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Celebrating the First Generation of Alabama Soil Survey

Conservation Showcase


Students on Land Judging teams learn about the soil.
High school students are introduced to the importance of soils in Land Career Development Events, or land judging, designed to help them learn more about land, difference in soils and their capabilities, methods of soil conservation and improvement, treatments to help in obtaining higher production, and selection of suitable home sites.

By Fay Garner, Public Affairs Specialist, NRCS, Auburn, AL

Alabama Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), along with the Alabama Cooperative Soil Survey Partnership,  has completed the first generation of soil survey.  Staffs of highly qualified soil scientists have cross-crossed Alabama’s landscape to finish the immense task of surveying all of Alabama’s lands.  This included more than 33 million acres of private, Federal, and American Indian lands resulting in documenting the extent and location of more than 390 soil types.

To mark this historic event, members of the Alabama Cooperative Soil Survey Partnership gathered in Montgomery, Alabama, as Governor Robert Bentley signed a proclamation celebrating the next generation of the Alabama Cooperative Soil Survey Partnership.  The Alabama partnership includes the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Alabama A&M, Auburn and Tuskegee Universities, as well as other federal, state, and local partners such as the Alabama Association of Conservation Districts (AACD) and Alabama State Soil and Water Conservation Committee (SWCC). 

There are people who do not know what a soil survey is, how they are used, or how they are developed.  Many do not even know where to get one.  

So what exactly is a soil survey?  A soil survey is a study of the geography of soil. The purpose of the soil survey is to gather and present information about the soils.  Great differences in soil properties can occur within a short distance and the properties of soil can affect intended land use.

What is a soil survey used for? Soil surveys were once used mainly for agricultural purposes. They still have a great agricultural application, but modern soil surveys are used by citizens, private developers, real estate agents, appraisers, local and state units of government, and others.

Local and state governments use surveys to decide how a land site might be used. Producers use them to decide if soils are suited for growing crops, trees, or grazing cattle. Developers and others need the information to plan subdivisions, waste systems, roads, sidewalks, parks, landscaping designs, or other infrastructure.  Many soil-related construction problems can be prevented by the use of soil surveys. 

How is a soil survey developed?  Soil scientists use knowledge, experience, and professional judgment to inventory and classify soils according to the national taxonomy.  They also determine the response of each soil related to various land uses and management. Acre-by-acre soil scientists collect soil borings or dig soil pits to reveal the soil properties.  Observations of color, texture, structure, and other characteristics of the different layers (horizons) are noted. The soil profile (a vertical section of soil through all horizons) at each hole is compared with other soil profiles in the area. Using this procedure, soils are classified, named, and delineated on a map. Soil scientists observe and record other landscape and cultural features on a map such as slope gradient, streams, drainageways, lakes, roads, railroads, dams, and gravel pits.

Soil maps include aerial photographs, topographic maps, and other maps that detail geographic information.  Each kind of map shows features that others do not.  

The history of the modern soil survey goes back to the turn of the century when it was discovered the importance that people understand, value, and wisely manage natural resources.  The National Cooperative Soil Survey was formed in 1899 to provide leadership and service to produce and deliver scientifically-based soils information.

The state of Alabama soil survey program was launched in 1902.  In 1907, funds were budgeted to prepare a soil survey for the entire state using the USDA Bureau of Soils field experts and the State of Alabama employees. 

NRCS employees digitizing soil information.
NRCS digitizes soils for soil survey information. Digitized layers are used in Geographical Information Systems (GIS).

In 1933, Roosevelt created the Soil Erosion Service under the Interior Department.  Within two years it was moved to USDA and became the Soil Conservation Service (SCS). Through Roosevelt’s programs to employ American’s, SCS received funds to hire Civilian Conservation Corp employees to work on conservation projects. 

From 1933 to 1952, soil survey activities were conducted by both the Bureau of Chemistry and Soils and SCS.  In 1952, the Bureau of Chemistry and Soils and the SCS were consolidated and became the Soil Conservation Service, now called the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).  The responsibility of soil surveys was given to SCS/NRCS and county-based soil survey offices were established.  Today these county offices have been transformed into 124 permanent, Major Land Resource Areas (MLRA) soil survey offices.

An MLRA is a geographic region in which the soils, geology, landforms, climate, vegetation, and land use are similar. Soils information is updated and maintained on the basis of these “natural” areas. The MLRA soil survey offices are charged to use the latest technology, knowledge, and science to update and maintain soils information within these geographic areas, thereby creating a seamless coverage for the country.

The “modern” soil survey era began in 1975 with a publication named “Soil Taxonomy—A Basic System of Soil Classification for Making and Interpreting Soil Surveys.” This publication defined the classification system that is used nationally to map the soils of the United States. This mapping phase is often referred to as the “initial” mapping phase or the “first generation” soil survey.

