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Short History of Soil Survey in Georgia

Soil Survey Centennial logoThe Soil Survey program in Georgia reached a milestone in 2014 when the soil survey of Bartow County was completed and made publicly available on the Web Soil Survey. This event is a culmination of a project that began over 100 years ago as a cooperative effort between what are now the University of Georgia, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and the USDA Forest Service. Over 200 soil scientists traversed the Georgia landscape, observing, examining, studying, sampling, analyzing, and classifying and naming the soils. Lines were drawn on a map to identify where the soils occurred and distinguish each soil body from others on the land. For over 100 years, soil scientists studied the nature and properties of soils, mapped their location on the landscape, and interpreted their character to help people understand these valuable resources and use them wisely. This narrative provides historical information about the soil survey in Georgia and the people who worked to develop this foundational resource.

Congress initiated a systematic approach to the study and inventory of soils in the U. S. in 1899. The National Cooperative Soil Survey was established as a cooperative effort of the U. S. Department of Agriculture and the State Agricultural Experiment Stations, with local cooperation from other federal, state, and local entities. Early Georgia soil surveys were produced by personnel from the United States Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Soils, in cooperation with the Georgia State College of Agriculture. These documents included an area-wide soil map at a scale of one inch to one mile, with lines drawn on paper maps and a legend with color coded map units. The completed surveys also contained descriptions and information about the soils as well as the general nature and agricultural conditions of the area.

Soil surveys of Cobb County, and of the Covington area, were the first to be completed in Georgia. The U. S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Soils, published these surveys in 1901. The Covington area had three maCecil (left) and Tifton (right) soil profiles.p units: Cecil clay, Cecil sandy loam and Meadow. Cobb County had four map units: Cecil clay, Cecil sandy loam and Herndon stony loam.

The first soil series established in Georgia were Tifton, Grady and Chastain. These soils were established during the soil survey of Grady County, which was conducted by Hugh Hammond Bennett and published in 1909. Hugh Hammond Bennett, the first Chief of the Soil Conservation Service, worked on three of the early Georgia soil surveys and served as Inspector of the Southern Division for a number of years.

Reorganization moved soil survey from the Bureau of Soils to the Bureau of Chemistry and Soils, then to the Bureau of Plant Industry, and then to the Bureau of Plant Industry, Soils, and Agricultural Engineering. The Soil Conservation Service (SCS) was established in 1935, but it was not until 1952 that the soil survey program was placed under this new agency. The first soil survey published by the Soil Conservation Service in Georgia was Towns County in 1954. Fulton County was published in 1958 as the first soil survey in the state printed on aerial photographs. Many of the early surveys were listed as for sale by the superintendent of documents for between 10 and 45 cents.

The Soil Conservation Service became the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in 1994. Soon thereafter, the soil survey program was restructured to approach soil survey based on Major Land Resource Areas (MLRA's). Field soil survey teams were developed as part of the approach to conducting soil surveys. These teams combine expertise from soil scientists working in similar areas across the state, and into other states, to work with soil classification, correlation, and interpretations. Permanent MLRA soil survey offices were established to replace the transient, individual project offices. Soil Survey quality assurance responsibilities were transferred to regional MLRA management offices. A restructuring of the Soil Survey Division to the Soil Science Division in 2012 moved soil survey offices from a state oriented structure to one that is regionally based, further enhancing the soil survey work on a MLRA scale.

Contributions from the University of Georgia have been an integral part of soil survey activities in Georgia throughout the years. The University has played a vital role in the soil survey program through soil investigations and research in soil genesis, classification, and the relationships between soil properties and interpretations. The University of Georgia and Fort Valley State University provided formal education to many of our soil scientists, and also provides continued education to soil survey personnel and others. Many of the early Georgia soil surveys were conducted by soil scientists from the University system. Soil surveys completed from 1901 until 1937 were conducted in cooperation with the Georgia State College of Agriculture. Surveys from 1939 to 1959 listed the University of Georgia, College of Agriculture, as the cooperator. This was followed by Georgia Agricultural Experiment Stations in 1960, the University of Georgia, College of Agriculture, Agricultural Experiment Stations in 1961 and the University of Georgia, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Agricultural Experiment Stations in 1994.

The United States Forest Service has also been an integral part of the National Cooperative Soil Survey in Georgia. NRCS and Forest Service soil scientists worked together on surveys containing Forest Service lands, designing legends and map units, and mapping, reviewing, and correlating the soils cooperatively. Knowledge shared among all partners has been a tremendous asset for the program throughout the state. A National initiative to digitize soil surveys began in 2005. All of Georgia’s soil surveys were published in paper book form with paper maps until this time. Soil maps from these publications were recompiled and digitized and made part of a National Soil Survey Geographic (SSURGO) database. The first Georgia soil survey to have a digital product completed and publicly available was Newton and Rockdale Counties, Georgia in 2006. All of the initial soil surveys that were completed since that time were digitized as part of the soil survey process. The Web Soil Survey was created and implemented in 2005 as an internet-based, interactive application for delivering soil survey maps and information. As of January 2014, the Web Soil Survey now contains and provides soil survey information for all counties in Georgia.

Soil survey tools and tecAn early method of doing soil surveyhnology have changed considerably over the years. In the early days, transportation was by horse and buggy. Today we have four wheel drive trucks, ATV's, and occasionally use boats and helicopters to reach remote areas. From drawing maps with a plane table and an alidade, we have gone to aerial photographs, satellite imagery, digital ortho photographs and Light Detection and Ranging imagery. From presenting information with manually developed interpretive tables and hand colored maps, we now develop, interpret and display soils information using National Soil Information System from remote locations by way of internet access. Today we locate areas with precision using GPS, and we measure water movement in soils in the field for better interpretations. Ground penetrating radar provides us with a better understanding of the distribution of soil properties beneath the surface. The Covington area, which was the first soil survey to be published in Georgia, now has a SSURGO certified digital soil survey available on the internet.

Early soil surveys were made primarily for farm planning, emphasizing surface textures, erosion, and land capability. Although this is still an important use of soil surveys, other disciplines have now come to appreciate the value of our products. Soil surveys today have found their place in environmental assessment and planning, forestry and wildlife management, and urban planning.

Soil Survey offices located in Georgia, and that are responsible for parts of Georgia, are now organized by Major Land Resource Areas. Current soil survey activities involve evaluating the data that has been developed over the last sixty years, and bringing it up to current standards and consistency. Future projects will look more closely at soils through soil investigation projects and study variability across the landscape. More emphasis is now being placed on helping people to understand soils and use the information we develop. Soil scientists in Georgia work with students of all ages, educators and professionals within NRCS and in many other agencies and private organizations.

Regardless of the changes that have occurred over the years, the foundation of the soil survey program still relies on knowledgeable soil scientists in the field closely observing and learning about the soils, and passing along the knowledge to others. I have seen a quote attributed to R. S. Smith, Director, Illinois Soil Survey, in a statement he made in September 1928, in response to a question about what it would take to complete the soil survey of the state.

"I hope the answer to your question is clearly indicated in what I have written. It is that the soil survey will never be completed because I cannot conceive of the time when knowledge of soils will be complete. Our expectation is that our successors will build on what has been done, as we are building on the work of our predecessors." R. S. Smith, Director, Illinois Soil Survey in September 27, 1928.