John Freeland: protecting our soil and natural resources

John Freeland                                                                                                               Environmental and Soil Scientist, Michigan USA

When I was seven years old, my family moved from Dearborn, a modern suburb of Detroit, Michigan and the home of Henry Ford, to a much smaller and older town in Northwest Ohio, called Defiance. Perhaps the most notable aspect of Defiance was that it was built at the (confluence of the Maumee and Auglaize rivers) and regional folklore had it that the meeting of these two rivers protected the town from tornadoes. Twisters were common in the flat corn country surrounding Defiance, but the town never suffered a direct hit.

Northwest Ohio, prior to European settlement was known as the Great Black Swamp, a vast, mosquito-infested deciduous forested wetland. Too wet, dense, and buggy, it was practically worthless from the white man’s perspective, Native Americans who camped near the rivers used it for hunting after losing their homes in more desirable upland country. They hung on until Indian Removal Act of 1830 empowered the U.S. Government to force the natives out and relocate them in Kansas, west of the Mississippi River. As a young boy, I wasn’t aware of these things, but if one kept a sharp look down at the soil of a freshly plowed farm field, or at the mud along the river bank, or dug a pit in the woods, with luck, there was a chance of finding arrow heads or spear points or even bones from a wild exotic past – the time of Hiawatha. Lying on your belly peering into a fresh hole in the ground, feeling dark coolness on your face, smelling the rich loam, you could travel to the past: feel it, see it, touch it, smell it.

Years later, as a graduate student in an earth science seminar, I recall a presentation by a fellow student who’d worked for an oil company in Houston, Texas. Standing at the front of the classroom, he rolled out a paper scroll about three meters long and a meter wide. On the paper were hundreds of roughly parallel pencil lines. It was a seismogram representing, by charting differences in the speed of induced sound waves underground, variability of rock density and thickness, which suggested the possibility of finding oil.

I remember a distinct sense of deflated spirit when I saw that scroll. The thought of sitting in an office all day scrutinizing such documents had all the appeal of a jail sentence.

What I liked about geology was the visual and tactile experience of getting close to the thing itself: digging, hammering, seeing patterns in the earth, climbing, working outdoors under the big sky, ice-cold beer at the end of the day, traveling. Soil is highly accessible and every soil scientist who gets out of the lab and into the field will tell you how important that is to her.

As an adult with grown-up responsibilities, soil science is not just about child’s-play and aesthetic satisfaction. The good thing is, you can actually make a living doing it. Here in the United States, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (formerly the Soil Conservation Service) employs thousands of soil scientists. One of their major achievements of recent years is the roll out of Web Soil Survey, an on-line GIS tooll I use regularly.

Wetland, Gogebic Country, Michigan, USA

Landmark federal environmental legislation passed over forty years ago created a need for environmental scientists. The Clean Water Act passed in 1972 recognized the importance of wetlands to maintaining water supply and quality. Jurisdictional wetlands are defined according to three diagnostic parameters: vegetation, hydrology, and soils. The National Technical Committee for Hydric Soils has developed technical definitions and a set of regional hydric soil indicators used for wetland determinations. Most of my work during fifteen years of consulting has been directly related to (and made possible by) Section 404 of the Clean Water Act and hydric soils.

I’ve worked on many projects over the years and enjoyed associations with professionals in the public and private sectors. One example of one of the more notable projects was a 600-acre combined mine reclamation/wetland mitigation effort located on thixotropic (viscose) iron tailings basins near Republic, Michigan. Do not leave a truck parked and running on a thixotropic soil! Tailings are not natural soils, but they can grow plants fairly well with initial application of fertilizer and soil amendments. The project site is now part of the Republic Wetland Preserve.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), passed in 1969 established Environmental Assessments and Impact Statements that analyze environmental and human impacts resulting from projects receiving federal funds. These studies include consideration of soils, geologic resources and wetlands. I worked on the Vector Pipeline Environmental Impact Statement shortly after finishing graduate school.

Proposed area for a natural gas pipeline in Carroll County, Ohio

I’m currently working on wetland and watercourse assessment and permitting for natural gas pipeline projects in eastern Ohio. The natural gas industry is booming here after advances in hydrofracturing and horizontal drilling opened up the Marcellus and Utica shales to production.

My advice to young soil scientists is to keep learning and stay connected to your peers through professional organizations. Don’t figure on the “headhunters” coming to you with job offers. Make a point of getting out to make presentations to keep your speaking skills intact and communicate to the public the importance of soil and sustainability. Write letters to the editor of newspapers. Have a presence in the “public square.”

I enjoy staying engaged with my peers through various professional organizations and writing the blog Terra Central hosted by the American Geophysical Union. Stop by and say hello, if you like.


One thought on “John Freeland: protecting our soil and natural resources

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