Jonathan Hooper is no stranger to Southern Humboldt. He has spent the last eight years studying our soils for the national soils survey and he attended the Feb. 2 meeting of the Garberville Rotary Club to tell the Rotarians about his work with the Department of Agriculture’s National Resource Conservation Service, which used to be known as the Soil Conservation Service. The service will celebrate its 75th anniversary this year. It began in the mid-thirties, during the Depression and the era of the Dust Bowl, when winds carried away the spent soil of Oklahoma and other states in the southwestern U.S. Congress appropriated the money to create the soil survey. The survey has been spared the increases and the cuts visited on other agencies. Their staff today is the same size as it was in 1960.
”The federal government has the duty to do a soil survey of every county in the nation,” he said. “We have to be invited in by the county and it’s usually conservation districts that want the survey done. Most of the surveys in the United States are now complete. Humboldt County is one of the last surveys in California to be completed, and about the only land waiting to be surveyed are areas of the desert and bombing ranges.
”The reason we do this is that we figured out a long time ago that soil is a vitally important resource, in America and in all countries.”
Hooper said that he thinks it’s impossible to have a democratic country without good soil, because only countries with good soil can achieve self-sufficiency in food production. The government has a basic interest in maintaining healthy, productive soil.
Hooper said that in the “old days” of the soil survey, surveyors would be moved around every two or three years, but now they can stay in one place for up to 10 years. Field surveys require the services of “people like me,” he said, “field mappers or pedologists who get out with our shovels and augers, divide the county up, and go out and start digging holes in an orderly fashion.”
Hooper describes soils as “natural bodies that paint themselves over the landscape.” Soils on flats by the river are different from soils on plateaus above the rivers. To survey Humboldt County, he and his team divided the county into three parts, northern, middle and southern. He surveyed the Redwood Parks separately and first because the park service paid to have it done.
He completed the survey of the southern part last year, he said, all 688,399 acres of it. The meat and potatoes of the survey are the tables that result from the testing of the soil. There are about 20 different tables for each survey site. They rate the soil for everything from whether it’s suitable for road building, to septic capability to ponds, as a source of clay or gravel, physical properties tables and chemical property tables, and all this information is now available online.
”There’s a lot of utility in the document,” he said, and having it online is a great improvement over the days when people had to wait, sometimes as long as ten years, for the document to be printed on paper and bound.
”Now we are modern and it’s all online,” he said. Being online also makes it easier to make corrections and keep the survey current and correct.
He began his task here working from black and white photos and using a stereoscope. The soils in Humboldt County will have a unique name because they are unique to this county. In classifying the soils, Hooper says he looks at what’s going in the area, what’s growing there or not growing, how close it is to the ocean.
There are two databases where the soil information is stored. One is in Lincoln, Neb., where the National Soils laboratory is located, and a GIS laboratory in Ft. Collins, Colo.
He used as an example of a soil survey, Tooby Flat below Garberville.
”It’s an intensively used area,” he said, and it was surveyed more closely than, for example, a sweep of forested mountainside. The way the soil is sampled is that with an auger and a shovel, Hooper digs a hole about six feet deep (or two meters, which is a little more than six feet). The soil is packed in containers and sent away to the laboratory in Nebraska for analysis. He said he dug about 1,000 holes on the Tooby Flat to get a good profile of the soil in that area.
”I’m looking for the texture of the soil,” he said. He said that soil surveyors always have muddy left hands because they keep their right hands clean for writing notes on what they find. The laboratory does pH tests, particle size analysis, saturation, density and other tests that allow them to classify the soil.
”We’re looking for bedrock contact, for the type of bedrock, the amount of gravel because gravel stops the soil from holding water, the color that’s indicative of some things, for oxymorphic features or rust. When you dig a hole and see rust stains in there, it’s an indication that that area is saturated at some time of the year. That’s important, if, for instance, you’re going to put a leach field there. Saturated soils within two feet of the surface doesn’t bode well for the leach field at certain times of the year.”
Hooper said that “perk tests” are primitive technology and that the soil analysis is a better way of siting a septic system. In the eastern part of the country, soil surveys are used to determine whether or not soil will perk.
He said also that it’s not magic knowledge to predict when hillsides will slump.
Almost any place in Humboldt County can slide,” he said, with the exception of riverside flats, which flood instead. The mineral content of clay soil can have a lot of do with its tendency to slump.
Someone asked about the “blue goo” clay soil and he called it “interesting Franciscan” that is 50 percent clay and is associated with grasslands. He said it is unstable soil and springs can pop up anywhere on blue goo. Down six feet into the goo, they find white spots, which are calcium carbonate. This is unusual, he said, in an area that gets 60 or more inches of rain.
In response to a question about earthquakes and the soil, Hooper said that the soil survey won’t help predict how your house will do in an earthquake.
He said also that Humboldt County was the first county in the state to have an agricultural extension agent. This was because of the thriving dairy industry around Ferndale and all the dairy products being shipped south.
The soil survey for the county isn’t quite complete yet but will be available sometime soon on the Internet.
In response to a question about soil being lost to food harvest, Hooper said that what the growing of vegetables does do to the soil is deplete the mineral content.
”If you take a hundred bushels of corn off of a field, there’s pounds of nutrients like manganese and phosphorus in the kernel.”
He said he took a test for kids and didn’t pass it. One of the questions was “how many years does it take to make an inch of soil?
”I think the answer they gave was four thousand. That’s classic nonsense. If I started with a rock, maybe. But one year after Mt. St. Helen’s erupted, there was vegetation growing on it because there was soil.”
Hooper said that anything that will support a root is soil.
But Humboldt County is a highly erosive area and there is a tremendous amount of debris going out through the rivers. Most of what’s lost is geologic, he said.
”The thing about nature is that it likes to get down to the base level of erosion. Even if you weren’t here, there would still be tons of erosion going out in the streams. Of course the logging and roads and the big slides add to that. No doubt about that.”
REDWOOD TIMES PHOTO BY MARY ANDERSON
Jonathan Hooper (left) was the featured speaker at Rotary last week. He was welcomed by Rotarian Dennis Abshire (center) and Rotary president Peter Connolly. Hooper has been surveying soil in the county for eight years and recently concluded his survey of soil in Southern Humboldt.