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Career of the Month

Soil Scientist James Hartig

Soil scientists study the soil, for the purpose of understanding it in its natural state, or in its capacity to serve human purposes. This requires an understanding of soil physics, chemistry and biology. Soil scientists can focus on a variety of topical areas, such as waste management, ecosystem preservation, agriculture, water quality, restoration and remediation, and sustainability. James Hartsig is a soil scientist working in the role of vegetation manager at Invenergy LLC (a renewable energy company) in their Denver, Colorado office.

Work Overview

I identify revegetation requirements on large-scale renewable energy projects. I review construction plans and permits and determine the best path forward, in collaboration with project managers, asset managers, surveyors, and my team. I identify soil properties by collecting soil samples for laboratory analysis and by conducting field observations; determine the appropriate seed mixes and soil amendments; and address stormwater controls, while remaining within budget and meeting regulatory requirements. I also look for opportunities to implement sustainability initiatives (such as carbon offset, pollinator establishment, and habitat restoration programs) whenever possible.

My favorite part of the job is physically assessing locations. I like to put boots on the ground and evaluate the soil and the existing vegetation, to understand the soil properties and what vegetation would adapt best to those conditions. It’s like diagnosing a location, to come up with the best treatment for a functional and healthy ecosystem.

My least favorite parts of the job are the rare occasions when I have to wait for laboratory data, or for regulatory agencies to review and approve plans. Sometimes you spend a lot of time working on plans or collecting samples without knowing what the results will be. Curveballs are part of life, though, so you just have to be ready and willing to make the necessary changes or to find another way to interpret data to ensure the project stays on track.

Career Highlights

Some of my most memorable moments involved traveling and working at locations that were new to me. I’ve had the opportunity to look at unique ecosystems around the country, from Washington, DC, to Washington state, through the lens of large earth-disturbance projects. The largest projects involved developing seeding plans to establish native vegetation on the sites of interstate pipelines and solar farms.

Career Path

Hiking with my family and being a Boy Scout spurred my love for the outdoors. Then in high school, I started to gravitate towards my chemistry and biology courses, and wanted to apply that knowledge in the real world. I decided to combine my passion for the outdoors with my fondness for science. As a freshman at the University of Tennessee, I came across the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources and knew it would be a good fit.

My career path has been challenging and unpredictable. After graduation, I worked in a construction materials laboratory in downtown Nashville, testing soils for constructability purposes. I then became a stormwater inspector, overseeing Tennessee Department of Transportation projects in the central part of the state. I was then transferred to the Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston Ash Recovery Project, to assist with quality control of remediation and restoration plans. This really advanced my career, because I was given more responsibility and a voice in the revegetation efforts. But around this time, I also realized that I needed to move out of Tennessee if I truly wanted to pursue a career as a soil scientist, to a state that was placing a greater emphasis on addressing environmental concerns.

I was offered a position in Colorado as an environmental inspector on a large interstate crude-oil pipeline project, while also conducting stormwater inspections on local oil and gas facilities. After a couple of years, one of the operators of those oil and gas facilities hired me to run their stormwater and reclamation program. A year later, I was hired by Duraroot Environmental Consulting, a soil-science group dedicated to large-scale reclamation projects across the country. I worked there for five years and then moved over to an energy-sector construction and maintenance company called Pilgrim Construction, and then to Invenergy.

Knowledge, Skills and Training Needed

Vegetation identification and geomorphology knowledge, basic soil assessment experience, and land management skills are all necessary in this line of work. Most of these can be learned in school or during field exercises. The importance of remote sensing and aerial analytics is also increasing, using drones and manned aircraft to fly over project areas, with the goal of improving reclamation, stormwater control, and land management efforts. Experience with ArcGIS and similar platforms can go a long way too.

Advice for Students

There are many jobs out there, across numerous industries, for people who are passionate about the outdoors, want to make a difference for our environment, and want to work in sustainability and reclamation. Once you settle on a key discipline (soil science in my instance), make it your niche. Become the subject matter expert in your field. If you develop that drive, opportunities will come to you.

Bonus points

Hartsig’s Education: BS, soil science, University of Tennessee; MS, physical geography, University of Tennessee

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