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Illinois Cooperative Soil Survey History


Illinois Cooperative Soil Survey


The soil survey program in the United States is a cooperative endeavor of federal, state, and local government. The soil survey initiative in the U.S. was launched in 1899 under the leadership of USDA's Bureau of Soils cooperating with state agricultural experiment stations.


Soil survey work in Illinois began in 1902. The first survey areas were Clay, Clinton, St. Clair and Tazewell Counties. The purpose of those surveys was to show on maps the kinds of soils that differed in crop response, especially in yields.

Cyril Hopkins, then head of the UI Department of Agronomy and Chemistry, and in charge of the soil survey felt that the soil map units on those first surveys were too broad and did not provide needed information. Arguments between Hopkins and Milton Whitney, Chief of USDA's Bureau of Soils followed. Cooperative mapping ended after the 1903 season. However, USDA did publish soil surveys for ten counties. The soil maps were color line maps prepared at a scale of one inch to one mile. The cost of soil mapping for these first surveys were about one-half cent per acre.


So, in 1904 the Experiment Station began its own soil survey program. The objective of the program was to provide an inventory of the soils of the state, "in order to preserve and improve the productive power of every soil on every farm." It was estimated that it would take about 15 years to map the state at a cost of $220,000.

The first survey areas selected were Clay County (representing the wheat belt), Moultrie County (representing the Corn Belt) and Hardin County (representing unglaciated southern Illinois). Soil types were the unit of classification and a descriptive system of naming soil types were used. The name conveyed some idea of the nature of the soil, e.g., gray silt loam or tight clay.

Soil Report No. 1, of Clay County was published in 1911. The map scale was one-half inch per mile. By the end of the 1909 field season, soil mapping had been completed in 27 counties. By 1915, 28 men were mapping in the state, and travel had switched from horse and buggy to automobile. By 1920, 73 counties had been mapped. The first inventory the state was completed in 1928 when field work in Jasper County was finished.

Publication lagged so far behind field work that by 1932 only 53 of the 102 counties had published reports. Forty-five of the counties without reports were being considered for remapping because knowledge about soils and their classification had expanded.


In 1929 the Experiment Station adopted the classification system based on the concept of soil as a natural body. The soil type was still the unit of classification, but the soil series and place name nomenclature used in other states was adopted. The Drummer soil series was one of the first soil series correlated in Illinois.
During the late 1930's, aerial photography became available as a base for soil mapping and contributed greatly to the accuracy of soil maps.

By 1941, 17 counties had published reports using the new classification system. Little soil survey work was done during World War II and only five additional reports were published by 1951.

The soil classification system adapted in 1929 had evolved into the 1938 classification system published in the 1938 USDA Yearbook of Agriculture. By 1951 the classification system began to show its weaknesses. Research and experience had shown that more precise categories were needed to make reliable interpretation, thus work began on revamping the soil classification system.


In 1952, Congress charged SCS to inventory the soils of the United States. So, after nearly 50 years, a cooperative soil survey effort was resumed. Field work and publication continued under the leadership of the Experiment Station until 1960. The first "modern" soil survey published was UI Soil Report No. 76, Menard County, in 1953. UI published ten more reports from 1953 to 1976.


By 1960 the demand for both farm and nonfarm soils information had increased to the extent that the Experiment Station could no longer meet the need. In 1960 SCS assumed leadership of the cooperative soil survey in Illinois. SCS initiated a countywide mapping and publication program and published its first report, the Soil Survey of Wabash County in 1964.

By 1965 there was such a need for soil information for urban planning that some counties were willing to share in the cost of the survey. Lake County became the first county in Illinois to do so. In 1970 the Soil Survey of Lake County was the first report published in Illinois with nonfarm interpretations.

The cost of a soil survey in 1970 was about 50 cents per acre. By 1986, the cost had increased to $1.70 per acre.
In 1980 state legislation was passed calling for state cost share of soil survey projects. At that time about 50% of the land area had soil maps available. The new cost share arrangement of 50% NRCS/ 25% state/ 25% county helped accelerate soil survey activities to the point that by 1987 Illinois had the largest cooperative soil survey effort in the nation with 74 field soil scientists. Between 1980 and 1995 soil survey information became available for the rest of the state.


Today, the soil survey program in Illinois continues to be a cooperative effort between federal, state, local and private partners. Soil surveys have been published for all 102 counties. Soil survey update projects (the "next generation") have been completed in 75 counties. In 2011, the last unmapped areas in the City of Chicago were completed making soils data available for the entire state of Illinois.

As R.S. Smith, the Director of the Illinois Soil Survey understood in 1928, soil surveying is a continuing project. It has evolved from a strictly agricultural orientation to one that includes interpretations for woodland, wildlife, recreation, reclamation, sanitary facilities, building site development, and other nonfarm users.

Soil survey users are more sophisticated than they use to be, and in order to meet current and future needs a digital soil survey that will enable users to answer questions concerning the state's soil resources rapidly and accurately is needed.

Related Articles on the evolution of map development:

Soil Recompilation Study