Monday, March 31, 2008

Meeting, IUFRO, Use of Vegetation to Improve Slope Stability

Though close to our annual conference, proceedings will likely be available. 14-18 July 2008 Ground Bio- and Eco-engineering. The Use of Vegetation to Improve Slope Stability Beijing, China IUFRO 8.03.00, Contact: Gernot Fiebiger; zt(at)

How do you keep informed?

Human knowledge is an amorphous, evolving collection of information. Individually, our understanding of the world is constantly being shaped by new experiences and new information. Advances in technology have led to a world of up-to-the-minute information being available at our fingertips.

However, this massive amount of information simply cannot be effectively processed into useful knowledge for an individual without tools and filters to help determine what sources are worth tapping into.

For general news and events, most people use some combination of newspapers, TV news, radio stations, and Web-based news to keep up with whatever aspect of politics, business, sports, weather, etc. you want to know something about.

In your professional life, an even more sophisticated, discerning “radar and filter” system is necessary to keep up with developments. Many people utilize professional membership societies to assist with this process. A professional membership society connects individuals with new developments, resources, and information streams that would be difficult for the individuals to find and keep up with on their own.

This Conservation Blogger is just one example of the Soil and Water Conservation Society’s work to keep the conservation community informed and up-to-date on new developments. Others include the SWCS Annual Conference, the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, and special project reports. SWCS wants to be your source and partner—on point and on time.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Conservation policy in the mainstream media

Lots of voices in this USA Today article (including Ken Cook from EWG and our own Craig Cox) on the impacts that the recent growth in ag and biofuels is having on conservation efforts.

March 27, 2008 - America's grasslands vanishing amid agricultural boom (USA Today)

"Conservationists warn that the current commodity and ethanol frenzy could undo years of hard work and undercut the investment of taxpayer money that has bankrolled federal land- and water-protection programs."

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Monitoring & Evaluation of Soil Conservation and Watershed Development Projects

NEW BOOK Editors: Jan de Graaff, John Cameron, Samran Sombatpanit, Christian Pieri & Jim Woodhill. Published by Science Publishers, Enfield, U.S.A.,, 2007. [excerpts from Review by Keith Virgo, March 2008, Tropical Agriculture Association]
The Editors have tried valiantly to bring a logical order to the 25 contributed papers, by separating them into four Parts: 1. Principles of M&E, 2. M&E in Practice, 3. Physical Parameters in M&E and 4. Social, Economic & Institutional Aspects. This book, one of several titles sponsored by WASWC, aims to encourage greater effectiveness of soil conservation and watershed management projects, through improved Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E) that can inform decision-making. In Part 1, this led me from the rather top-down traditional approach described in Chapter 2, to the greater emphasis in Chapters 3 and 4 on openly involving the primary stakeholders, who will still be there when the project withdraws. In Part 3 some new methods for assessing actual soil losses are described. The socio-economic impacts of project interventions could have received more consideration, given the vast amounts of money that have been invested in watershed management over the last 15 to 20 years. The Editors ably summarise the papers in their Epilogue, which makes useful reading. Topics cover the various challenges, such as improving participation, allowing time and space for M&E, and attributing impacts. They conclude on an optimistic note, pointing to the global Land Degradation Assessment in Drylands (LADA) programme of GEF, which aims to combat degradation through developing tools and methods, carrying out global assessments and assessing and building monitoring capacities. Appendix II provides a comprehensive list of relevant publications dealing with M&E, several with internet addresses for easier access. For practitioners of watershed M&E, this Appendix alone justifies reading the book. Overall, the book is a useful first step in addressing an important topic.

