June 2007
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Conecuh Co.’s John Grace

  John Grace III stands at a soil erosion test area outside the U.S. Forest Service headquarters at Auburn University.
Honored for Roadside Erosion Study
– Native Species vs. Exotics –

By Alvin Benn

When John Grace III was a little boy, he loved to watch his grandfather hop up on his tractor and plow the fields at his little Conecuh County farm.

What fascinated him was watching his granddad build terraces to help fight soil erosion. He didn’t know what that meant, but he eventually caught on.

Little did he know at the time that soil erosion and ways to combat it would be one of his callings in life. Grace has gotten so good at it, in fact, that he’s become internationally known for his in-depth studies with the U.S. Forest Service.

Earlier this year, the federal research engineer received top honors from the International Soil Erosion Association for his eight-year study on the subject and how his findings might help foresters.

"This is an exceptional honor for Johnny and for the Southern Research Station community," said Director Peter Roussopoulos, who directs the operation from his office in Asheville, N.C.

U.S. Forest Service research engineer John Grace III holds a plaque awarded to him by an international organization for his study of soil erosion and ways to combat it.  
Roussopoulos said Grace’s research "will positively impact erosion control efforts on national forests and beyond, providing land managers with science-based alternatives."

Grace’s study evaluated the ability of the Water Erosion Prediction Project that was originally developed for agricultural applications to model erosion and storm water runoff from forest roads under different management practices.

What Grace did was compare the amount of erosion estimated by the project to actual erosion rates on 24 roadside slopes in the Talladega National Forest in east-central Alabama and three road sections in the Chattahoochee National Forest in northeastern Georgia.

Grace, 35, said his research is important because "it provides managers with critical information when predicting soil erosion and the benefits of selected erosion control practices.

"This report is a vital step in delivering our science to individuals who can really use it," continued Grace, who has an office at the Forest Service facility on the campus of Auburn University.

Grace, who obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Auburn University and his doctorate at North Carolina State University, has written numerous papers on hydrology, road sediment and erosion control as they relate to forest operations.

"Everybody is aware of soil erosion," said Grace, during an interview with Cooperative Farming News. "Basically, it’s the process of detachment of soil particles and then the transportation of it, either by water or wind."

  John Grace of Conecuh County has been honored by an international soil erosion prevention organization.
The connection to forest operations is important, said Grace, because of continued cutting and reforestation throughout Alabama and other states.

What he wanted to do was find out what kind of vegetation could best stop or slow soil erosion on roads built into forests. The question was which vegetation worked best—foreign or domestic?

"Native vegetation takes longer to grow, but once it took hold, it definitely controlled erosion," said Grace.

Grace and those working with him used 24 plots in a section of the Talladega National Forest near Heflin in east Alabama. The area is the southern end of the Appalachian Mountain range. They planted native and "exotic" vegetation at intervals.

Grace said invasive vegetation such as kudzu has been a concern for years and his lengthy study was aimed, in part, at finding out what domestic vegetation might work just as well or even better.

"We worked on a road that had just been built into the forest," he said. "What we did was treat slopes adjoining the road with seed and mulch after we planted both species."

During the Shoal Creek study, Grace and his team used a mixture of Kentucky 31 tall fescue, annual lespedza, white clover and Pensacola bahiagrass as exotic vegetation. Native vegetation consisted of a mixture of Alamo switchgrass, big bluestem and little bluestem.

All vegetation treatments were hand-seeded immediately after road construction was completed and then mulched with fescue hay, fertilizer and lime.

The Grace team also studied the same trends on the Coleman River.

Grace said exotic, or foreign, vegetation grew faster, as expected, but native vegetation did just as well once it got going…or growing.

"The main thing is to find some kind of covering for slopes next to unpaved roads," he said. "Our findings have provided a scientific basis and we now have sound numbers on the impact that vegetation has on those slopes."

The bottom line, Grace said, is supporting theories with facts and he believes he’s done just that with his extended study.

"The study gives us numbers on the effect of erosion control practices," he said. "It tells us we can use native vegetation species and have the same effect as having to import foreign vegetation."

Grace’s paper was submitted to the international soil erosion control group for evaluation by a panel of experts in the industry. Other papers were also submitted with Grace’s judged the best of the best. He received the only technical award by the organization.

Problems associated with soil erosion have far-reaching implications that affect much more than deteriorating roads, he said.

"Soil erosion and sediment delivery to waterways are major concerns in forest management primarily due to the degrading impacts on water quality," he wrote in the introduction to his study. "Sedimentation can negatively impact fish spawning and (other) aquatic habitat."

Grace’s award is significant because the International Erosion Control Association is the world’s oldest and largest organization devoted entirely to helping members solve problems caused by erosion and its byproduct—sediment.

Grace was the 16th recipient of the organization’s prestigious "Most Distinguished Technical Paper" award. It is given to one paper "which contributes significantly to the advancement of erosion control knowledge."

Grace knew at a young age that he would be involved in some capacity with agriculture. Active in Conecuh County’s 4-H program, he took home awards for raising cattle.

He credits Gary Watson, one of his teachers, with encouraging him to go into agricultural engineering.

Grace had financial help to attend Auburn from the Disabled American Veterans. His father lost both legs in Vietnam and has been helping disabled veterans in his part of the state for many years.

Working with the U.S. Forest Service began three years before he got his bachelor’s degree at Auburn. He received his master’s degree at AU in 1996 and then picked up his Ph.D. at N.C. State in 2004.

At Auburn, he studied electrical, mechanical and civil engineering. His master’s thesis involved assessing erosion controls techniques on newly constructed forest roads.

"I had taken a liking to soil and water issues," he said. "I looked at how we can work with water and modification regimes to conserve soil."

As he was taking his engineering courses, he couldn’t help but think of his wise grandfather, still spry at 89, but no longer working his farm.

Creating those terraces on the family operation many years before he enrolled at Auburn looked like fun for a 5-year-old boy and all he knew about them was a brief explanation.

"When I’d ask my grandfather why he was putting those terraces where he did, he’d tell me if we didn’t do it ‘we’re going to have a gulley,’" Grace said. "When I got old enough to drive a tractor, I did it myself. Now it all makes sense."

Grace doesn’t have divided loyalties until the Wolf Pack plays the Tigers in any sport.

"I’m Wolf Pack all the way when they play, but the Tigers are my primary team," he said breaking into a big smile. "You could say I’m a War Eagle to the bone."

Grace said he may, one day, switch from research to teaching "because I want to give information I’ve received throughout my academic career."

In the meantime he and his wife, who have three young children, are expecting a fourth.

"Right now we’re getting ready for our new addition," he said. "That’s going to keep us pretty busy."

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.