Building a Connection among Soils, Forestry, and Wildlife

By Andrea Watts

Published in May issue of the Forestry Source

The online mapping tool Dirt to Trees to Wildlife couldn’t have a more appropriate title. With a few clicks, users can generate a report that details the soil types, tree species, and preferred wildlife breeding habitats found within an area of interest in New Hampshire. Yet Joe Homer, a retired soil scientist with the US Department of agriculture Natural Resources Conservation service (NRCS), recalled that the group was uncertain of what to call the new tool.

 “We needed to give it a name, but we couldn’t figure out a name,” he said. “Together, we said, ‘It’s dirt to trees to wildlife,’ and it kind of stuck. It’s not a sophisticated name, but it  gets the message out there what it’s all about.”

The origins of Dirt to Trees to Wildlife is the publication Why Trees Grow Where They Do in New Hampshire Forests, written by William Leak, an SAF member Homer calls the “patriarch of silviculture in the Northeast,” and Jane Riddle. Leak is a research forester with the US Forest Service (USFS) Northern Research Station.

In the publication, Leak identifies nine habitats, such as rock, dry compact till, and enriched. For each of the habitats, he describes the origins of the soil, vegetation characteristics, and tree species found in each habitat. For example, in a rock soil habitat, red spruce and hemlock will be found in young forests, and growth is slow for both softwoods and hardwood.

“He developed a number of forest soil types, and in these forest soil types, he described the soils, but in a general way,” said Homer. “I suggested to Bill that I could take some of those soil concepts and assign soil series.”

The value of assigning soil series, according to Homer, is that “it would develop a correlation with all the other NRCS interpretations that had been developed for forestry, recreation, and wildlife nationwide.” Homer developed a soil series table that linked Leak’s forest soil types to the NRCS’ soil series. He’s unsure exactly when people began to take notice of the table, but knows it was in the late 1990s to early 2000s, because around this time John Lanier, a wildlife biologist who worked for both the US Forest Service (USFS) and the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, approached Homer.

“John came up with this crazy idea that we could come up with this database that would bring together soils, forestry, and wildlife management,” Homer said. “His reasoning, as he told me, was ‘If you’re managing wildlife, you’re managing the vegetation, and you’re managing the forest.’”

This two-member team of Lanier and Homer began working on the foundation of this database. They started in the northern part of the state, one county at a time. With NRCS soil series as the foundation, they identified the tree species that grow on each respective soil series and then overlaid the wildlife species found in each respective forest type.

Homer recalled having some difficulty with the process. “As a soil scientist, we tend to be splitters rather than lumpers,” he admitted. “If you try and take 70-90 different soil series in a county soil survey legend and lump them into 13 or 14 forest habitat groups, it gives you a little heartburn. Most will fit comfortably, but not every soil does.”

With this being a hobby project rather than assigned work, they didn’t finish until 2011, at which point Homer and Lanier thought it was time to bring in a forester. “We agreed we needed to bring a forester in to collaborate and validate what we were doing,” Homer said.

Through his forestry connections, Lanier and Homer reached out to Brendan Prusik, a community and economic development/forestry field specialist with the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Cooperative Extension and an SAF member.

“Brendan was the perfect person to bring in,” said Homer. “As an Extension educator, he embraced this and saw a lot of merit in it.”

“We [UNH Cooperative Extension] looked at the project, and we got excited about it,” Prusik said. “It sounded like a useful product for foresters on the ground and a nice way to start implementing some wildlife habitat restoration and enhancement projects. So we embraced it and resourced it.”

Funding was provided by a grant from USFS Eastern Region State and Private Forestry and seed money from the Randolph Community Forest, a 10,000-acre forest owned by the Town of Randolph. Acting upon the suggestion that Prusik should approach the Randolph Community Forest about the project, he did so and walked out of the presentation with $30,000. “It was totally unexpected, but that’s how this whole thing started to fly, and that was pretty cool,” he explained.

UNH Extension, through Prusik and his colleague, Karen Bennett, provided silvicultural expertise, editorial insight, and product development oversight.

“Once you figure out what the potentials of the area are, you have decisions to make,” explained Mariko Yamasaki, a research wildlife biologist with the USFS Northern Research Station. “Do we keep it Do we tend it? These decisions come from looking at the habitat and species that are listed.”

An SAF member, Yamasaki was part of the Dirt to Trees to Wildlife team and coauthored, with Leak, Dick DeGraaf, and Anna Lester, Forest Wildlife Habitat Management in New England, a technical publication that serves as the foundation of Dirt to Trees to Wildlife.

Of the wild life species that populate the database, those that are species of greatest conservation need are flagged; these species include the eastern box turtle, American woodcock, and New England cottontail. Additionally, the Bird Conservation Region 14 also informs what wildlife habitat is optimum for bird species.

Since the release of Dirt to Trees to Wildlife, Prusik has conducted 20 workshops throughout New Hampshire and Maine; he also gave a presentation at the 2019 SAF National Convention.

“What I’ve seen so far is foresters are excited about it,” he said. “They love the idea they can make maps that they can use for planning.”

Wildlife site, since the underlying NRCS soil surveys are available. The legwork needed would be creating the correlations similar to what Leak, Homer and Lanier did.

As to the future of Dirt to Trees to Wildlife, Yamasaki said, “This is just the starting point, as habitat information becomes more defined or new species come onto the concern list. [Dirt to Trees to Wildlife] is going to require a lot of tending, but it’s a big start, and I think it’s pretty impressive.”

Prusik has a list of suggestions for improving the interface, and the next sep is developing an infrastructure to prioritize updates and perhaps secure funding to fund upgrades. The one thing that is certain is that Dirt to Trees to Wildlife will remain free. “That is something that John insisted on,” he said.

Editor’s note: In this article, one person’s observations are notably missing: John Lanier passed away last year at the age of 79 before he had a chance to see Dirt to Trees to Wildlife take off.

“It was John Lanier’s vision that brought this all together,” Homer said. “I recognized the relationship between trees and dirt-that certain tree species like to grow on certain soils. It was John who saw making correlations with breeding habitats would be helpful for wildlife management.”

The Dirt to Trees to Wildlife website is available at For more information, contact

Why Trees Grow Where They Do in New Hampshire Forests was published by the US Forest Service Northeastern (now Northern) Research Station.