New Technology Tool: OMS

The USDA Agricultural Research Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service have combined their efforts to produce the Object-Modeling System (OMS). The OMS is a java-based program that combines the useful aspects of existing models such as SWAT, AGNPS, REMM to streamline the development of computer models and decision-support tools. OMS will especially benefit agricultural producers and others in natural resource analysis and conservation planning. One simple advantage of the OMS is that it reduces the amount of time that is required to answer model-related research questions. There is less need to run duplicate models. Another advantage of this new technology is greater model consistency. Models that are developed to answer a certain type of research question will have similar characteristics that will make it easier to compare the research and the results.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

USEPA Launches Risk Assessment Site

The US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) has launched a new risk assessment Website to facilitate an understanding of risk assessment, including the latest guidance and tools:

The USEPA considers risk "to be the chance of harmful effects to human health or to ecological systems resulting from exposure to an environmental stressor."

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Environmental coalition urges conservation funding

A coalition of conservation organizations has submitted a joint letter to US House and Senate leaders regarding farm bill funding.

The letter urges “strong support of the March 18, 2008, Farm Bill ‘Framework’s’ $4.951 billion increase in new funds above baseline for the Bill’s voluntary, incentives-based conservation programs. While substantially more is truly needed to address the country’s conservation needs, this level of investment is essential. Any less risks irreparable damage to our agricultural lands and other natural resources.”

The letter goes on to explain that “the ethanol boom, propelled in large measure by energy bill mandates Congress enacted in 2005 and dramatically expanded last year, is one of many factors putting enormous pressure on America’s land, water and wildlife resources. As a consequence, it is our expert judgment that a generation of conservation accomplishments could be severely diminished and, in some areas, may be erased altogether.”

The letter is signed and supported by the following organizations:

American Rivers
American Society of Agronomy
Center for Native Ecosystems
Chesapeake Bay Commission
Coevolution Institute
Crop Science Society of America
Defenders of Wildlife
Environmental and Energy Study Institute
Environmental Defense Fund
Environmental Working Group
Izaak Walton League of America
Land Trust Alliance
The Minnesota Project
National Audubon Society
National Wildlife Federation
Natural Resources Defense Council
Soil Science Society of America
Soil and Water Conservation Society
Sustainable Agriculture Coalition
Union of Concerned Scientists
Water Environment Federation
World Wildlife Fund

To read the letter in its entirety, go to

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Tributes to Norm Berg

The time has come to take a step back to honor a lifelong conservationist. Norm Berg, our US policy representative, passed away on March 18, only three days after his 90th birthday. Berg remained devoted to conservation until the end. As you can see, one of his latest Congress updates appears in an earlier blog, posted March 7. His guidance and leadership will be sorely missed. We welcome your stories and memories of Norm Berg. Just click on “comments.”

Conservation: A Misused Word

Today's blog post is an excerpt from a 1965 Journal of Soil and Water Conservation article by Lauren K. Soth:

The word “conservation” is saturated with goodness. Like patriotism, democracy, the family and motherhood, it is suffused with an aura of virtue. Sometimes this aura gets in the way of rational discussion. As a political label, conservation can cover a multitude of activities which may or may not be true conservation but which are regarded automatically as wise and valuable. …

There is a difference in practice, obviously, between conservation of a renewable resource and of one that is exhaustible. Conservation of tin is not the same procedure as conservation of timber. Conservation may be the extension of the time of se of an exhaustible resource—or the withholding of all use until a later time. Or conservation may be the planned use and renewal of renewable resources so as to maintain a desired level of supply of a product. This kind of conservation is the kind we are talking about most often in agriculture.

The definition of conservation also varies with the state of the arts and of knowledge. A farm practice which at one time was truly called conservation, because current knowledge indicated that this practice conserved the soil, may at a later time be judged not to be conservation.
Advances in technology of land use in recent years have shortened the renewability time of depleted crop land. Our thinking about what constitutes “destruction” of land for crop production has had to be revised. Even the disappearance of the top soil no longer can be regarded as the end of the chain of resource use. New top soil can be built; and in some instances crops can be economically grown on properly treated land which has eroded to the subsoil. Wise use of land may sometimes consist of cropping it to a low state of fertility and even to the loss of several inches of top soil. …

The point here is that there are no absolute values in conservation of soil. There is no absolute virtue in the word or in the practices followed in its name. Public policy in this field should be based on facts, knowledge, experience—not on emotion. …

If the “conservation” funds used to stimulate better farm methods were labeled as such (or as subsidies to farmers), the public might still prefer to continue them in full. But at least the people ought to know what these funds are accomplishing and not be misled into thinking they are for true conservation.

