Leaf Litter

You Said It! Responses to Survey

We hear what the readers of Leaf Litter have to say about soil’s dirty little secrets.

By Amy Nelson

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Thanks to so many of you for dishing dirt on the topic of soil. Your input continues to guide the focus of Leaf Litter and stimulate healthy discourse on subjects that matter – to us and to the planet. We can all agree that there are many factors threatening soil today. Most of you (51%) believe urban development poses the greatest threat to soil in the U.S. 27% of you point to agriculture as the lead culprit while 17% of you primarily blame stormwater runoff.

Looking at threats to soil worldwide, the main villain appears, in your opinion, to be agriculture. 39% of you list this as the primary threat to the world’s soil. Urban development follows, capturing 28% of your vote. Although only 2% of you view resource extraction as the number one threat to U.S. soil, 12% of you rank it as the greatest threat to soil across the globe. Other threats ranked at the top by some of you include:

  • Industrial growth and associated pollution
  • Acid deposition
  • Mass mono-culture agriculture and unsustainable practices
  • Deforestation


When asked what you think is the greatest misconception about soil among the general public, you told us resoundingly that it’s either:

  • all soil is alike, “dirt is dirt”, soil is not a living thing (58%) or
  • soil is replaceable (48%)


Here is what some of you had to say about these misconceptions:

  • They think there is more than enough for growing their flowers, not realizing that it is being stripped away by developers at alarming rates
  • That it is just dirt. Simply a complete lack of understanding that their survival – food supply, clean water – depends on healthy soils. People are so disconnected from how their life support systems depend on their choices– this is the biggest threat to all of our natural resources.
  • I don’t think there is enough public awareness for there to bee too many misconceptions — soil quality is not on most people’s radar screen as an issue
  • (1) That it’s always there, in quality and quantity; (2) doesn’t need protection or regulation; and (3) thrives even when neglected, abused, polluted, and contaminated.
  • That it is just dirt, and therefore has no great significance in the grand scheme of things. People don’t understand that the health of the soil under our feet, under our crops, and also under our buildings, is very important in maintaining the overall balance of our society
  • That it is “just dirt” rather than a structurally, chemically, and biologically diverse and complex medium.
  • Soil is looked at in the same light as water. People think there is an unlimited amount of both.


It is not surprising, then, that 65% of you cite lack of knowledge/education as the primary impediment to including soils in the overall conservation and restoration process. Cost, apparently, is another key factor, with 13% of you ranking that as the top barrier. Interestingly, several of you believe that because soil degradation is often an invisible problem, the out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality is our largest hurtle to overcome. Many of you see lack of legislation, regulatory controls and incentives as the primary impediment. Here are some of your comments:

  • People don’t identify with soil like they identify with air, water, climate, etc. People also have less understanding of soil – less is taught about it as a part of standard earth science curricula (at least when I was in grade school).
  • Cost. It costs a lot to add soil amendments over a large area. Cost is the biggest hurdle we have to face. The second is getting the proper materials, especially to remote sites, to do the restoration work. The materials issues include both quality and quantity.
  • It is underfoot and not particularly ‘sexy’ and most people know little about it. Much easier to work with things you can see and processes you can watch.
  • It’s another layer in the planning process that costs money and time, often blinding the potentially beneficial outcomes.
  • Lack of knowledge and expertise. I’ve only heard 2 people talking about the importance of changing the soil to bring about restoration changes.
  • Funding, and a lack of understanding of the dependence of above-ground ecosystems on the below-ground ecosystems.
  • Soils grow on very slow time-scales, but can be destroyed very quickly. Most restoration projects are relatively short-term endeavors and cannot address the long-term problem of soil development.
  • Poor soils information, expense/lack of availability of information, and assumptions in the contracting, government and public side of restoration that doesn’t place soil more highly
  • Misconceptions on its role in ecological processes. Most do not understand how important soil is in maintaining natural ecological systems.


When considering soil in terms of its importance to conservation planning and ecological restoration, most of you ranked it between 8-10 (with 10 meaning “most critical”).

