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WVU researchers partner with West Virginia Natural Resources Conservation Service to improve the lives of West Virginians

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - When it comes to problem-solving, the WVU Davis College and the West Virginia Natural Resources Conservation Service have a lot in common. This is one of the many reasons why the two entities developed a five-year project agreement in 2015, initially allocating resources for six research projects to be carried out by WVU researchers.

WVU faculty and student researchers - NRCS partnership

“There had been some discussion on our level about this project, but a lot of it came about with a discussion between WVU Davis College Dean Robison and the State Conservationist,” said Jerry Fletcher, professor of resource economics and director of the WVU Davis College Natural Resource Analysis Center.

“We’ve got good faculty and good programs,” Fletcher continued. “A good share of them have been working with NRCS for a long time.”

With the aim of leveraging resources of both organizations, NRCS project support enables researchers to address conservation-related problems throughout the state. From improving soil health and wetland functions to extending the service reach of NRCS to its constituents, faculty and student researchers’ efforts are centered on one common goal: improving the lives of West Virginians.

Louis Aspey, State Conservationist, NRCS

“My agency works with farmers and ranchers to address conservation issues on working lands through a voluntary, science-based approach,” said Louis Aspey, State Conservationist. “This model not only improves the environment, but also stimulates local economies.”

The NRCS’s approach to its work makes the Davis College a perfect partner in its efforts, according to Aspey.

“The WVU Davis College is one of the preeminent agricultural institutions in the nation, and having access to some of the best academic minds in the country just across town is a tremendous advantage,” Aspey said. “I am very excited about the benefits West Virginians will enjoy as this partnership matures."

In addition to supporting research, this partnership also provides an opportunity for WVU students Brianne Zimmerman, doctoral student, natural resource economicsto work at the state NRCS office in Morgantown, giving them the chance to learn about potential careers while providing needed support for NRCS.

"I work in the Programs Department, assisting with various projects, including dam rehabilitation projects that provide flood protection and other resources throughout the state," Brianne Zimmerman, doctoral student in the natural resource economics program, said. "After the recent flooding in the southern part of the state, it is easy to recognize the value of my work."

Following is a brief overview of five of the projects.

Project: Assessment of the Distribution of NRCS Assistance Programs in West Virginia and Strategic Enhancement of Future Efforts

Problem: Due to various obstacles and resource limitations, some parts of the state receive more NRCS services than others, creating “service gaps” throughout West Virginia.

Goal: Determine what parts of the state are overserved and underserved by NRCS, then develop an outreach program, in collaboration with NRCS, to overcome barriers and resource limitations.

Methods: Examine variables such as demographics, number of conservation practices, and agricultural data – e.g., farm quantities and sizes, livestock quantities – and use that data to identify over- and underserved areas.  Work with NRCS, agricultural organizations, and other groups to develop and implement an outreach strategy to reach under-served groups and/or areas of West Virginia.

Impact: By meeting the goals of this project, NRCS will broaden its outreach, connecting its services with a greater number of currently underserved citizens throughout the state. 


  • Alan Collins, professor of resource economics and management
  • Don Lacombe, associate professor, personal financial planning, Texas Tech University
  • Jackie Strager, research coordinator, Natural Resource Analysis Center
  • Gaillynn Bowman, Ph.D. student, resource economics and management
  • Brianne Zimmerman, Ph.D. student, resource economics and management

Project: Defoliation Impacts on Grassland Rooting, Soil Microbial Communities, and Soil Health

Problem: There is little knowledge about the processes occurring below the ground as pastures are defoliated by grazing animals. Defoliation removes grass and legume parts by cutting or grazing and can result in positive or negative impacts on soil quality, which is becoming an increasingly important focus for researchers, agriculturists and society.

Goal: Ultimately, determine how to maintain and improve soil organic matter, which is central to soil health through the pasture defoliation process.

Methods: Researchers are examining defoliation practices and their impact on the following: release of greenhouse gases into the ecosystem, carbon and nitrogen cycling in soil and root turnover.

Impact: Improved soil organic matter leads to improved water retention and soil and plant health. Additionally, a deeper understanding of the defoliation process can ultimately lead to mitigating climate change.


