History of the Idaho National Environmental Research Park



In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was considerable interest in setting aside lands representing a broad range of ecosystem types for ecological research. A Federal Committee on Research Areas was established in 1966, and in 1968 it released a list of 336 Federal Research Natural Areas. In 1974, Bettie Willard of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality expressed strong concern about the loss of areas suitable for ecological research. A federal interagency report in 1974 noted the formation of the NERPs as important sites for manipulative experiments, testing of management options, and observation of human impact. That report recommended that these research parks form the basis for a National System of Ecological Research Areas. This recommendation appears to be a response to the environmental goals of the NEPA of 1969 and closely aligns with the wording of the charter and program objectives for the NERP program.

In 1977, The National Science Foundation (NSF) published a report titled “Experimental Ecological Reserves: A Proposed National Network.” This network consisted of 67 field research facilities, about half of which were on land managed by federal lands, including Forest Service, Agricultural Research Service, and Bureau of Land Management. However, more than half of the total land occupied by these federal lands was under the stewardship of ERDA and attributable to the NERPs. In 1980, NSF announced their Long-Term Ecological Research Program, and the following year designated their first six Long-Term Ecological Research sites. That network has now grown to include 26 sites.

In many ways, the origin of the NERPs at U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) sites is an “accident” of locations selected during and soon after World War II. Nuclear weapons research required large, remote sites to provide for both maximum security and safety. Due to those two requirements, several large tracts of land were set aside at locations around the United States. As a result, these sites represented areas with restricted access, a variety of climates, and a variety of ecosystem types, including deserts, forests, grasslands, shrub-steppes, and other types. Because of the need to develop a system to monitor inadvertent releases of radioactive materials and track atmospheric fallout, these sites were also staffed with experienced environmental scientists. This confluence of attributes made these facilities ideal locations to conduct long-term, controlled experiments on the impacts of weapons and energy production on the environment. At some sites, environmental and ecological research was encouraged. When NEPA was signed into law, it brought about a new awareness of the importance of managing human impacts to the environment and a requirement that agencies consider those impacts in its activities. With that, environmental and ecological scientists who had been conducting this kind of research at sites operated by Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) found themselves as leaders in many scientific subdisciplines necessary for addressing environmental impacts.

The earliest discussions that would eventually culminate in the formal network of environmental research sites occurred during a review of the environmental research being conducted at the Savannah River Site (SRS) in 1971. Similar reviews had been conducted in previous years at Oak Ridge and Hanford and included many of the same personnel in all three reviews. It became obvious to those involved that each of the agency’s sites were conducting comparable research and could provide for both long-term and cross-site comparisons to support understanding and managing environmental impacts. Many of the concepts that followed from those discussions at SRS formed the basis for the NERP Charter.

In the months following the meeting at SRS, a tentative charter for the NERPs was drafted and a proposal for designating SRS as the first NERP was developed. The documentation for the SRS designation was described as “immense” and contained comments from “several hundred” individuals within the agency who felt their administrative responsibilities would be considerably altered by the NERP program. However, nearly all of those “several hundred” individuals also provided an endorsement supporting the NERP program. The NERP designation for SRS came in April 1972. The final charter for the NERP program, along with program objectives, was released in August 1976. It had been reviewed by many individuals within the agency. It was also reviewed and approved by an outside committee that included eight past and future presidents of the Ecological Society of America.

A NERP for Idaho
Gene Rutledge, Executive Director of the Idaho Nuclear Energy Commission (INEC), became interested in establishing an Idaho NERP after learning that the SRS had been designated as a NERP. He met with AEC Chairman James Schlesinger during a visit to Idaho Falls and suggested that the National Reactor Testing Station (NRTS) also be considered for designation as a NERP. Rutledge contacted Donna Parsons, Director of the Regional Studies Center, and other scientists at the College of Idaho about hosting a symposium featuring research on natural resources and radioecology at the NRTS. Planning began in 1973 and the symposium was set for October 1974. Concurrently, Donald Walker, United States AEC IDO, and his staff began preparing a proposal to identify the NRTS as a NERP.

