Scientists Pine for Military Ranges

The scientists compiled a massive data set, consisting of a comprehensive record of just what is growing where, and what types of animals are most likely to be found in any one area. They used satellites to pinpoint locations on maps, which can be accessed via a laptop in the field.

Thus cleanup crews will be able to tell instantly what they need to do, lessening the chances that they will do more harm than good.

The Utah research could serve as a tool of persuasion for West and his colleagues as they pursue the opportunity to study the buffers around other sensitive installations.

The concept has been embraced by a consortium of seven universities, called the Inland Northwest Research Alliance, Inc., which includes Boise, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Washington state universities, and the Universities of Idaho and Montana. It was formed a couple of years ago to “bridge the gap” between the research community and government and industry, says executive director Gautam Pillay.

An Environmental Lab Model

Pillay sees an ideal partnership between the universities and the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory near Idaho Falls. The lab, which has had its own problems with nuclear contamination, is centered in an 890-square-mile reservation.

The lab itself covers only a tiny part of that area, leaving the rest as a buffer.

“It’s a relatively undisturbed site,” Pillay says.

Pillay, whose organization is one of the lab’s partners, thinks scientists prowling through the buffer would be consistent with the lab’s current role as the Department of Energy’s lead laboratory for environmental management.

A Hot Issue

One area he would like to see pursued is truly a hot issue. Many labs are surrounded by land that is covered with sagebrush, creating an enormous fire hazard. Fires last year threatened two labs, including the heavily contaminated Hanford nuclear site in southern Washington state and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

“I lived through the Los Alamos fire,” says Pillay, who was then on the management staff at the lab. “We were thankful the entire lab didn’t burn down.”

As it turned out, both facilities were spared, but next time the situation could be different.

The buffer around the Idaho lab is an ideal place for research on wildfire management, Pillay says, and a proposal for just such a program is now being developed.

And at the same time, scientists will have access to an area that hasn’t been studied in decades.

It would be a win-win situation, West says, and there are probably many areas of the country where similar programs could be launched.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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