Last acre ceremony is Wednesday
by Patricia Benoit
Telegram Staff Writer
For more than a century, scientists have trod the sod – 172 million acres over 254 counties. The final hole has been dug, analyzed, inventoried and made available online. The first phase of Texas’ soil survey that started 111 years ago is complete. Temple will be the site of the state’s symbolic “final shovelful.”
What began in 1899 in Montgomery County as the first soil survey in Texas will culminate in a symbolic “last acre” ceremony hosted by the Natural Resources Conservation Service on Wednesday. Several hundred dignitaries will converge in Temple for the ceremony and open house. A monument will be dedicated at the “last acre” ceremony.
Completion of all 254 counties is a tremendous milestone, said Dennis Williamson, Texas state soil scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s NRCS for Texas, headquartered in Temple. At the center of the massive soil survey project is Williamson, who oversees 60 soil scientists stationed in nine regional offices throughout the state.
Formerly called the Soil Conservation Service, NRCS is the federal agency that works with land users to help protect, conserve and manage natural resources, such as soil, water, air plants and animals.
NRCS left no stone unturned in Texas. The state’s soil survey is part of a nationwide project initiated to sample, document and catalogue every acre in the nation. About 95 percent of the nation is completed. Even the grounds of the White House in Washington, D.C., have been analyzed.
Texas is one of the largest and most challenging states for soil scientists with 1,300 different soil types. Central and East Texas soils are generally more diverse and complex than West Texas’ expanses.
Soil is the basic staff of life for a multitude of personal, business and agricultural enterprises. Soil surveys are used by city planners, farmers, ranchers, developers, construction companies, teachers, realtors – even homeowners and backyard gardeners.
Soil survey maps have been available for many decades. The first Texas survey was published in 1902 in a U.S. Department of Agriculture report. It consisted of 12 pages of text and five mapping units within an area of 137,000 acres.
In earlier times, the maps were printed on large sheets about the size of a card table top. The Temple Public Library has several published over the past century. Those early maps are gold mines of historical information about long-dissolved communities, rural cemeteries and land features now disguised by urbanization.
However, information gleaned from them was cursory because early 20th-century knowledge and survey tools were primitive. “A lot of those early surveys were done on the ground with guys setting up plane tables in a pasture,” Williamson added.
Early soil scientists measured the ground with a horse-drawn buggy. They would tie something to the spoke of the wheel and count the revolutions to obtain an accurate measurement. First automobiles, introduced into the field work in 1919, lacked odometers. So, the soil scientists would pull the buggy behind the automobile to measure the land. Then, they tried mounting the buggy wheel onto the side of the auto. This was fairly successful unless the automobile made sharp turns and skidded. Finally, the scientists added newly developed odometers to the autos.
The survey continued over the next century, in stops and starts as funding was available and technology improved.
In recent decades, the soil scientists’ work was enhanced by a host of technological wizardry – high-resolution aerial photography, global positioning satellites, interactive software and computer-assisted drawing.
Survey crews in the beginning targeted the more populated counties or regions with strong agricultural economies. Bell and surrounding counties were among the earliest studied. The least populated counties, such as sparsely populated areas in West Texas, were the last to be surveyed. The actual “last acre” is on private land between Van Horn and Dell City in Hudspeth County, population 3,115 and located immediately east of El Paso.
“It’s not that those counties weren’t important,” Williamson said. “It’s just that, at the time, the primary land use was not as intensive and the counties were sparsely populated.”
In all cases, soil scientists take general inventories of each county. They contact the landowner for permission to dig samples and map the soil. The scientists take numerous samples because not all soils are alike; one pasture can contain several different soil types.
“Normally you’ll find 40 to 50 different soil types in every county,” Williamson said. “Using aerial photography, we record where the different soils occur on the land. Then we take all the information, send samples to the laboratory or test it locally. We analyze how much sand or clay is in the soil, also the amount of lime and the pH, or acidity, of the soil,” he added.
As they walked or drove vast expanses of the state, soil scientists described and sampled soils, then sent them to the Texas A&M University and Texas Tech University Soil Laboratories as well as the NRCS National Soil Survey Laboratory for further analysis.
Once those analyses are finished, soil scientists draw conclusions from the results found in the test site, creating a crazy quilt of polygons and swirling shapes across the map’s terrain. This aggregate yields a mother lode of information.
“We can determine soil capability for septic tank systems or building homes. These maps are helpful to determine the best location for roads or buildings, planting gardens or deciding what type of crops to plant and how productive the land will be. Ranchers use the maps to decide how many head of cattle they can run on their acreage, depending on the soils productivity,” Williamson said.
“The soil resource is worth billions and billions of dollars. In recent years, maps have been digitized and put on the web where everyone has free access. Think how important soil resources are! This year alone, Texas soil produced $25 billion in agricultural products,” Williamson said.
“Even though Texas’ soil maps are finished, NRCS will continue to maintain, update and refine the survey areas in the coming years,” Williamson said. The information obtained from the fieldwork is available to the public.
NRCS makes soil surveys and maps available on compact disks or on the Internet.
NRCS soil scientists were aided by other USDA agencies, Texas Agri-Life Extension and Research, several Texas universities, the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board and local soil and water conservation districts that provided funding, personnel, soil analysis and research along the way.
–Reprinted with permission of Temple Daily Telegram