In April 1974, Donald J. MacKay, Chairman of the INEC, contacted AEC Chair Dixie Lee Ray about designating a NERP in Idaho and received a supportive response. Ray also supported the idea of the symposium on environmental research at NRTS by the Regional Studies Center, INEC, and other interested AEC sites. The AEC sites that participated in the symposium included the SRS, Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, Hanford, and Nevada. The SRS presentation reported on its NERP status, and the other sites presented their own proposals for NERP designation. Dr. Walker delivered his proposal for an Idaho NERP at the symposium in October 1974. Parsons reported that the symposium was a “striking success,” and a proceedings document was prepared and published by the Regional Studies Center at the College of Idaho.

As the end of 1974 approached, and along with it the phase out of the AEC and formation of the ERDA and Nuclear Regulatory Commission, there was concern that a delay in designating the Idaho NERP could mean that the proposal would get lost in the agency transition. This generated a sense of urgency, and work to gain a NERP designation was greatly accelerated. Noted Idaho raptor biologist, Morlan Nelson, and Mel Alsager (INEC member) met with Governor Cecil Andrus in December 1974 to brief him on the proposal to create an Idaho NERP. On December 19, 1974, Andrus requested that Dr. James Liverman (Assistant Administrator for Environment and Safety, U.S. ERDA) give prompt consideration to the proposal prepared by Dr. Walker. Governor Andrus also contacted Congressman Orval Hansen, who was also a member of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, to gain his support. Between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, there was a flurry of phone calls involving Rutledge, Hansen, Ray, and Liverman that culminated in the official announcement on January 3, 1975, that Idaho had been designated as the second NERP.

NERP Objectives
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 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 increasing contributions to ecological science in general.

Ecological Research at the Idaho NERP
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 (Singleviche t al 1951). 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.

Radioecology (first introduced in 1956) is a branch of ecology that studies how radioactive substances interact with nature and how different mechanisms affect the substances' migration and uptake in food chains and ecosystems. A wide array of radioecology studies were conducted on the Idaho NERP since its inception in 1975 (and before) and continued through 2001. Studies were conducted not only by ESER scientists but also by researchers from a multitude of universities and agencies. They studied uptake and transport of radionuclides by biota, dosimetry of biota residing at radioactive waste areas, tissue concentrations, radionuclide elimination rates, radiation effects on biota chromosomes, radionuclide concentration factors, radionuclide to young from adult biota, and effects of radionuclide concentrations in game animals on human dose. A multitude of species have been studied radiologically, including waterfowl, rabbits, mourning dove, greater sage-grouse, yellow-bellied marmot, small mammals, barn swallows, elk, mule deer, pronghorn, northern harrier, American kestrel, benthic invertebrates, carrion beetles, big sagebrush, squirreltail grass, and tumbleweed. Many studies evaluated radionuclide concentration, distribution, and transport through ecosystem components, including soil, flora, fauna, sediments, and water. A multitude of radionuclides were assessed, such as iodine-129 and 131; plutonium-238, 239, and 240; strontium-90; cobalt-60; and cesium-124 and 137, to determine accumulation, elimination, and transport in various ecological components and ecosystems. These studies also provide data for biota dose assessments. The dozens of radioecological studies on the Idaho NERP have verified that those ecosystems and their components have radionuclide levels well below regulatory limits.

A number of other major areas of ecological research have been conducted at the Idaho NERP. The LTV plots have provided a wealth of data that have been used to understand the basic plant ecology of the sagebrush steppe ecosystem. Fire ecology research has been conducted at the Idaho NERP since the early 1980s when a small prescribed burn was conducted. Effects on plants, birds, small mammals, and reptiles were examined by collecting abundance data before and after the fire. With the series of large fires that began in 1994, several projects have been conducted to understand the recovery of vegetation —especially sagebrush—associated with these big fires. Research on the loss of soil due to wind erosion following these fires also played an important role in the Wildland Fire Management Plan for the INL Site.

Beginning in the 1980s, the Idaho NERP hosted a series of integrated plant, animal, soil, and water studies that culminated in the Protective Cap/Biobarrier Experiment, which evaluated the long-term performance of evapotranspiration caps and biological intrusion barriers to prevent spread of waste buried in landfills. After completion of the Protective Cap/Biobarrier Experiment study, the plots lived a second life as a test bed to investigate hypotheses on the potential effects of climate change on landscapes of the western United States.

The Idaho NERP has also hosted numerous other 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.

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.



Contact:  Douglas Halford, Coordinator
Idaho National Environmental Research Park