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Jim Archuleta

Published on: Jul 26, 2013

Meet soil scientist, Jim Archuleta.

Jim Archuleta

What is your earliest memory of wanting to be a scientist?

It was never a desire, the trail leading to my position as a soil scientist was not planned. When Joy (my wife) went back to school following her enlistment in the army it hit home that I may need an education beyond the 11th grade. So when she enrolled at Kansas University (Lawrence, KS), I enrolled at neighboring Haskell Indian Nations University. Once accepted at Haskell, I first intended to work in IT. However, once there talked with some counselors I changed majors to Natural Resources. At Haskell there was a Forest Service Recruitment Liaison, tied me in with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (an agency within the United States Department of Agriculture) for summer employment. During that student position I realized I wanted to do something with land management and soils, that led me to this vocation.

What's it like to work in a national forest (Umatilla National Forest)?

While there is the usual drudgery of working for the federal government, “paperwork” is our stock and trade. In other ways, it’s a job that many people would envy. Those times are when I get paid to go and do things others have to pay to do. In the first month of work on the Umatilla NF, I had to ride 12 miles round trip on a horse into a wilderness. The trip was to inspect a complaint about trail erosion into a stream with Threatened and Endangered fish.

What do you find fascinating about soil? It's something many of us take for granted or don't even think about!

I find the relationship of forest soil and wildfire to be extremely interesting. Over the years I have been to many wildfires, some are resilient to the effects of the low, moderate or even high soil burn severity. Others can be devastated and altered to the point of instability.  As we explore climate change variation with higher and higher forest fuel loads; finding ways to mitigate the results of wildfire may be found in the charcoal left by the wildfire. Charcoal (or Biochar) when added to soil, can increase both nutrient and moisture holding capacity; this material also contains carbon; usually in a stable form that may also reduce the carbon available to the atmosphere when stored in the soil.

You invented the subsoiler grapple rake - did you ever think you would be a patent-holding inventor? How did inventing that machine come about?

The thought of being a patent-holding inventor, never was part of the plan. It happened that we were showcasing the equipment at the right locations and a FS researcher asked when our patent would be final. He then went on to tell us we need to secure the patent on this equipment for the agency.

It was during a project where we were subsoiling with an excavator to allow for organic return; an excavator can pick up forest debris to use as soil cover and micro habitat for plantings. We were piling debris and subsoiling to reduce soil compaction in the forest temporary trails, roads and landings. The subsoiling operation was excruciatingly slow. As we waited for our fire watch at the end of shift, the co-claimant and I started to draw in the soil. I had previous experience as a welder fabricator in east Texas and Oklahoma. Soon we had a plan to build the Subsoiling Grapple Rake (SGR) that winter. The implement allows for faster subsoiling when piling forest debris to reduce fire risk in the forest. It was followed by the Subsoiling Excavator Bucket (SEB) and the Subsoiling Brush Cutter Hitch (SBCH). Of the three implements the SGR and SEB were patented by the Forest Service in 2006.

When you encounter frustrating situations or dead-ends, what keeps you going?

In the management of the public’s land there are many frustrating situations and I have seen my share of dead-ends. But to keep going I just have to remember I work in an environment that has more questions than I could ever answer. So once a “hard look” has been made to find an answer, there are other things to work on.

What’s the strangest place/situation you’ve been?

Honestly, sitting in front of a computer answering these questions. I mentioned before I dropped out of school in the 11th grade. What I didn’t mention was I dropped out because I couldn’t see a need or application for science or math in my future. So answering question one, to anyone from AGU is a strange situation for me.

What aspect of your research/science would you happily do away with?

Meetings, they keep me from the field.

What advice do you have for students considering a career in the Earth and space sciences?

Regardless of the career path you choose, don’t limit yourself. There are many people who are limited in their field, by some perceived notion of what it is to be a scientist. Use your experiences and build from there. Early in my soils career, I hoped to do little more than report observations (soils taxonomy).  Soon I was prescribing treatments to improve site conditions, and then applying old knowledge as a welder-fitter to make equipment to benefit my discipline. Now I am working with world-class researchers to help amend the soil with carbon, which may mitigate climate change. What will you do?