Ecological Research at the Idaho
National Environmental Research Park
The Idaho National
Laboratory (INL) Site was designated as a National Environmental
Research Park (NERP) in 1975. The NERP Program was established
in response to recommendations from citizens, scientists and
members of Congress to set aside land for ecosystem preservation
and study. This has been one of the few formal efforts to
reserve land on a national scale for ecological research and
education. In many cases, these protected lands became the last
remnants of what were once extensive natural ecosystems.
objectives guide activities on NERPs:
Develop methods for assessing
and documenting environmental consequences of human actions
related to energy development
Develop methods for predicting
environmental consequences of ongoing and proposed energy
Explore methods for
eliminating or minimizing predicted adverse effects from
various energy development activities on the environment
Train people in ecological and
Educate the public on
environmental and ecological issues.
NERPs provide rich environments for training researchers and
introducing the public to the ecological sciences. They have been
used to educate grade school and high school students and the
general public about ecosystem interactions at Department of Energy
(DOE) sites; train graduate and undergraduate students in research
related to site-specific, regional, national and global issues; and
promote collaboration and coordination among local, regional and
national public organizations, schools, universities and federal and
state agencies. Ecological research on NERPs is leading to better
land-use planning, identifying sensitive areas on DOE sites so that
restoration and other activities are compatible with ecosystem
protection and management and increased contributions to ecological
science in general.
Ecological research was conducted at federal laboratories before
NERPs were established. For example, at the INL Site, ecological
research began in 1950 with the establishment of the long-term
vegetation transect study. This is perhaps DOE’s oldest ecological
data set and one of the most intensive data sets for sagebrush
steppe. In addition, in 1989, a long-term reptile monitoring study
was initiated, which is the longest continuous study of its kind in
the world. Also, in 1993, a protective cap biobarrier experiment was
initiated, which evaluated the long-term performance of
evapotranspiration caps and biological intrusion barriers. Those
long-term plots are now being used to test hypotheses on the
potential effects of climate change.
The Idaho NERP provides coordination of ecological research and
information exchange at the INL Site. It facilitates ecological
research on the INL Site by attracting new researchers, providing
background data for new research projects and assisting researchers
to obtain access to the INL Site. The Idaho NERP provides
infrastructure support to ecological researchers through the
Experimental Field Station and reference specimen collections. The
Idaho NERP tries to foster cooperation and research integration by
encouraging researchers to collaborate, developing interdisciplinary
teams to address more complex problems, encouraging data sharing and
leveraging funding across projects to provide more efficient use of
resources. It also integrates research results from many projects
and disciplines and provides analysis of ecosystem-level responses.
The Idaho NERP has developed a centralized ecological database to
provide an archive for ecological data and to facilitate data
retrieval for new research projects and land management decisions.
It also provides interpretation of research results to land and
facility managers to support the National Environmental Policy Act
process, natural resources management, radionuclide pathway analysis
and ecological risk assessment.
A total of 41 graduate students, post-doctoral students, faculty and
agency and contractor scientists participated in 19 research
projects on the Idaho NERP in 2009. Several undergraduate students
and technicians also gained valuable experience through
participation in these research activities. The 19 projects include
eight graduate student research projects, with students and faculty
from Idaho State University, University of Idaho, University of
Nevada Reno, Montana State University and University of Montana.
Four of the graduate students received at least part of their
research funding from the Department of Energy Idaho Operations
Office (DOE-ID) through the Environmental Surveillance, Education
and Research Program.
Thirteen of the 19 projects received funding in whole or part from
DOE-ID through the Environmental Surveillance, Education and
Research Program. Other funding sources included the Bureau of Land
Management, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Idaho State
University, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, University of Idaho,
Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station, Department of Energy, U.S.
Department of Agriculture - Cooperative State Research, Education,
and Extension Service Rangeland Research Program, Idaho Space Grant
Consortium, Idaho National Laboratory, the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric
Research Earth Systems Research Laboratory, Inland Northwest
Research Alliance, National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping, U.S.
Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation.
Most of the DOE-ID-funded research and much of the research funded
by other agencies address conservation planning issues applicable to
the INL Site. These issues include preparing for potential
Endangered Species Act listings, understanding wildland fire
effects, minimizing invasive species impacts and understanding
long-term trends in plant community composition, sagebrush health
and potential effects of climate change. The results of these
projects will be used to support the preparation of a Conservation
Management Plan. The Conservation Management Plan will address
Greater Sage-Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) and pygmy
rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis) conservation strategies
across the entire INL Site because they are presently under
consideration for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Conservation planning for other species of concern, including
sensitive mammals and plants and all sagebrush-obligate species will
be limited to a 125-square-mile area in the center of the INL Site
referred to as the Development Zone (Figure 1).