Soil surveys are completed by studying the patterns of soil temperature, moisture, and color.  Variations in size, shape, and hardness of clods in the surface layer are observed over time and summarized.

Color is an important standard used in soil classification, but early scientist disagreed on the names of soil colors.  At first color comparison came from a set of soil samples in small vials that were carried around by soil scientists to use for on-the-ground comparison.  In 1946, the Munsell Soil Color Charts, developed by Munsell and SCS, were adopted. It is the field and laboratory standard for classifying soil color, rocks, and archaeological specimens.

Modern technology has been adapted to conduct soil survey work. The most significant progress was probably the use of aerial photographs as base maps for field mapping.  Charles Lindbergh pushed for peaceful uses for the airplane after World War I and aerial photography was encouraged.  It was not widely used in soil surveys until the 1930s and 1940s.

Field equipment like augers, picks, and shovels has not changed much. In the 1960’s backhoes were introduced and many features of the soil were seen for the first time. 

One of the greatest leaps of modern technology is the use of Global Positioning Systems (GPS).  GPS enabled soil scientists to produce highly detailed and more accurate soil maps.  Another technology newcomer, Light Detection and Ranging Data, or LIDAR, helps make slope determinations.  LIDAR combined with GPS ensures the modern soil surveys are now produced using the latest tools of technology.

So, where do you get a soil survey?  Making the compiled data available to land users has also changed dramatically.  Through the years data was stored using microfiche, magcards, display writers, and traditional printed methods.  Today, computers perform this function.  Even though surveys are still available in print format, modern day published surveys are accessible 24-7 via the World Wide Web.

Soil color is one of the items in the soils database that is used to identify soils.

The interest in soils and soils data has become more important over the past 100 years.  The Professional Soil Classifiers Association of Alabama (PSCAA) felt that Alabama should have an official state soil.  In 1997, the “Bama” soil became the Alabama State Soil. 

The Bama soils make up more than 360,000 acres in 26 counties. Bama soils are well drained, have desirable physical properties, and are located on high positions on the landscape. These characteristics make them well suited to most agricultural and urban uses. They are well suited to cultivated crops, pasture, hay, and woodland. Cotton and corn are the principal cultivated crops grown on these soils. Bama soils met the criteria for state soil, including large extent, high productivity (row crop and timber), classification as prime farmland, distinctive appearance, name recognition, and suitability to multiple uses. Bama soils are found in Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Virginia.

Even though Alabama has reached a great milestone in completing the first generation of soil survey, the soil discovery task does not stop here. Soils do not change, but over time technology and science changes and older surveys need to be updated to current standards. Alabama NRCS soil scientists have begun the next generation of soil survey to update and consolidate soils information into the seamless national coverage based on geographic regions and to deliver continuously updated information.

Soil survey users are more sophisticated than in the past,” says Dr. William Puckett, State Conservationist for NRCS.  “In order to meet current and future needs, a digital soil survey that enables users to answer questions concerning the state’s soil resources rapidly and accurately is essential. Knowing the type of soil underfoot helps determine land values and has a direct impact on daily life from where our food is grown to land zoning decisions that affect urban growth patterns.”

Dr. Puckett also said, “The celebration of the first generation of soil survey in Alabama is a great milestone.  We thank the cooperators and partners who contributed to this effort over the years.  We could not have achieved this landmark without them.  The completion of the first generation of soil survey is a great accomplishment that we can all be proud of.”

“Soil health is important to all of us,” said Charles Love, the Alabama NRCS State Soil Scientist.  “It supports plant growth, recycles nutrients, regulates and filters water flow, supports buildings and roads, and provides habitat for plants and animals.  It is vital to our existence.  As we move into the next generation of the soil surveys, updating and maintaining these soil surveys will take us well into the 21st century.”

A printed copy of the first generation of modern soil survey is available from NRCS offices in each county.  Soil survey data is also available online on the Web Soil Survey (WSS) at  The WSS provides soil data and information produced by the National Cooperative Soil Survey. It provides access to the largest natural resource information system in the world. NRCS has soil maps and data available online for more than 95 percent of the nation’s counties and anticipates having 100 percent in the near future.

Gov. Bently signs soil proclamation.
To mark the completion of the First Generation of Soil Survey, members of the Alabama Cooperative Soil Survey Partnership gathered in Montgomery, Alabama, as Governor Robert Bentley proclaimed January through July 2012 as the period for celebrating the next generation of the Alabama Cooperative Soil Survey Partnership. Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (center)  L-R:  Harold McCool, Retired Executive Director SWCC James Plaster, NRCS MO-15 Leader Charles Love, Pickens County Soil and Water Conservation District Chair Diane McCool, Alabama SWCC Executive Director Steve Cauthen, NRCS State Con. Dr. William Puckett, AACD President Dr. Carol Knight, William Cosby, and Drayton Cosby

News Release about Soil Proclamation

More information about soils and soil surveys.