  • Thomas Griggs, associate professor of agronomy
  • Zachary Feedman, assistant professor of environmental microbiology
  • Charlene Kelly, visiting assistant professor of forest resources management
  • Jordan Koos, graduate research assistant

Project: Evaluating Wetland Functions and Ecosystem Services in West Virginia Wetlands

Problem: NRCS currently lacks the necessary information and resources to determine the functionality and ecosystem services of 23 easement wetland sites in West Virginia.

Goal: Evaluate wetland functions and identify potential flaws – both functionally and structurally – of each of the 23 sites, then develop recommendations to make improvements.

Methods: Using GIS and field surveys, researchers will assess characteristics such as vegetation and water regime. They will also record water depths, soil characteristics and turtle and avian biodiversity.

Impact: When the wetlands function properly, it helps the environment and saves money. Wetlands fulfill a critical role in ecosystem services, preventing flooding, maximizing soil health and irrigating crops. They are also crucial to maintaining high water quality by removing extra nutrients and storing them in the soil and plants. This prevents the costly process of artificial removal.


  • James T. Anderson, Davis-Michael professor of wildlife and fisheries resources
  • Donald J. Brown, research assistant professor of wildlife resources
  • Christopher Rota, assistant professor of wildlife and fisheries resources
  • Joseph Hatton, graduate student committee member and deputy commissioner of agriculture, West Virginia Dept. of Agriculture
  • Alissa Gulette, graduate student researcher
  • Katharine Lewis, graduate student researcher

Project: Mine Soil Health

Problem: Surface mining removes soil and rock overlying a mineral deposit, then replaces the rock materials to rebuild the site to its original landscape during reclamation. Even with topsoil replaced on the surface, the resulting soils are difficult to use for agricultural and horticultural purposes – activities in which there is a rapidly growing interest and need. Hundreds of thousands of acres of reclaimed land exist in West Virginia with low productivity levels, but over time they improve due to soil building processes. 

Goal: Determine mine soil health on new and old reclaimed sites by evaluating their soil properties, including bulk density, nutrients and pH levels. This will lead to a much better understanding of how these soils change over time and how we can use these soils to meet the needs of landowners.

Methods: In addition to traditional methods used for measuring soil health, WVU researchers will be using soil quality test kits to evaluate the soil properties. They will determine how the soil test kit, originally developed for use on agricultural soils in Iowa, will relate specifically to soil health in mine soils. 

Impact: This new knowledge will enable researchers to provide guidance to landowners on the best crops and practices to use on such lands. The project can expand into the southern West Virginia coal fields, where large reclaimed areas can also be evaluated for their potential for agricultural enterprises. This will lead to positive economic and health-related impacts for the entire state.


  • Jeff Skousen, professor of soil science and land reclamation specialist for the WVU Extension Service
  • Eugenia Pena-Yewtukhiw, associate professor of soil science
  • Louis McDonald, Jr., professor of soil science
  • Katie Stutler, graduate research assistant

Project: Revisiting Poultry Litter Issue in Potomac Basin, WV

Problem: Nutrient overload in streams continues to be a problem in the Potomac watershed, or basin, in West Virginia, resulting in environmental challenges. It stems from poultry industry growth and the production and disposal of poultry litter. While poultry litter can be a valuable commodity in many contexts, it can also contain dangerous pathogens and fecal bacteria that can lead to water quality problems in our nation’s rivers and streams and, in this instance, the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Goal: To assess current conditions and evaluate feasibility of poultry litter export outside the Potomac Watershed via bulk rail transport and/or other means.

Methods: Identify opportunities for more efficient and cost-effective processes using various tools and strategies, including GIS analysis, evaluating the centralized collection and processing systems and examining the feasibility of business development on West Virginia State Rail Authority Property along the South Branch Valley Railroad.

Impact: The efficient collection, processing and export of poultry litter may reduce negative environmental impacts to streams and groundwater resources. It could also lead to local business development opportunities and regional economic development.


  • Paul J. Kinder, Jr., research scientist, WVU Davis College
  • Pamela Yost, watershed economist, NRCS
  • Kelly Kulp, undergraduate research assistant, WVU Davis College

Pictured above, top to bottom: WVU faculty and student NRCS project researchers; Louis Aspey; and Brianne Zimmerman.


CONTACT: Nikky Luna, communications manager, WVU Davis College 304-293-2394;