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Northwestern PMCs Tackle Salt-Affected Soils

Wetland in a playa with salt-affected soil.  The addition of a diversity of salt-tolerant vegetation can greatly improve a wetland's value as wildlife habitat.Salt-affected soils are a major issue for western land owners, especially in Nevada, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and Montana, causing significant negative impacts on crop yields and farm incomes. In Montana alone it is estimated that 200,000 acres of land are affected by salty soils. Similarly, salinity accounts for tens of millions of dollars of lost revenue in several counties in Idaho each year. A small increase in soil salinity for example can reduce potato yields by more than 10% and bean yields as much as 19%.

Because of the agronomic losses on salt-affected soils, these sites provide a substantial opportunity for land managers to enhance conservation benefits. Establishing properly adapted plant cover on these sites creates wildlife cover and food (including pollinator habitat), stabilizes soils, reduces wind and water erosion, provides wind protection with well adapted trees and shrubs, and enhances productivity and the producer’s bottom line.

The Plant Materials Program assists NRCS staff and landowners to improve the productivity and usefulness of salt-affected soils in several ways: 1) by selecting and releasing plant materials demonstrating superior salinity tolerance, 2) by conducting salinity tolerance studies, and 3) by providing technical information about salinity through study reports, technical notes, webinars, and training.

Salinity research has been part of the Bridger, Montana Plant Materials Center (PMC) program since the 1970s. Several plant selections have been released, in part, because of their salinity tolerance, including ‘Garrison’ creeping foxtail, ‘Rosana’ western wheatgrass, ‘Wytana’ four-wing saltbush, ‘Pryor’ slender wheatgrass, ‘Shoshone’ manystem wildrye, Dupuyer Streambank Germplasm and Pondera Floodplain Germplasm silverberry, and Mill Creek Germplasm silver buffaloberry.Playa where salt has accumulated in the soil.  Bare soil on the surface is easily eroded by wind.  Plant cover reduce wind erosion, improve wildlife habitat, and provide forage for livestock.

Studies on the relative salinity tolerance of various conservation plant species have further resulted in the development of several publications useful to field office staff and cooperators. Plant Materials Technical Notes MT-26 (revised) Plant Materials for Saline-Alkaline Soils and ID-9 Plants for Saline to Sodic Soil Conditions, for example, describe salt tolerance, the common types of salt-affected soils, measuring salinity, effects on plants, managing salinity, planting, species selection and compatibility. They also provide the relative salinity tolerance of numerous species of plants. Plant Materials Technical Notes MT-60, MT-61 and  MT-62 provide information on testing and interpreting salt-affected soil and water, for tree and shrub plantings. Another useful publication on tree and shrub salinity tolerance is MT-112, The Salinity Tolerance of 18 Trees and Shrubs Tested on a Heavy-Textured Soil in South-Central Montana. This document provides real-world field results for several native and introduced woody species used in conservation practices on salt-affected sites.

Salt-affected soils are also a major problem in agricultural lands. Studies on the performance of cover crops for building soil health on salty sites are currently on-going at Bridger, Fallon and Aberdeen PMCs. This work will lead to more accurate recommendations of species and varieties of cover crops for given salinity issues.

Northwestern PMCs routinely provide training on salt-affected soils in regularly scheduled workshops and upon request. For more information on saline tolerant plants or other plant materials related topics, please contact your nearest PMC.