When public funds are used for retiring land from crop production for a long period, or for converting it to a less intensive use, that is genuine conservation.

By Lauren K. Soth
Excerpted with permission from the May/June 1965 issue (Vol. 20, No. 3) of the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The consequences of land use fragmentation and livestock herd size

The Journal of Soil and Water Conservation recently published work on the impact of land use fragmentation and larger herd sizes on manure recycling energy and cost. (See Bartelt and Bland 2007; Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 62(5):345-352.)

What does that mean? It may sound kind of technical and esoteric at first, but the research addresses an important conservation issue in today’s changing landscape.

Bland summarizes the trend as follows: “Uses such as housing and recreation fragment the formerly contiguous areas of land that once surrounded many farmsteads, so farmers increasingly must travel past and work adjacent to lands used for purposes other than agriculture. At the same time, livestock herds are consolidating into fewer and larger units…. Environmentally sound recycling of manure from ever-larger herds requires greater energy and planning for transport and spreading within a landscape that is a mosaic of land uses.”

Is this fragmentation and diversification of land use occurring in your area and, if so, what has been the impact? Have manure hauling costs risen significantly? Has this affected manure recycling practices? Is this an opportunity to develop more efficient manure-management systems or should land development and herd sizes be called into question?

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Are you aware?

Are you aware of the report published in dec 07 by Khan et al of the U. of Illinois which confirms that the long term use of chemical fertilizer releases carbon from soil and reduces soil organic matter? This was also confirmed by studies released by rodale and Iowa State in the first quarter. I think people are generally aware of the destruction of water quality in the gulf and chesapeake Bay caused by row cropping but are they aware of the tie to CO2 emission?

Message from Donald Kerstetter

Friday, March 7, 2008

Washington Update

The U.S. Congress has one more week prior to taking their Easter recess break March 15-30th. Efforts to finish a new Farm Bill will probably require an extension of the 2002 farm bill beyond March 15, 2008. Speculation is that it could be for one month. However, some have suggested for at least one year. The reasons for delay in sending a new bill to the President include: spending above the 10-year baseline budget set by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) The Administration has offered to go $10 billion over the budget but have asked Congress for major subsidy and funding reforms. These include a cap on payments to certain producers, not raising loan rates for producers, and changing some measures to protect sugar producers.
The Administration has also asked for budget offsets for the increase above the budget baseline. Some of the recommendations would be changes in Dairy Support, Crop Insurance, Planting Restrictions, Food Aid, and Disaster Funding.

Meanwhile key Agriculture Committee staff members have been meeting to make recommendations to Conferees on many items that are not the same in the House and Senate bills. House Agriculture Committee Chair Peterson has said he believes a farm bill deal can be struck before March 14.

The Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI) released their U.S. Baseline Briefing Book: Projections for Agricultural and Biofuel Markets. It is a 68 page document. FAPRI is headquartered at Columbia, Missouri.

—Norm Berg

2008 SWCS Annual Conference

The preliminary program with complete descriptions of conference plenary sessions, the list of oral and poster presentations and symposia, tours, workshops, and special events is online at

Conference highlights:
~ Dig It! The Secrets of Soil - a keynote presentation featuring a "Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Soils Exhibit Opening and the Traveling Tour" from the Smithsonian Institution and the Soil Science Society of America.

~ Illegal Immigration and the Conservation Consequences - a forum focused on the conservation issues in the border area of Mexico and the United States. The forum will feature speakers from the ranching, law enforcement, wildlife and government agency perspectives.

Educational content for the conference includes presentations in the following issue areas:
o Soil Resources and Management
- Soil Resource Assessment
- Soil Resource Management and Conservation
o Water Resources and Management
o Conservation in Urban Settings
o Adaptive Management of Conservation Efforts
o Conservation Education
o Conservation Tools and Technologies, and
o Conservation and Environmental Policy and Program Design.

