Saturday, March 25, 2006

Missoula Soil Science Consultant Speaks

Tell someone you are a soil scientist and it invariably requires an explanation of what you do. It's interesting that few of us do the same things and the telling of it reveals much about the person as well as the community they serve. For that reason I like to collect other folks' descriptions of their work. Certainly the telling of Barry Dutton's life work stands among my favorites because he built his business from scratch in a particularly cost-conscious region. He did it largely without the benefit of the 2 main drivers of regional soil consulting booms: booming suburban sprawl and booming energy prices driving increased well drilling and surface mining for coal and oil shale. I've heard several iterations of Barry's telling over the years and look forward to future installments.

Barry Dutton consults out of Missoula, Montana for PBS&J which purchased his company last year. Barry addressed the June 14, 2004 National Cooperative Soil Survey Western Regional Conference in Jackson, Wyoming (pdf source):

I was asked to review what private soil scientists are up to these days and will use my own company to illustrate. I started Land and Water Consulting Inc. 25 years ago and now have 50 employees and five offices. Our staff includes soil scientists, hydrologists, botanists, wetland scientists, biologists, water rights specialists, engineers, surveyors, GIS specialists, technicians and support staff. Our wetland projects this year include wetland delineation on over 10,000 acres. We will restore over 60 wetlands impacted by ski area and golf course development. We will design several dozen wetland mitigation projects and will monitor over 100 wetland projects constructed as mitigation for highway project impacts.

Our vegetation projects this year include several thousand acres of vegetation mapping for EIS studies, vegetation management plans for ski areas, and vegetation TES inventories for project sites. We will also conduct weed and riparian area inventories on private, state, and federal lands.

Our streambank and shoreline projects include restoration along hundred of miles of streams and lakes. We are working on removing a 100 year old dam on a large river within the largest superfund site in the country. This work includes channel design, wetland rehabilitation and riparian area enhancement. We will also conduct watershed analyses and implement TMDLs (Total Maximum Daily Loads) for dozens of streams.

I do a lot of expert witness work and soil survey often has a role in the cases. My oldest case has been going on for over 30 years and the focus is the definition of Peat. The 1911 Soil Survey got it right in describing the site as “high organic content silt loam.” However, the 1959 soil survey called the site peat. The owner sold the “peat” and has been arguing over the definition of peat ever since with the peat miner who purchased it. In another expert witness case, a friendly NRCS soil scientist tried to do a county planner and a developer a favor and produce a wetland map. Unfortunately this person had insufficient training in wetland delineation. The developer filled up to the wetland line and built a parking area before the ---- hit the fan. He spent $250,000 on lawyers, experts, fines and restoration activities to correct his mistakes and is now considering sending NRCS the bill. I am also involved each year in a half-dozen wet basement lawsuits and in almost every case there is a soil survey covering the site that predicted the problem if anyone had known or taken the time to look.

We are also involved in numerous reclamation projects for mine sites, pipelines and other projects. If you want to evaluate soil survey accuracy there is nothing like a 300 milelong pipeline trench across the landscape.

Likely because a longer litany wouldn't add any value, Barry didn't mention several other areas: his extensive work with water use efficiency for irrigation districts, his work instructing health district personnel on soil features relevant to septic systems and his work mapping soils but using project specific approaches that describing would only have distracted NCSS audience from his core message:

The decline of the soil survey program is leading the decline of the soil survey profession.

This is a powerful statement to lay on NCSS, the keepers of the national soil survey program. I plan on discussing it further.

Barry Dutton's message is also at the core of the brand of concern for soil science survival that I was dismissive of at the end of my previous post, a position based on observing the ever increasing demand for consulting soil scientists. Speak with Barry, as I did this afternoon, and you will find his concern is not waning despite his considerable business success and despite the high demand for his individual services. I am reevaluating my position and will present it in a future post. Certainly we soil scientists have the work but without academe, without soil survey sufficient to maintain our critical mass, won't what we do continue to be parceled out among the other disciplines? Any comments on this issue would be most appreciated.


sophronia_ said...

fascinating post. to answer your question, it appears that most all the fields formerly considered de rigeur in governmental regulation of development --not the least of which is planning itself --are being parcelled out to the latest quasi-professional who can lay claim to minimize the most (political and/or economic) impact of the outcome(s) of any required study or permitting process in favor of the proposed development scenario. as environmental planners become replaced by public administrators, there will fall more responsibility on the soil scientists to take up the slack. and as i recall, as few as we were, we nearly always outnumbered you in any given county or city population. and i must say, i don't remember so many of you being that concerned over the environmental impacts of development as you seem to be, unless i am mis-reading. which makes your blog all the more fascinating, if i may say so. please expand on your statement about the decline of the soil survey program. i thought that bell had been tolling for awhile, due to the non-interest of the present development-funded administration in funding the necessary programs, but am always ready to learn and be proven wrong if the development community is actually going to start paying heed to their destructively stupid impulses of the last century. then again, if i missed something, i apologize --it's late and probably shouldn't be up typing.

Philip Small said...

"to answer your question..."

I appreciate that perspective. I suppose I don't appreciate that aspect enough.

My experience is that demand for consulting soil scientists has been largely due to expensive failures on the part of non-soil scientists (or in the case of Cowlitz County, WA, a public servant soil scientist who lost his rudder) to take into account the actual (versus hoped for) capacity of the soil/land component to support the proposed use. But once we show others how we got the land to work as intended, or more accurately gauged its capacity, other, more influential disciplines, seem to lay claim to our accomplishments and shove us aside. We would rather they said good show, we need more like you. Does that make sense relative to your answer? If it does than this whole "The bell has been tolling for 30 years, is this the end of the line for soil science" question seems to hinge on the question, will soil continue to surprise people in ways that cost lots of money? From what I know of soil, I tend to believe it will, but I am an optimist and not capable of generating a very convincing pessimistic rationale on my own. I need to hear some really really pessimistic rationales right now as a reality check.

"I don't remember so many of you being that concerned over environmental impacts..."

Be nice, now.

"please expand on [Barry's] statement about the decline of the soil survey program."

I can't do that request justice now but hope to in a future post.