeta Experimental Range and Forest
  • Melissa Thomas-Van Gundy – USFS, West Virginia Fernow Project Leader
  • Roger Tyler – USFS, Arizona – Sierra Ancha Experimental Range and Forest
  • Cynthia West – USFS, Wisconsin – Northern Research Station Director 

Career Achievement Award

Greg Taylor, USDA NRCS, Senior Soil Scientist for Special Projects

Greg Taylor wears a red life jacket and drives an airboat through marshy water.

My interest in soils started at a young age growing up on a farm in northwest Georgia. I noticed how the soil had different colors as I looked down over the back of a tractor while plowing and how some soil had a lot of clay that allowed me to make shapes while I watched my dad cut ditches, dig ponds, or build terraces for his clients. My dad’s small bulldozer business introduced me to the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) and later the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). My dad’s propensity for engineering caught the eye of our local district conservationist, and after working with him to build ponds and terraces, he was offered a job as an engineering technician. After a few years, dad transferred to another county office as a Soil Conservation Technician. That county did not have a published soil survey, so every time he had to create a farm plan, he’d call the area soil scientist, Gene Looper, to map the soils. Like my dad, Gene loved hunting, fishing, and the outdoors. He also had a son, Eddie, who was just a year younger than me. This led to a life-long friendship between our families. Gene and Eddie would come hunt on our farm, and they’d invite dad and me to come fishing on their bass boat. For those of you who know me, you can see where this is heading.

On one of our first fishing trips (I was about 12 years old), I began to ask Gene about his job and why he did it. He told me about getting to work outside and from a pickup truck and that piqued my interest. You see, where I’m from, you either worked in a mill or a factory, or you drove trucks. Not a desirable career path for someone who loved to be outside. The final nudge that got me hooked on soils (pun intended) was when Gene first invited me to fish bass tournaments with him. On one trip, he told me how we could find the bass by looking for cedar trees. The cedar trees indicated soil with a higher bass saturation and pH, and that, in the ridge and valley where we lived, often meant limestone. Bass would use the outcropping of limestone under the water to bed in the spring, and we used this knowledge to create a pattern that allowed us to catch many bass and place well in the tournament. On the way home, Gene explained how this “pattern fishing” was very similar to mapping soils. He told me how he used landforms, vegetation, geology, and other factors to help create a pattern of soil types that are captured on maps. From that point on, I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up.

Through college, I worked as a student trainee, mostly as a soil scientist but sometimes as a soil conservationist. Along the way, I had the pleasure to work with some great people, notably Doug Cabe. Doug taught me not only how to map soils but also how to understand and convey the importance of why we map soils and the science behind it. He’d often state how we’re not just soil mappers but truly soil scientists. I still use many of his sayings and teachings today when speaking with students or new soil scientists.

After college, I came on full-time to the now NRCS. I worked on many soil surveys in north Georgia including Murray, Whitfield, Gordan, Dade, Walker, Bartow, and Paulding Counties. Along the way, I began to fear a lack of upward mobility within the NRCS, as most soil scientists I knew topped out at GS-11s. This made private consulting more attractive, so I left the agency for 10 years to pursue that route.

The housing market crash of the early 2000s forced me to look for other ways to provide for my family. During this time, I supplemented my reduced income by driving trucks, working as a fishing guide, operating backhoes, doing lawncare, and providing wetland determinations for large gas line projects in the southern United States. Needless to say, having so many jobs took a lot of time away from my family, so I began to look for one job that was stable and rewarding and allowed me to work with good people. So, back to the NRCS I came by accepting a position in Nacogdoches, Texas.

After a couple years as the Project Leader in the Nacogdoches office, I accepted the Major Land Resource Area Soil Survey Office Leader position in Richmond Hill, Georgia. Later, I applied and was awarded the Senior Regional Soil Scientist position in Raleigh, North Carolina. Soon after arriving to Raleigh and the then Mid-Atlantic and Caribbean Soil Survey Region, I was asked to meet with Rob Tunstead and perform a field review of the subaqueous soil survey of Barnegat Bay, New Jersey. I had heard of subaqueous soil mapping while in Richmond Hill and had explored the possibility of what some locals had called “mapping the marsh.” However, this was the first time I’d experienced it firsthand. After working for just a few days of pulling and describing cores, I’d found my new passion. That passion soon become known as coastal zone soil survey (CZSS).

Working with Rob showed me the amazing potential for CZSS. To open a whole new frontier in soil mapping and science had the feeling of discovering a new element or planet to comparable scientific fields. Not to mention it mixed two things I loved: soil science and boats! While Rob was showing me the science, I was making notes on how to improve the current methods for pulling cores and configurations of the boat. This started a friendship that has resulted in the improvement of both our boat designs and how our science is documented and conveyed.

Building upon Barnegat Bay allowed me to work and interact with a whole new level of passionate scientists that included Jim Turenne, Debbie Surabian, Donald Parizek, Maggie Payne, Dr. Mark Stolt, Dr. Marty Rabenhorst, Dr. Todd Osborne, Dr. Rex Ellis, and many others. It was eye opening to say the least and continues to be a topic I look forward to discussing and exploring.

I was able to continue this passion by being selected as Senior Soil Scientist for Special Projects where I get to daily work with some of the best staff, and honestly friends, anyone could ask for. It’s been an amazing ride, and I look forward to continuing the work that I love. In short, I’m blessed.

When not working, I enjoy spending time with my family, cooking, gardening, and of course, fishing bass tournaments. I’ve been married to my wife Kristan for 24 years, and we have two wonderful children that thankfully take after their mother. My daughter, Laura, is now 20 and a sophomore at Eastern Carolina University. My son Daniel is 17 and a sophomore in high school.

I am truly honored to receive this award, and I thank you all for your kind words and for those who nominated me.

Scientist of the Year

Kirt Walstad, USDA NRCS, Regional Ecological Site Specialist, Northwest Soil Survey Region

Headshot of Kirt Walstad.

Kirt is the Regional Ecological Site Specialist for the Northwest Region. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Range Science from Montana State University in 2002. Kirt began his career as a 1-year temporary employee, entering inventory data into the Ecological Site Information System database. His persistence paid off, and he was eventually converted to a permanent employee. During his tenure as a Rangeland Management Specialist on Montana’s State Resource Conservationists staff, Kirt worked on a variety of projects and agreements, most related to inventory and ecological site development work. He worked closely with soil scientists and technical staff from across the state developing statewide ecological site policy, concepts, and keys. Kirt then served as the State Rangeland Management Specialist of Montana for a few years. After 15 years working for the conservation planning and implementation side of the agency, Kirt took on new opportunities with the Soil and Plant Science Division as first the Ecological Data Quality Specialist and eventually his current position as Regional Ecologist. He enjoys the privilege of working with many great field ecologists and soil scientists within the region and across the country who challenge and educate him every day. His coworkers and their dedication to learning and teaching is what inspires Kirt and is what he loves about working for the Soil and Plant Science Division and with the National Cooperative Soil Survey.

Kirt and his wife Heather have two daughters, Karlen (8th grade) and Leah (6th grade). They spend a lot of time enjoying the outdoors of Montana camping, boating on the lake, hiking, and skiing.