National Environmental Research Parks (NERPs) are outdoor laboratories that provide opportunities for environmental studies on protected lands that act as buffers around Department of Energy (DOE) facilities.
The objective of the NERP system is to provide protected lands for research and education, particularly to demonstrate the compatibility of energy technology development and a quality environment.
Idaho National Laboratory's NERP designation has allowed the INL to serve as an outdoor laboratory for environmental scientists to study Idaho's native plants and wildlife in an intact and relatively undisturbed ecosystem.
The Idaho Research Park provides exceptional opportunities for research because of its established facilities, a security buffer that protects research, long-term records of environmental conditions, and partnerships with universities and industry.
Contact: Amy Forman, Coordinator Idaho National Environmental Research Park
Since 2001, the Idaho Research Park has hosted 39 studies involving 22 graduate students, 35 university faculty and 25 DOE-ID contractor scientists. So far nine graduate students have completed theses. Funding for these projects has come from 30 different agencies or organizations.
Five basic objectives guide activities on NERPs:
Since the chartering of the Idaho National Environmental Research Park in 1975, more than 80 graduate students have conducted their thesis or dissertation research on the Idaho Research Park. This research has covered a broad range of topics and issues from studies on the basic ecology of native sagebrush steppe organisms to the potential natural pathways of radiological materials through the environment, and even to highly applied research on the design of landfill covers that prevent water from reaching buried waste. The research topics have included native plants and wildlife as well as attempts to understand and control non-native, invasive species.
Ecological research was conducted at federal laboratories long before NERPs were established. For example, at the INL Site, ecological research began in 1950 with the establishment of what would become the Long-Term Vegetation (LTV) transect study. This project was initiated as part of a larger study to gather baseline ecological data during the construction of the Experimental Breeder Reactor-I. This is perhaps DOE’s oldest, continuing ecological monitoring project and one of the most intensive data sets for sagebrush steppe. Experimental Breeder Reactor-I was the first nuclear reactor to produce useable amounts of electricity, and the ecological monitoring aimed to provide information on the potential presence of radionuclides from that reactor and their effects on the surrounding environment.
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 to use the area, providing background data for new research projects, and assisting researchers in obtaining access to the INL Site. The Idaho NERP provides infrastructure support to ecological researchers through the Experimental Field Station and reference specimen collections. The 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 data repository to provide an archive for ecological data and to facilitate data retrieval for new research projects and land management decision making. It also provides interpretation of research results to land and facility managers to support compliance with natural resource laws, including the NEPA, Endangered Species Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
The Idaho NERP has also hosted numerous studies covering much of the full range of ecology. There have been a number of radio telemetry studies on sage-grouse, elk, mule deer, pronghorn, coyotes, pygmy rabbits, and rattlesnakes. The NERP hosts 13 Breeding Bird Survey routes designed to address long-term trends in bird abundance and distribution as well as the effects of agency facilities on those populations. More recently, the Idaho NERP has developed a significant program for monitoring bat populations associated with lava tube caves and ponds at facility areas. This monitoring provided the basis for plans to limit the potential for damage to bat populations by White Nose Syndrome and the development of a Bat Protection Plan. Long-term monitoring of sage-grouse leks on the Idaho NERP led to the development of a Candidate Conservation Agreement (CCA) while that species was under consideration for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The LTV plots provided the initial basis for the development of a vegetation community classification and mapping effort, which has provided the habitat component for the CCA and other conservation and impact analysis needs. Research on natural patterns of sagebrush growth and recovery following disturbance at the Idaho NERP has provided important insights into the management of sagebrush habitat that have not been evaluated anywhere else.
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