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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Pete Haug: Grounded in reality: the real dirt on soil

Pete Haug

Sue Lani Madsen’s Jan. 4 column “Investing in soil health is an investment in the future” caught my attention. Humankind’s ties to soil may seem far-removed in cities, but they still exist. Even in rural areas, most of our food comes in packages. Do we ever consider the source of that food? Yet soils underpin agriculture and other terrestrial ecosystem functions. The real dirt on soil? It’s our life.

Soils play a crucial ecological role in providing ecosystem services. “The Land Ethic” by Aldo Leopold, published seven decades ago, is not “scientific” in the modern sense, but it is perhaps more relevant now than when it first appeared. Leopold was a forester, college professor and scientist. His essay explores relationships between humans and soil, and what soil is capable of, yet we still know little about how these relationships interact.

A recent article in Science discussed how 10 environmental factors affect soil and microbial biodiversity. It examined not only impacts on the soil, but also interactions among factors, to provide a clearer picture of present and future changes in soil ecosystems.

The study explored multiple human-driven changes introduced into those ecosystems and how those changes affect soil properties, processes and microbial communities. Those include climatic forces, such as temperature, as well as resource availability, chemical toxicants and microplastics. These factors impinge on soil ecology. These anthropogenic influences and their Interactions cause soil ecosystems to deteriorate.

Aldo Leopold was not only a scientist, but “was a kind of journalist … carefully recording facts and scenes from the natural world,” according to one commentary that proclaimed him, “a prescient voice (that) speaks for the Earth” Leopold’s sketches “transform landscape from mere place setting to living character.”

Natural resource scientists of that era were keen observers, recording their findings meticulously. Modern ecological science used those observations to create hypotheses that are tested with increasingly sophisticated equipment.

We need more thoughtful observations of the world. We need deeper appreciation for the land around us. A November column in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News expressed similar sentiments.

Observing that “we should be making better use of the land,” it discussed sustainable agriculture and suggested reclaiming “overused” lands by re-establishing “native plants that were present in the original vegetation mix.” There must be locations in and around Spokane that could benefit from such conservation efforts.

Another article suggested that we learn from the world’s indigenous cultures with their traditional ecological knowledge. It called for “a land ethic for economic life,” then quoted one of Leopold’s best-known observations: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community; it is wrong when it does otherwise.”

Fortunately, nature has some tricks up her sleeve. Establishing patches of native species in “wasteland” creates “refugia,” areas where environmental circumstances enable species and communities to survive extinction that may occur in surrounding areas. These are exactly what the Daily News column proposed.

Does it work? It did around Mount St. Helens. Forest understory species that survived the blast created natural north-slope refugia. They recolonized adjacent barren pumice within 18 years after the eruption. These refugia played a critical role in determining rate and course of repopulation. Those “fertile islands” allowed pioneer and dry meadow species to establish themselves on nearby barren pumice. Given time, that pumice will become fertile soil, as ecological communities succeed each other and add organic matter.

I once did a study on how fallow agricultural fields, left undisturbed, return eventually to the natural native communities they once were. This happens all over the world. Nature is amazingly resilient and restorative. Nothing succeeds like succession because nature bats last.

The regenerative agriculture described by Madsen is essential for restoring our soil. But perhaps we might also seek out and replant barren pockets throughout the Inland Northwest to provide refugia like those surrounding Mount St. Helens. They could restore not only native species but also the soil ecosystems that support them.

As Aldo Leopold might have said, it’s the ethical thing to do.

Pete Haug retired to Colfax after teaching English in China for 11 years. An earlier career was in natural resources impact assessment with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Washington Department of Wildlife before it merged with Fisheries.

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