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.


Five basic 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 development

  • Explore methods for eliminating or minimizing predicted adverse effects from various energy development activities on the environment

  • Train people in ecological and environmental sciences

  • 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).