While trees have always held a certain fascination for Dave Hoppe, it’s the soil they grow from that has defined his career for the last 30 years. In fact, just recently, Dave was nominated for a national award for his work in determining soil types all throughout the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.
He has been chosen as Field Soil Scientist of the Year for his two decades of outstanding work on this land. “His contributions as a professional soil scientist and pioneering work have added great value to land management practices nationwide,” said Paul Strong, forest supervisor.
But Dave didn’t have any intention of becoming a soil scientist while growing up in Butternut, the oldest of eight siblings. “I did the hunting and fishing thing all through my childhood,” he said. “So what I really wanted to be was a forester.”
After graduating from Butternut High School, he decided to enroll at UW-Stevens Point to study forestry, but his outlook for employment after graduation was minimal. “Advisors told me all through my college career there were no jobs in forestry,” he said. “But that’s what I wanted to be.”
Then in his senior year, a UW-Stevens Point graduate visited the college and told Dave there were plenty of jobs opening up for soil scientists. Dave had enough credits to make it a minor on his diploma and after graduating in 1976, he landed a job with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a branch of the United States Department of Agriculture. But this employment would take him far away from the woods of northern Wisconsin that he loved. In fact, his first tenure as a soil scientist was in the flat, but productive, corn and soybean fields of central Iowa. “Back then, there was an initiative to survey soils all throughout the United States,” he said. “Of course, the first soils they wanted tested were farm fields because that’s where food is grown.”
From 1977 to 1980, Dave worked in the fields near Boone, Iowa, walking through flat stretches of land, digging holes and taking soil samples with an auger that pulled up more than three feet of substrate. And while Dave loved the work he and his wife Lois, who is an art teacher in Crandon, longed to be back in the wilds of northern Wisconsin.
While farm land was a priority in the soil sampling initiative, forests were included too, so Dave started applying within the national forest service system and was hired in 1980 to start taking soil samples in the 3 million-acre Superior National Forest near Ely, Minn. “It was job security for a soil scientist,” he chuckled. Then in 1988, he was hired to start mapping soil in the Nicolet National Forest, and he and his family, which by now included a son, Christopher, moved to Rhinelander.
Surveying soils in an area that is basically wilderness takes stamina and endurance. Sample takers first read maps before going into the field. They study aerial and topography maps that define certain landscape features such as drumlins, uplands and lowlands. Then they trod through the forest, taking samples in these areas which determine where certain soil types begin and stop. “I really liked this work, though,” said Dave. “I was out in the woods where I wanted to be.”
While it is obvious why sampling soil would be a significant factor in successfully growing crops, it is less clear why it would be of value in a land filled with trees. But if a forested area is to be managed properly, it is vitally important. “Determining what types of soils are in a forest is especially important when that land is being managed for productivity or habitat,” he said. “And many of our national forests are managed for timber production, wildlife preservation and plant life.”
Dave cites one example where a portion of the forest burned down in a wildfire and the plan was to plant a certain species of pine tree to rejuvenate the land. “But the trees they selected didn’t do well or died off,” he said. “Well, that’s because the soil wasn’t suited to that species. Even though a soil may grow pine trees, one species of pine tree will thrive while another won’t, and that is vitally important when you are managing a portion of the forest to bring back for wildlife or for profit.”
And that’s another reason why determining a soil type is so important in federally owned land. In 1998 the Chequamegon and Nicolet forests merged, creating 1.5 million acres that needed management whether that was for plant life, wildlife habitat or timber sales.
Managing certain portions of national forests for profit through timber sales has always been a focus, but not easy to accomplish. In recent years, there have been active opponents of cutting down any portion of the forest, resulting in lengthy court appeals against this type of management. Dave’s work in gathering soil samples throughout the Nicolet portion of the forest has helped judges and mediators determine whether harvesting woodland products would be beneficial or detrimental harvest practices in particular areas of this vast land. His model work has been used on hundreds of National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analyses situations to determine management practices in the forest.
Take, for instance, the effect of heavy equipment on soil when harvesting trees. “When we do these harvests, we have to get roads in and heavy equipment is rolling over the ground,” said Dave. “With the data we have now, we can determine whether certain areas of the forest would be better harvested during the winter or maybe not at all. We can determine how certain areas drain water where equipment may or may not work. Sometimes, using heavy equipment on certain soils can have detrimental consequences on the land for a long time, affecting how plants grow and water moves through the soil. We lessen that impact by knowing exactly what types of soils are in an area.”
While the national cooperative soil survey has now been completed, Dave continues his soil science work documenting his results and creating maps and reports on what types of soils are in the forest for wildlife biologists, botanists and other forest managers.
And this enthusiastic outdoorsman is especially honored, and humbled, to be chosen for such a prestigious national award. “I’m very glad I was part of the soil survey initiative and I’m very grateful I got to do a lot of that work in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest,” he said. “I got to be out in the woods and that was my goal all along.”