In the basement of the Agriculture Department's massive South Building, clerks are combing the files and loading up the dumpsters in one of the department's more unusual excursions into cost-cutting.

To save storage and mailing expenses, officials are junking thousands of copies of county soil profiles that cost the government large amounts of money to produce and publish. One clerk estimated that 40,000 surveys, some as thick as Washington-area telephone books, will be dumped.

County soil surveys and maps, many of them quite complex and scientific, are vital tools to farmers, developers, land appraisers, home builders, engineers and recreation planners in determining what can be done on which soils. Over the years, the department has compiled surveys for 1,908 counties.

The department's decision to dump the documents does not mean they will become extinct, however. Copies will be available to the public in state capitals.

The survey trashing was ordered by the Soil Conservation Service, which oversees the compilation and distribution of the documents. The division decided that it would be the most cost-effective way of solving a budget problem.

Dwight Treadway, SCS public information chief, said the agency would save $67,000 a year by giving up the storage area, for which it is charged "rent" by the General Services Administration. He said the space, for which the USDA pays $16 a square foot, could then be used by the agency for other purposes.

"We have kept a supply of the county surveys here to fill the 800 to 900 requests we have had from members of Congress and the general public," Treadway said.

"But we calculated that storage was costing us $75 per publication [distributed]. It didn't make sense to me to do this, because the states are maintaining files of the same documents."

Why not just send the surplus soil surveys out to the respective states rather than junk them?

"We figured that it would have cost us $57,000 to send them to the states. We gave agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Agricultural Library and the Army Corps of Engineers a chance to get what they wanted and they have taken some copies."

But the rest are destined for a landfill or an incinerator.

Treadway said the decision will save money and improve SCS service and assistance at the local level. He said individuals seeking county soil guidance now will be able to deal directly with SCS scientists in the field.

Which could work very well -- as long as they don't run short of soil surveys.