Scientists Pine for Military Ranges

If ecologist Neil West needs a really pristine site to do a little research, he’s likely to pass up a national park or wildlife refuge in favor of a military bombing range.

That’s because our national parks are being loved to death by hordes of visitors who have reshaped the local environment just by being there. But not many folks are likely to stray into an area where bombs could fall from the sky.

It’s a surprising situation: Many of the nation’s most unspoiled areas consist of buffers around some of our dirtiest installations, including weapons research facilities and military staging areas. Anyone who ventures into the buffer is likely to meet an unfriendly, and heavily armed, host.

In many cases, only a tiny fraction of the land is used for its primary purpose, and that area is surrounded by hundreds of square miles of protected buffer that has remained essentially unchanged for decades.

West, a professor of rangeland resources at Utah State University in Logan, has lusted after those buffers for many years.

“Some of these lands might be the last refuge for many critters,” says West.

A Possible Opening

But here’s the rub: They may be among our most pristine areas, but they are also among the least understood. That’s because the ground rules that kept us common folk out of those buffers also kept most scientists out.

That, however, may be changing. Scientists may be facing a windfall in unspoiled territory where they can look for endangered critters and conduct research in areas that haven’t been pulverized by off-road vehicles. The Department of Defense and other government agencies that have not always been eager to open their gates are beginning to sing a new tune, West says.

“It’s all related to how politics has changed since the end of the Cold War,” he says. “We used to let these outfits do pretty well what they wanted because back in the Cold War era, we would pull out all the stops to stay ahead of the Reds.

“When that went down the tubes, the environmental community started to pay attention to what was going on at military labs and put pressure to find out how much these areas were reservoirs of species and systems that were lost elsewhere.”

A Potential ‘Win-Win’

So scientists, and the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy, two of the nation’s biggest landlords, have something to gain. Scientists could have access to vast, unspoiled areas, and the government could polish its image by showing it can be a good steward of the land.

One significant step has already been taken in that direction. West was part of a large team of scientists who completed a five year study recently of a huge area that surrounds the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah’s West Desert. The military contracted with the scientists for the research because the land is so vast that nobody really knew what was there.

The bombing range is at the center of an 11.2-million-acre block of land that “essentially covers about the western third of Utah,” West says. Not all that land is controlled by the military, but the airspace over it is.

Sometimes, a bomb or a missile or an airplane strays outside of the bombing range, and if it goes down, the military is responsible for “retrieving the mess and restoring the area,” as West put it.

But how can you restore something if you don’t know what was there?

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 A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.