I grew up on a sandy ridge about 200 m above the White River in southern Indiana, in the midwestern U.S. My backyard was a mixed hardwood forest that included many sandstone outcrops, mini-caves, and a great little pond. None of my friends lived near me, so I spent all my time exploring those woods or playing in the 4x5x1.5 m subterranean clubhouse I dug out of the side of a hill in a Alvin-Bloomfield complex.
I was always fascinated by the grubs, plant bulbs, roots, centipedes, and the interesting colors I found while digging. I also created probably 1 km of trails through the woods with an axe and a garden rake before I turned 14. During that same time, a major battle between the nearby Hoosier National Forest and some environmental groups raged over harvesting, and while I didn’t know what the issues were at the time, this debate over harvesting left a real impression on me.
Andy undertaking sampling
I went to college to study Forestry, not expecting to actually stay in that major, but it seemed okay to start with until I found something I really liked. Then, after my freshman year, I got a summer job working for two Ph.D. students helping with their forest soils research projects. I got to plant trees, dig soil pits, measure forests, take soil samples, root samples, foliage samples, and sort leaves. I also got to work in the laboratory preparing samples for analysis. I kept this job for the next three years of my undergraduate, and ended up doing my own research project to supplement the graduate student projects. During my sophomore year, I took Purdue University’s famed AGRY 255 (Introductory Soil Science), and loved it so much I almost switched majors. But instead I realized then that I could combine my love of forests with my love of soils and study forest soils. I maintained my Forest Management major, but took a soils course for every possible elective. I did the same thing for both my graduate degrees; I majored in Forestry but took as many if not more soils courses.
Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda L.) plantation. Photo by Andy Scott
My primary research interest has always generally revolved around how disturbance (usually anthropogenic) affects various soil properties and processes in forests, and how forests respond to those changes. Virtually all my studies have been oriented toward forest managers or landowners. I get the most satisfaction from my work when I know that someone, somewhere, might be able to protect soil quality while still managing their forest for a host of goods and services (can be timber, but game animals, carbon sequestration, water quality, biodiversity, and other outputs are finally being recognized for their value). Currently, I’m spending most of my time assessing the potential and actual impact of the “new” woody biomass industry on forest soil quality and productivity.
My favorite soil
I don’t know that I have a favorite soil. I don’t get enough time in soil pits to really develop a particular favorite. I’m fascinated by all sorts of soils, even relatively boring but quite productive brown Ultisols (like the Beauregard series that support this productive loblolly pine (Pinus taeda L.) plantation).
Beauregard Series. Photo by Andy Scott
Forest soil science is my passion. Why?
Soils are unbelievably complicated ecosystems, arguably more complicated than the ecosystems existing above them. Soils covered by forest ecosystems generally are less productive or have some constraint to development or agriculture, meaning they often are at high risk of decreases in quality if managed improperly. Conversely, they are also quite resilient if managed well. High-quality forest soils provide many services to society and have value all their own as well, but degraded soils are very costly to restore or costly due to lost ecosystem services. By continuing to study how forest management affects soils and how soils affect forest management, I hope to ensure that all landowners can make good decisions and sustain soil quality.
Andy now works as a Research Soil Scientist with the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service’s Southern Research Station.