College of Natural Resources, UC Berkeley

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September 18, 2003

Save the Dirt: UC Berkeley Researchers Find Pristine Soils Losing out to Farming and Development

by Sarah Yang

Berkeley - A new study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, may lead some people to rethink the phrase, "common as dirt." A new paper published in the journal Ecosystems finds that certain soils - like certain plants and animals - are becoming increasingly rare, with some at risk of becoming extinct.

In agricultural regions, such as in the Midwest, up to 80 percent of soils considered rare have been reduced to less than half of their original extent. That is, more than half of the soil has been converted to agriculture or urban uses.

"Over the past two centuries, we have reconfigured part of a continent to the point where today's landscape is almost unrecognizable from its natural state," said Ronald Amundson, professor of ecosystem sciences at UC Berkeley's College of Natural Resources and lead author of the paper. "The Great Plains used to be characterized by tall grasses and prairies. They have now been replaced by crops and housing tracts.

Like their plant and animal counterparts, soils have their own taxonomy. In the United States, there are 11 soil orders that are ultimately divided into 13,129 series. A soil series is comparable to a plant or animal species. Soils that comprise less than 25,000 acres are considered rare. What the report calls "rare-unique" soils exist only in one state and comprise less than 25,000 acres. The researchers considered a rare or rare-unique soil endangered if more than half of its area was tilled, excavated or otherwise disturbed.

The researchers found 508 endangered soil series in the United States. Six states have more than half of their rare soil series in an endangered state, with Indiana leading the group at 82 percent, followed closely by Iowa at 81 percent. Most of the soil danger hotspots reside in the country's agricultural heartland.

The researchers also found that 31 soils are effectively extinct because they have been nearly completely converted to agricultural or land use.

Why the concern over undisturbed, virgin soil? As the foundation of terrestrial ecosystems, soils form an intimate bond with the plants and animals they support, said Amundson. Rare plants have evolved to inhabit rare soils, such as those that are highly acidic or low in nutrients. An area of very ancient and nutrient-poor soils near the town of Ione, Calif., for example, provides the habitat for four species of endemic plants, including the Amador Rock Rose and the Irish Hill buckwheat. The plants are listed in the "Inventory of Rare and Endangered Vascular Plants of California," and are not found naturally anywhere else in the country.

In essence, soil diversity is tied to biological diversity, said Amundson.

But tilling the soil changes its biogeochemistry by stimulating microorganisms to quickly metabolize the soil's organic matter for food. The disturbance of the soil impacts the plants and animals that depend upon it, the researchers said.

"Soil that has been cultivated is like an animal that has been domesticated," said Amundson. "It retains some resemblance to its wild or native ancestor, but there are enormous and profound changes in its characteristics."

Research has also shown that the process of digging up soil produces carbon dioxide, which contributes to the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. "Soil has more carbon in the form of organic matter than all the plants in the world," said Amundson.

Cultivating the soil breaks up the organic matter, making it available as food for microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi. The process of breaking down the organic matter releases a significant amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Twenty percent of the carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by human activity is related to land-use activities such as burning forests and farming, said Amundson.

To conduct this study, Amundon and the other researchers combined data from digitized maps on soil types compiled by the U.S. National Resource Conservation Service with information from maps of agricultural and urban growth provided by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Environmental Protection Agency.

"Never before has soil in the United States been analyzed in such a way," said Peng Gong, professor of ecosystem sciences at UC Berkeley's College of Natural Resources and co-author of the paper. "Our study is the country's first quantitative analysis of soil diversity."

Standing at the forefront of soil activism, the researchers argue for the preservation of rare and unique soils. "Soil might harbor microbial life that has benefits unknown to us today," said Amundson.

The research of the late soil scientist Selman Waksman may be one of the best examples of the contributions possible from soil research. Observing that soils do not become contaminated when diseased bodies are buried in the ground, Waksman set out to isolate soil microorganisms that produced natural antibiotics. His research led to the discovery of streptomycin, the first antibiotic that was effective in treating tuberculosis, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1952.

"We certainly need land to farm and develop. I'm not advocating the discontinuation of agricultural expansion," said Amundson. "But I think it'd be fair to set aside modest areas of these remaining natural landscapes for study and contemplation."

"Some of these soils developed over thousands to millions of years," added Gong. "We can destroy that in a few hours. It's a preservation issue. We need to save it for future generations."

The study was also co-authored by Yin Yang Guo, a former post-doctoral researcher at UC Berkeley's Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management. The Kearney Foundation of Soil Science funded the research.

September 15, 2003

Conference Probes Environmental Impact of Federal Water Policy


by Kathryn Stelljes

A decade ago, federal water projects in California were operated to provide cities and farms with water and power, with little consideration given to their environmental impacts. Today, environmental interests have a seat at the table as a result of landmark reform legislation passed in 1992 called the Central Valley Project Improvement Act.

