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Yellowstone Proposal for National Ecology Project

The National Ecological Observatory Network is collaborating with Yellowstone National Park yet again on an ecological observation facility that was publicly proposed in 2014, intended to be the most comprehensive, long-term study of ecology and climate change in North America. The public is responding to the park proposal with comments on the environmental report based on which it is discerned what can be considered an merits of the operation and construction of a NEON site to analyze land use change, climate change impacts and species invasion around Blacktail Deer Creek and Blacktail Plateau Drive in the park.

Photo source: Werner22Brigitte via Pixabay

The site’s key infrastructure are comprised of a tower equipped with aquatic instrumentation, sensors, regular field work and annual aircraft overpass. NEON Senior Program Manager Rick Farnsworth says, “Ecology, in general, is done on a smaller scale.” He explains the nature of the project in respect to the location and purpose thereof, saying, “What NEON was envisioned to do was to have an entire continent of data, so you can look at changes on a continental scale.”

According to Explore Big Sky, a Yellowstone Region publication on land news, “NEON is proposing to collect a variety of standardized data sets from 81 different locations across the U.S., including Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. The $60 million National Science Foundation project is operated by Battelle, a global research and development organization committed to science and technology. All data will be available to the public for free.”

As many as 31 locations have become operational since site construction started in 2012, and these include facilities in Guanica Forest in Puerto Rico, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park and around Denali National Park in Healy, Alaska. All sites constructed are intended to record data for a span of three decades. Explore Big Sky reports that “Data sampling has been standardized at and across each location to ensure that data is comparable and representative, and will characterize the area’s terrestrial and aquatic plants, animals, soil, water and atmosphere.

“Field work will include animal surveys and insect and fish collection, while a tower and soil array will monitor temperature, humidity, and air and soil composition. Aquatic instruments will record river flows,” according to Explore Big Sky. NEON is specifically intended to look at what climate change is likely to portend for certain locales in the United States. “The aquifiers across the country are changing,” says Farnsworth. “Things found in valleys are now being found higher on the mountain, bugs are now seen where they haven’t been. It’s going to change the world and how we look at climate change and ecology.”

Explore Big Sky: “Yellowstone National Park was chosen by NEON to represent the Northern Rockies ecological domain, which spans across the length of Idaho and western portions of Wyoming and Montana, in order to look at climate change in a pristine environment.”

Pending approval for the Yellowstone proposal, Farnsworth says, “We’re going to set [the Northern Rockies locale] up in a pristine wilderness site so it’s going to be representing what’s actually happening in the wilderness … we’re not setting it up right next to a highway and monitoring [emissions].”

Explore Big Sky says, “An initial public meeting was held at the end of 2014 and a public comment period followed. This initial phase was intended to assist NEON and the park in preparing the environmental assessment that is now available. Kirby said major concerns at that time included tower height and terrestrial sampling. Speaking of the latter, [Kirby] said part of the concern was trail development as field technicians return to the same location for sampling.”

The environmental assessment says that “operational crews would be advised to tread lightly in and around existing vegetation taking care not to create social trails.” Kirby suggested the tower be extended beyond the tree canopy as a means to get more accurate and complete readings of the air. “When the vegetation is short, so is the tower,” Kirby explained. “The Yellowstone tower is proposed at 70.5 feet with an alternative of 59 feet.” Additionally, the tower will be coated with powder to camouflage with its surroundings.

Yellowstone’s outdoor recreation planner, Doug Madsen, served as internuncio between the park and NEON. “Most visitors probably won’t even know this is going on,” said Madsen. The aquatic instruments in Blacktail Deer Creek are likely to be the only legitimately visible structures to visitors, though they may also be able to see the tower from a distance from certain positions in specific locations on Grand Loop Road, according to Madsen.

“[NEON Yellowstone] is going to offer the park a very long-term data set,” Madsen says, referring to what he says are needed in light of how short ecological surveys are. “Five years is considered a long study.” Having 30 years’ worth of data collected and made publicly available in the same or similar ways across the board serves as a boon to ecological study, according to Madsen. “The park sees that as being a very useful thing going into the future.”

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