There is some good news. 64% of you are actively involved in the restoration of soil, with 50% of you focusing on biological components, 45% on physical components and 5% on chemical components. Interestingly, only half (49%) of you say that you involve soil scientists in your conservation planning and ecological restoration work and programs. Here’s what some of you have to say about why and how they are involved in your work:

  • Salvaging and replacing soils effectively is the cornerstone of our reclamation activities, as such we have an “operations” soil scientist on staff, myself a research soil scientist and we collaborate with numerous soil scientists from Universities in Canada to help optimize our activities
  • The first step is to evaluate the soil and its suitability for any project.
  • We often use them, or horticulturists, to prepare prescriptions for soil amendments to restore the soil to predevelopment conditions.
  • Soil scientists play many roles in our restoration work including, mapping, wetland restoration design and hydric soil determination
  • Soil plays a critical role in determining what plants will be nutritionally supported or negatively impacted by chemistry. Without this information we cannot recommend the appropriate plant community or soil amendments.
  • We use NRCS Soils maps and discussions with NRCS technical personnel
  • We are involved in brownfields remediation and redevelopment, so soil contamination and how to restore soils for new uses is key.
  • Working with Rodale Research on advanced composting methods to sequester nitrogen, phosphorous and atmospheric carbon.
  • When necessary for more complex projects, I will consult with a soil scientist to ensure that aspects, such as physical site stability, moisture-retention abilities, and vitality are properly addressed.


Here’s what some of you who do not involve soil scientists in your work have to say:

  • Never thought about it
  • We think a lot about soil, but it is low down the priority list in our urban-based work
  • No – they are not readily available nor an accepted element of project development
  • Partly because the justification to industry hasn’t fully been supported by legislation.
  • We generally try to reuse soil where possible but the more honest answer is we’ve never really given it the consideration we probably should…
  • In cooperative cooperation efforts we rely principally upon experts from U.S.D. A., and U.S. FWS.
  • Doesn’t seem to be something that clients view as important and willing to pay for.
  • Because that is an additional expense for the client. Relying on past experience and using the scs soils book is helpful.


Although, as one of you put it, “The research is being done, and has been done for a long time (the Greeks documented the value of soil – particularly Aristotle). We tend to not want to remember….,” most of you clearly see a need for more soil research. In terms of soil’s role in ecological restoration, conservation planning and regenerative design, many of you stated that research that analyzes the complex soil food web and clearly illustrates the critical link between soil and water quality, wildlife habitats, plant survival, overall biodiversity, etc. is most needed to address the challenge of public education. Many of you think we desperately need outcome-based research to determine the speed, cost and efficacy of various methods of soil restoration. Some of you mentioned the need for simple, affordable methods of assessments and enhancement, based on general soil types, climate regime and ecosystem goals.

There were many requests for specific types of soil research, such as:

  • Effects of siltation on aquatic species. Phased grading of developments. Urban planning using tree species that enable little erosion.
  • Relationship of compaction, light, pH, etc on the establishment of native vs. exotic plants.
  • What will happen to soil after successive removals of temperate forests (after 3 or more harvests)?
  • Do products like biosol help to rebuild soils? What are the optimum quantities to use?
  • The age of soils and their typical plant communities, and how that relates to the parent material and geological processes like glaciation and volcanism, and the role of soil fungi in maintaining soil health.
  • The impacts of climate change on soil erosion and other soil-related processes.
  • Mychrozial variation and interrelationship with specific plants and micro-regions
  • Cost effective ways to rebuild urban soils to sustain large trees. Also, structural soils or other means to achieve greater water holding capacity and filtration of stormwater
  • Peat conservation
  • Something defensible to relate the success of riparian vegetation with survival of vegetation in stream restoration
  • Need to know the threshold at which serious damage (requiring expensive remediation) begins
  • Permeability vs. compaction
  • Limitations to long-term storage/stockpiling for future restoration at end of project life (e.g., what happens to organic soils in various conditions after 30 years in a stockpile?)
  • Research into the importance of specialized salvaging and replacement of entire soil horizons.
  • We need biodiversity information. Who lives down there and what do they do?
    study of impacts of soil conditions on quality of life for most people

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