“It is hard to think of any other system of government that is more conservative, more resistant to change, than water policy, even when there is an obvious need for change,” said Senator Bill Bradley Friday. Bradley, along with Bay Area Congressman George Miller, co-sponsored the Act when he was chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in an effort to change the way the Department of the Interior managed water in California. Bradley was the keynote speaker at a day-long conference in San Francisco hosted by UC Berkeley's College of Natural Resources and Boalt School of Law to examine the success of the law and implications for future water policy in the state.

Beyond listing environmental restoration as an objective of water project operation, the Act specifically reallocated roughly ten percent of water supplies to the environment, mandated a doubling of wild salmon populations in the state, and changed the way long-term water federal contracts are designed and implemented in California.

CNR Dean Paul Ludden presented Bradley with a Chancellor's Distinguished Honor Award for his commitment to California. Congressman George Miller was also recognized for his efforts. A graduate prize was also announced in Bradley’s honor. The prize will be awarded to a UC Berkeley graduate student in the College of Natural Resources focusing on water economics and policy analysis.

“An unusual thing about the Act is that it is so specific,” said David Sunding, associate professor and cooperative extension specialist of natural resource economics at the College of Natural Resources. “The CVPIA gave very detailed instructions to the Department of the Interior about how federal water projects were to be operated in California, including how much water was to be set aside for the environment. Congress usually leaves such technical decisions up to agencies, but in this case the legislature simply did not trust the Department of the Interior to faithfully implement its wishes,” he said.

The conference brought together experts in water policy, many of whom participated in the creation of the Act, along with students, lawyers, scientists and representatives from agriculture, fisheries, cities and environmental groups.

While the various parties agree that the Act was a milestone in water law and policy, there is wide disagreement as to whether the Act is beneficial or effective. In most cases, target salmon population numbers have not been reached. Agricultural and environmental interests have had multiple legal battles over interpretation and implementation of the Act.

The Cal-Fed Bay Delta Program, a subsequent effort with an even wider scope to balance water supplies among various users statewide than the Act, continues to stall as well. Last Tuesday, a court decision in Fresno revived a major lawsuit by agricultural businesses against the Cal-Fed program.

Conference participants agreed that the outcome of these decisions will be crucial to California's future. Water is likely to present the next big crisis in California and the West, said Cynthia Koehler, a visiting scholar at CNR's Center for Sustainable Resource Development. Groups on all sides of the debate remain watchful as to whether the flexibility introduced by the Act will allow lawmakers to meet future challenges.

September 10, 2003

UC Berkeley Professor Donald Dahlsten, Leading Expert in BIological Control and Forest Entomology, Dies at 69


by Sarah Yang

Berkeley - Donald Lee Dahlsten, a professor of insect biology at the University of California, Berkeley, whose work in biological control gave California officials a powerful weapon in their fight against a fast-spreading tree pest, died Wednesday, Sept. 3. He was 69.

Dahlsten died at the Alta Bates Medical Center in Berkeley, Calif., after a two-year battle against a rare type of skin cancer.

Over the course of his 40-year career, Dahlsten developed a reputation as one of the world's most respected leaders in biological control, a field that had gained momentum in the 1960s as an alternative to the increasingly ineffective use of chemical pesticides. His research focused on the development of ecologically sensitive methods for controlling insects that feed on trees in forests and in urban environments.

"Dahlsten was a giant in the field of entomology and biological control," said Leonard Brennan, a professor at Texas A&M University's Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute and one of Dahlsten's former graduate students. "His more than 200 publications form the backbone of the field of biological control. The world is clearly a better place because of his research."

Dahlsten may be best known to the general public for his work on psyllid pests, which attack varieties of eucalyptus trees. In the early 1990s, he found a species of Psyllaephagus wasp that effectively killed the blue gum psyllid infesting blue gum eucalyptus trees in nurseries throughout California.

"People had a hard time finding any psyllids two years after the tiny wasp was introduced," said Kent Daane, a cooperative extension specialist in agricultural entomology at UC Berkeley's College of Natural Resources. "It was a classic biocontrol success story."

Dahlsten's expertise was called upon again when the red gum lerp psyllid began attacking and killing California's red gum eucalyptus trees in 1998. He went to Australia and imported another species of the tiny Psyllaephagus wasp that destroyed the psyllids by laying eggs within the insects' bodies. The efficacy of the wasp against red gum lerp psyllid is still being evaluated, but it has thus far been most successful in the state's coastal areas.

In addition to his work on psyllids, Dahlsten distinguished himself with his research on the population dynamics of tree-killing bark beetles and the factors that attract their natural enemies. His other projects included research on how the methods used to control Pierce's Disease, which affects grapevines and is spread by the glassy-winged sharpshooter, impacted riparian habitats, and on the ecological impact of the Sudden Oak Death pathogen, a fungus-like algae that has killed tens of thousands of oak trees throughout the state.

He had also maintained one of the largest databases of insectivorous birds in California's forests and riparian areas, and recently contributed a 20-page chapter on the biology of the chestnut-backed chickadee for Birds of North America.

Dahlsten was still banding birds for study in southern California as late as mid-June with the help of his wife of 38 years, Janet Dahlsten, and his grandson, Joel Smith.