Technical Workshops, Educational Tours & Networking Opportunities
There are eight tours, five workshops and dozens of opportunities – from the Networking/Social Night at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum to the Regional Networking Roundtable Lunches and the Exhibitor/Poster Reception on Sunday night – to learn and make connections with attendees, exhibitors and speakers in a variety settings and sessions.

Be sure to register by June 16th because prices will increase as we get closer to the conference.

Contact the JW Marriott Starr Pass at 1-888-527-8989 to make hotel reservations or make your reservations online through the SWCS website. Be sure to reference the Soil and Water Conservation Society conference to receive the group rate.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Combine environmental stewardship and professional advancement in a conservation career

It is an exciting time for people who care about the environment and are choosing career directions. The environmental challenges are great, and the ways to be professionally engaged in protecting environmental resources are numerous. The result is you can forge a career path that is both professionally interesting and personally rewarding.

Conservationists don’t necessarily have “conservation” in their job title. In fact, what makes conservation work so stimulating is partly the interdisciplinary interaction of the people involved. Soil and Water Conservation Society members, for example, include economists, agronomists, geologists, biologists, geographers, engineers, ecologists, landscape architects, soil scientists, computer scientists, and the list goes on. In addition to the wide range of disciplines, conservation careers include a wide range of job types—from technical advisers to researchers to educators to technology developers to policy makers, etc.

Collectively, these scientists and professionals contribute to the cause of healthy land and clean water.

It is also a good time for people mid-career who might be ready for a professional change or could benefit from enhancing their professional achievements with a sense of greater purpose and personal pride—that is, through a focus on sustainable natural resource management.

Whatever stage in your career, look into the future and imagine your retirement celebration. Wouldn’t you like people to say not only was this person a great _____ (professor, program manager, technician, or whatever the case may be), this person also stood for something—smart, sustainable use of our natural resources. This person’s work made a difference in the world. This person made a real contribution to protecting our environmental resources for future generations. This person can be you.

The knowledge, tools, and partnerships necessary to achieve this vision can be accessed through membership in the Soil and Water Conservation Society. The society’s publications, events, and other services allow its members to learn from each other across disciplines and work together in innovative partnerships—all in the cause of advancing sustainable use of resources for healthier land and cleaner water for years to come.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Opening a can of organic worms

As a forum for the science behind the soil conservation movement, the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation regularly provides analysis and guidance related to no-till farming. No-till has been shown to result in significantly less soil erosion than conventional tillage.

The journal recently published a pair of stories related to tillage and organic farming systems. Organic farming is not a tillage system, but tillage is typically used in organic farming for weed control since chemical herbicides are not employed.

The first article was a summary of research conducted by the USDA (Teasdale 2007). The article explained that many organic farmers and no-till farmers share the same goals—using a production system that maintains soil fertility and sustainability. In the study, organic farming systems generally provided greater soil health than nonorganic no-till systems largely due to increased soil organic matter.

The second article presented two case studies of producers who switched from conventional farming to organic farming with minimum tillage (Rainford 2008). The farmers believed this change was environmentally beneficial. In addition, they have experienced a number of economic and productivity benefits as a result.

These seemingly simple articles have resulted in more letters to the editor and controversy than any other topic in recent months. The comments cover the spectrum from those who were upset to see the articles because they believe organic farming is an “environmental disaster” (because of its reliance on tillage) to those who thought the articles were an important new contribution to the literature.

“Organic” has certainly become a politically charged word. Some claim the basis for the antagonism is competition for financial assistance; some claim it is a misunderstanding of terminology. Is there more to it? Are both sides really only interested in protecting the environment? Do conservationists dare touch the topic? Is there a place for nonpolitical, science-based discussion of organic agriculture and natural resources? Do the pro-organic and anti-organic voices drown out the neutral, analytical ones?

Rainford, C. 2008. Soil health and productivity benefits of low-tillage organic systems. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 63(1):19A-21A.
Teasdale, J. 2007. Strategies for soil conservation in no-tillage and organic farming systems. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 62(6):144A-147A.