Lyn Halliday
For the Steamboat Pilot & Today

In our beloved Yampa River Basin, we talk a lot about water. There are many passionate people across many agencies and organizations that are doing awesome things to protect and preserve our water, both from a supply and quality standpoint. The Routt County Conservation District (RCCD) and the Upper Yampa River Watershed Group are looking at the basin from a broader watershed health perspective and developing programs to improve and protect the river as a system.

The Routt County Conservation District Board members recently reached out to our constituency and heard resoundingly that their critical resource conservation concerns are three-fold: 1) water, 2) soil health and 3) rangeland and forest health. These identified priorities are now the pillars of our Long Range Plan.

The first program we are implementing along these guidelines is a Soil Health Initiative. Good soil health influences not only a healthy watershed, but many aspects of a producer’s (rancher/farmer) operation. It helps increase resiliency to drought; provides better pest resistance; enhances water quality by reducing erosion and improving surface water infiltration; improves production/yield; and even enhances the bottom line.

Before we can create and maintain good soil health, it is important to gain a basic understanding of what drives it. A properly functioning soil ecosystem involves interaction of biological, chemical and physical characteristics. It is, therefore, important to understand the relationships among 1) plants, 2) animals and microbes that live in the soil and 3) the chemical and physical environment of any given pasture, hayfield, rangeland or garden. In nature, these components work together symbiotically to create a balanced mini-ecosystem. Mimicking nature to the best degree possible on managed land has short and long term benefits.

On soils where tilling, chemical applications, overgrazing and monocrops occur, the natural balance can be disrupted. Improved management can help return balance and improve production.

Conventional soil sampling has focused on determining nutrient availability to the crop. Testing has centered on measuring N-P-K —nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — key nutrients needed for plants to grow, then prescribing applications accordingly. By taking soil analysis a step further and looking at factors, such as soil composition and porosity, ability to hold moisture, organic carbon content, minerals, soil respiration, nutrient fertility, pH and biological activity (such as microbial and other organisms), a better and more comprehensive snapshot of overall soil health results. From there, what might be needed to improve the system from a holistic perspective can begin to be developed.

RCCD with the help of NRCS and local funders is working with local ranches as part of a mini-demonstration project that incorporates the more comprehensive soil analysis in an attempt to better understand the needs of the soil environment. Although this is a work in progress, it is hopeful that what is learned in the process will benefit other producers and overall watershed health as subsequent management practices are applied. It would then be our goal to offer the testing, interpretation and management consultation on a broader basis throughout the County.

Lyn Halliday is the Board President of the Routt County Conservation District, and the Upper Yampa River Watershed Coordinator.