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College of Forestry and Conservation

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The Dirt on Soil

By Becca Boslough, Undeclared major
Friday, August 19, 2011

As I sit down to the crunch of various twigs and vegetation below me, I can’t help but brush them out of my way, considering them a prickly nuisance to the seat I’ll have for the next two hours of class with Tom Parker. Tom is a co-founder of Northwest Connections and a big game hunting guide in the Swan Valley. As he enthralled us with his unending knowledge of forest ecosystems and his familiarity with the Swan Valley, he proceeded to turn a few heads when he said, “Soil is the number one consideration,” while talking about ecosystems in the Swan. I suppose I had never thought of it that way, and I was surprised to hear that coming from a big game hunter. It’s not the bears, the elk, or the wolves… it’s the soil.

So why exactly is soil so important? And is climate change impacting soil in the Swan Valley? What about management practices? Well, according to Tom Parker (and many scientists), nearly everything in an ecosystem is tied to the organic horizon and soil. Soil stores carbon, provides plants essential nutrients, and influences food production. Healthy soils help water infiltration. Water tables are able to be re-charged by impervious soils. We will be well served to have natural water storage systems in place, especially if our spring snows continue to melt sooner and sooner, leaving less water up high later in the summer. Soil provides us this important ecological service and allows for natural water storage. This will be vital as our environment and water resources continue to shift with climate change. Think of soil as the sturdy base to everything above it. Soil impacts decomposers, producers, and consumers alike. In a sense, it is a key player in the different forest food webs that we see all over Montana.

Dissecting the forest with Melanie Parker.  Photo by Nicky Phear.When it comes to climate change, soil can’t escape its grasp. It takes hundreds of years to build up just a centimeter of organic horizon and only minutes to lose it. Soil is impacted directly through changes in climate overall, such as temperature and rainfall. But it is also impacted by changes in other parts of the ecosystem and changes in management. An example of this is the importance of downed woody debris, or all those sticks I was complaining about sitting on earlier. The amount of downed woody debris not only acts as a parent material for the soil, but it also impacts the amount of rodents in the area. Less debris means fewer rodents.  Different fungi and microbes are essential to breaking down parent material and helping roots acquire water and nutrients. Small rodents ingest the spores of microbes and fungi, and their scat becomes ecological polls that inoculate the forest with more microbes. It wasn’t until we were sitting in our forest classroom with Tom that I had any idea that all these things could be connected like that. Logging, fire, and erosion are also some important factors when it comes to soil.

When it came to land ownership and management in the Swan, Tom’s wife Melanie Parker made sure we were in the know. In terms of management of the land and impacts of climate change, the Swan Valley has areas managed by Plum Creek, private owners, and government agencies. The differences in the landscapes of these areas were surprisingly apparent. I had no idea that there were all these different types of landowners in the area, let alone that their management styles varied so greatly. The Plum Creek land was originally allotted for a railroad through the Swan. Although the railroad was never built, on eight miles of either side of where it was supposed to be, the government gave the railroad company every other lot of land. Plum Creek owns over one million acres of land in Montana, and there are immense land management issues within these areas. Logging was common, which replicates some aspects of a natural fire, although it took out much old growth and snags that fire would have left behind.

These areas aren’t necessarily resilient; they are lacking downed woody debris, and as Tom pointed out, the logging caused serious compaction of the soil. Possible management actions brought up were selective logging and bringing in some material from other sites to fill the gap of downed woody debris. The effects on vegetation in this area due to the logging impact the soil greatly and have increased erosion issues. Plum Creek has recently been selling off quite a bit of its land in Montana, the bulk of which has been bought by conservation groups, such as The Nature Conservancy and is being transferred over to the Forest Service. Both Tom and Melanie got us involved in thinking about what we would do if we were in charge of managing these various areas. A walk in the woods with Tom Parker, fascinating.

The Forest Service land was a different story. While fires had been suppressed, not much else had been done in terms of management. It appeared that the area was left alone in an attempt to preserve its natural state, however without fire that didn’t happen. There was overgrowth, which impacts both the soil and the health of the trees, which are now dealing with more competition. The stand was uneven aged and there were 300 year old Western Larch. However, Larch needs fire to get started, and since there hasn’t been any natural fire, there wasn’t much middle aged Larch in the area. The group talked about various options for management of the area, including thinning and prescribed burns. The private land that belonged to Northwest Connections was somewhere in between the Plum Creek Land and the Forest Service Land. There was more human activity, no old growth, middle aged Larch (approximately 150 years old) and lots of dying Lodge pole Pine. There had also been selective logging in the area. It was astonishing to be able to walk from these completely different areas in a matter of minutes with Melanie. It made the management issues seem very real. Tom pointed out several time that soil was an important factor in deciding how to manage the land.

Blogger Becca Bosslough showing off the bug she found. As we were sitting with him in the woods near Holland Lake, we could not only see both Plum Creek and Forest Service Land, but also the Holland Peak Burn. He pointed to it and said, “That burn right there is the best ecosystem restoration I’ve seen in this valley.” It came out in a wonderful mosaic that represented normal fire effects. Too bad it isn’t as easy as lighting a fire to fix all the impacts that humans have had on these ecosystems. When it comes down to it, I can’t help but agree with Tom that soil is the number one consideration. Healthy soils help water infiltration, which leads to the recharging of water tables and less erosion. Having healthy soils also helps native plant species deal with the stresses of climate change, such as increasing temperatures. Maintaining the integrity of our soils could be a major mitigation tactic against the impacts of climate change. Soil stores carbon, so degrading it could release this carbon and exacerbate our situation.

In the end, soil is connected to everything else in the ecosystem, and while managing for soils all the rest of it comes in to consideration. So yes, climate change is greatly impacting soil and entire ecosystems in the Swan Valley, and there are serious management issues. But in being in this area, it is clear that people like Tom and Melanie Parker, other private landowners, The Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, and many others are working on adapting to changing conditions. People are starting to pay attention to things like soil, which are commonly overlooked. In the Swan, it seems like people are really trying to figure it out. As Tom said, “Adaptive management, damn we need to learn how to do that.” And it seems like people are working on it, considering both climate change and ecosystem shifts. And as we all learned from Tom, it’s about time that we start looking at what’s right below our feet, soil.