BLUE RIVER, Ore. – Leaders of the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in the central Cascade Range of Oregon this month officially nominated it to become a core research site in NEON, the most ambitious and comprehensive ecological observation program ever planned in the United States.
If the effort is successful, this research site will become the primary biological “representative” of western Oregon and Washington, parts of northern California and southeastern Alaska – a huge Pacific Northwest land area that runs from the Pacific Ocean to the eastern edge of the Cascade Range.
Major construction programs, new research infrastructure, scientific instrumentation and other initiatives would turn the forest into one of the most intensively monitored ecosystem sites in the world, and part of a national initiative that will be supported by the National Science Foundation and managed by a new private entity, NEON, Inc.
The Andrews Forest is now operated by Oregon State University and the U.S.D.A. Forest Service as part of NSF’s Long Term Ecological Research system. But under NEON, it would undergo a quantum transformation to help answer some of the world’s most pressing ecological issues.
“The National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON, is seen as the way the address some of what we call the grand challenge questions,” said Barbara Bond, a professor of forest science at OSU and co-director of the Andrews Forest. “These are things like predicting climate change, managing invasive species, or understanding the ecology of infectious disease.
“The type of integrated technology that NEON will provide will give us the big answers to the big questions,” she added.
Only one “core” research site will be chosen to represent large parts of a four-state, Pacific Northwest region, and experts say that the Andrews Forest – as a result of its history, ecological research orientation, location, elevation, over 50 years of existing data, geology, vegetation and many other features – is ideally suited to be that site. In particular, the H.J. Andrews is dominated by a sloping, hilly topography, a departure from the flatland locations that will be used in many other NEON sites, but hilly or mountainous terrain similar to a vast portion of the American West.
Besides these “core” research sites, other smaller ecological monitoring facilities would be set up at different locations, perhaps including one or more “land use gradients” that could include a site in downtown Portland, areas near the Portland and Eugene urban fringe, and extending into the Cascades.
The core research site would include a new, 3,000-square-foot headquarters building, several large monitoring towers, a tree canopy microclimate system, and other technology that would convert the area into a “cyber forest,” with sophisticated new instrumentation sending back constant streams of data about everything from air movement to pollutant monitoring and stable isotope composition.
Each of 20 core NEON sites around the nation, including Alaska and Hawaii, will have similar technology, instruments, research protocols, and coordinated scientific approaches so that data at various sites can be combined to answer ever more complex questions, using such things as advanced computation, computer modeling and ecological studies at all time and geographic scales.
Researchers at OSU in the College of Forestry and College of Engineering, in fact, are already working to create some of the advanced technology that will be used in NEON – novel ways to provide power for instruments to study the interactions among climate, soils, and vegetation.
Millions of dollars have already been spent by the National Science Foundation just in planning NEON, and millions more are in the budget for this year awaiting final Congressional approval. Organizers hope the plan will link studies from the genome to the biosphere, and dramatically improve both our understanding of nature and the effects of human interaction with it.
Managing the Earth in a sustainable fashion for future generations, scientists say, requires better answers to what are being called the “grand challenges.” The National Research Council identified these critical environmental questions in 2001, and they include questions about biodiversity, biogeochemical cycles, climate change, hydroecology, infectious disease, invasive species and land use. At stake, scientists say, is sustained ecosystem function, management of a changing planet, supplies of clean water, defense against new and spreading diseases, and human welfare.
“The ecological changes we will face in the United States are enormous, and it’s going to take the type of infrastructure envisioned by NEON to address them,” Bond said. “This is clearly the way to go. I’m guessing that only in hindsight will we really appreciate just how valuable this initiative is, the way it will empower us to answer questions we otherwise just could not tackle.”
In addition to becoming a key player in the NEON initiative, Bond said, the increased monitoring and technology made possible by that plan would greatly enhance the current work at the Andrews Forest. Already well known for its old-growth and watershed science studies that have helped shape major forest management policy changes in the U.S., the Andrews Forest now is employing some of the same type of sensor engineering, mathematical and computer systems, and social science studies that NEON proposes.
“At the Andrews we already have one of the premier forestry research sites in the world, including programs integrating forestry with the humanities that are a model for the nation,” Bond said. “NEON would only make these programs better.”