"One of the most powerful operating principles guiding Don was his strong respect for the natural environment," said David Wood, professor emeritus of insect biology and a Professor in the Graduate School at UC Berkeley. "He held an unfailing belief that you could reduce pest-caused damage without the use of pesticides. He worked with an almost religious fervor towards this goal."

According to Janet Dahlsten, he had carried home this respect for nature and aversion to the use of pesticides. "He loved animals - all animals. He wouldn't let me kill a spider," she said. "I had to trap them and let them go outside."

Dahlsten was born on Dec. 8, 1933, in Clay Center, Neb., but moved to Los Angeles with his parents when he was 8 years old. He was a strong athlete and attended UC Santa Barbara on a football scholarship. He had to leave after just one year, however, after contracting polio in 1952.

"Don was one of the toughest individuals I have ever known," said his younger brother, David Dahlsten. "His right arm was paralyzed, and it took several surgeries to get it partly working again. But his reaction to this was to work even harder. It's amazing what the human spirit can do."

The bout with polio shifted Dahlsten's career aspirations from football to science. He enrolled at UCLA before transferring to UC Davis, where he received his bachelor's degree in entomology in 1956. He continued his graduate studies at UC Berkeley, receiving his master's of science and Ph.D. degrees in entomology in 1960 and 1963, respectively.

As a graduate student, he had worked as a research assistant in entomology at UC Berkeley. After he finished his studies, he taught at the Los Angeles State College for one year before coming back to UC Berkeley as an assistant entomologist. He worked his way up to a tenured faculty position by 1969, and from 1981 to 1988, he served as chair of the former Division of Biological Control.

Known as a dedicated educator, Dahlsten was appointed associate dean for instruction and student affairs at UC Berkeley's College of Natural Resources in 1996. He advised 39 graduate students during his tenure, but he also extended his enthusiasm for insects and education beyond the campus by developing and heading outreach programs through the college and through the campus's Interactive University Project.

In the CityBugs program, for instance, Dahlsten and his students teamed up with teachers in the Oakland Unified School District to develop interactive lesson plans on insects for students in grades K-12. In the Environmental Leadership Outreach Program, Dahlsten also helped develop courses in urban environmentalism for Oakland public school students, particularly those in poor or politically disadvantaged communities.

His efforts and outstanding contributions earned him earlier this year the UC Berkeley Distinguished Service Award and the College of Natural Resources Citation.

Dahlsten received numerous other honors throughout his distinguished career, including the UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources Outstanding Teaching Award in 1995. For two years in a row, he was chosen to be a member of a research team visiting the People's Republic of China as part of an exchange program in integrated pest management.

He was also a member of several professional societies, including the Entomological Society of America, the Ecological Society of America, the Society of American Foresters, the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club.

One of Dahlsten's last honors will be given posthumously in November by the Western Forest Insect Work Conference - the 2003 Founder's Award - in recognition of his contributions to the field of forest entomology.

"Evidence of Don's work and presence seems everywhere in California," said David Rowney, a research associate at Dahlsten's lab and a friend of his for 32 years. "Generations to come will benefit from the reduction in pesticide use that Don accomplished through his successful biological control efforts both in California and around the world."

Dahlsten is survived by his parents, Leonard and Shirley Dahlsten of Los Angeles; his wife, Janet of Berkeley, and her children, Karen Haymaker of Phoenix, Ariz., and Michael Thurston of Auburn, Calif.; Dia Smith of Hollister, Calif., and Andrea Schwipper of Ramona, Calif., his daughters from a previous marriage; his brother, David Dahlsten of Los Angeles; and 10 grandchildren.

A tree-planting ceremony and a memorial service in honor of Dahlsten are scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 12, at noon on the northwest lawn of UC Berkeley's Giannini Hall. Details will also be available through the College of Natural Resources website at

Donations can be made in Dahlsten's memory to fund outreach programs benefiting K-12 students. Checks can be sent to the Donald Dahlsten Outreach Fund, c/o the College of Natural Resources, University of California, Berkeley, 101 Giannini Hall, #3100, Berkeley, CA 94720-3100.

September 9, 2003

Patent Survey Reveals Ag Biotech Intellectual Property

by Pat Bailey, UC Davis

BERKELEY, Calif., Sept. 9 (AScribe Newswire) -- Public institutions have played a major role in fundamental agricultural biotechnology research during the past two decades. Through a broad-based collaboration, these research institutions will be better able to provide a platform of
patented technologies that can be used to develop a generation of new genetically engineered crops, reports a team of University of California researchers.

The researchers' survey of U.S. and international agricultural biotechnology patent ownership appears as a feature article in this month's issue of the journal Nature

Continue reading "Patent Survey Reveals Ag Biotech Intellectual Property" »


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Save the Dirt: UC Berkeley Researchers Find Pristine Soils Losing out to Farming and Development
Conference Probes Environmental Impact of Federal Water Policy
UC Berkeley Professor Donald Dahlsten, Leading Expert in BIological Control and Forest Entomology, Dies at 69
Patent Survey Reveals Ag Biotech Intellectual Property


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