June 16, 2008

Research Grant AIDS Kimberly-Based Soil Restoration Firm

By Hagadone, Zach

With help from a National Science Foundation grant, a Kimberly- based company is researching new methods of arid land restoration that it hopes may help bring back to life thousands of acres of wildfire-ravaged and overused soil around the state.

Conservation Seeding & Restoration, Inc. received the $98,215 award from the foundation's Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, and intends to use it for phase one of a feasibility study into spray-on biological soil crusts.

Described by CSR biologist Dylan Levy-Boyd as 5-millimeter-thick pans of lichens, mosses, micro-fungi and other micro-organism, soil crusts are vital to the stabilization and nutrient cycling of land that is otherwise too dry to support larger plant life.

When a given area is too arid or distressed - whether by stresses like wildfire, off-road vehicles or over-grazing - soil crusts die off and the land becomes open to invasion by weed species like cheat grass or goes sterile.

CSR's technique essentially involves a 500-gallon, truck-mounted tank equipped with a sprayer that spreads the necessary bacteria and other organisms onto arid or distressed land, where they multiply and begin the process of regenerating a healthy soil crust.

"It's a way of artificially inoculating soils with site- appropriate soil crusts, which are a significant component of living organisms in arid environments," Levy-Boyd said.

"It can be anywhere from a place that has severe fire, mining, a place where you've removed a lot of top soil... areas that have intense use, whether that's off-road vehicles or grazing, also have disturbed areas that might benefit from a restoration," he added.

While some studies have been done on using biological soil crusts to revitalize damaged land in China, the spray-on method hasn't been field tested anywhere, and Levy-Boyd said the equipment has been developed by CSR and fitted to deliver living micro-organisms.

Funds from the grant - which CSR received with substantial assistance from the state and Idaho TechConnect - will go toward six months of field testing in the Kimberly area to investigate the functionality and survivability of artificially introduced soil crusts, and to try out the equipment.

The study will also assess how long it takes the soil crusts to develop and begin the work of stabilizing the test areas. Levy-Boyd said that in the relatively cold high desert of southern Idaho it may take between 10 and 20 years for the first soil crust "colonizers" to develop naturally. After that it can take between 100 and 200 years for them to reach a "climax community" with enough bio-diversity to totally revitalize the soil.

While CSR doesn't know if their technique will quicken that process, Levy-Boyd said "preliminary research has shown you can speed it up... but there's never been a feasibility study to fully investigate whether inoculation works."

If the study - which is set to run from July 1 until Dec. 31 - yields positive results, CSR will apply for another SBIR grant to help fund phase two: a two-year-long scaled up demonstration project.

Beyond that, phase three would be production of a commercial end product supported by investors.

"Our ultimate goal is to be able to restore as much of, or provide a tool for others to restore as much of, the native ecosystems as possible," Levy-Boyd said. "Whether that's after a fire or after a development or historical land degradation."

While Bureau of Land Management botanist Roger Rosentreter agreed that restoration in the wake of wildfires would be a central use of the technology, he also agreed that it could be of economic benefit to farmers and ranchers.

"Dow Chemicals says they're raising everything by 20 percent. That means cost of artificial fertilizer is going up," he said. "If you can get a biological fertilizer to stabilize that soil, you don't have to buy as much fertilizer. Basically that's the bottom line."

For ranchers, though, fertilizer isn't as important as just having enough water to keep grazing areas usable.

"As far as grazing goes, the range obviously is impacted by drought, but that just means the rotation has to be increased to avoid over-grazing," said Brian Oakey, deputy director of the Idaho State Department of Agriculture.

Rosentreter, who's worked with the BLM in Boise for 29 years and published two guidebooks on soil crusts, said CSR's technology could potentially improve the state's increasingly scarce water resources - benefiting everything from power generation to the reduction of global climate change.

"Basically what you're doing is retaining the water and moisture onsite," he said.

The benefits to that, he added, include a reduction in dust storms - which can settle in the mountains, accelerate snowpack melt and reduce available irrigation water - and a generally cooling in the environment.

"I think it'll probably have a much bigger effect - just because it could cover so much acreage - than a lot of other things people think will help reduce the global carbon footprint," he said

CSR, which employs 36 people, has performed work as varied as site analysis, land scale planning, plant propagation, storm water compliance, biological monitoring and invasive weed control, and has undertaken projects ranging from oil developments in Wyoming to restoration projects around Idaho. Its clients include the city of Boise, Idaho Power and Sawtooth National Forest.

Credit: Zach Hagadone

(Copyright 2008 Dolan Media Newswires)

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