Public comment deadline is July 18

By Jessianne Wright

EBS Contributor

BOZEMAN – After an initial public proposal in 2014, the National Ecological Observatory Network once again is working with Yellowstone National Park on a proposed ecological observation facility that will be part of the largest long-term study of climate change and ecology in North America.

The park is taking public comments on the environmental assessment that determines the impacts associated with construction and operation of a NEON site that would study the impacts of climate change, land use change, and invasive species at locations near Blacktail Plateau Drive and Blacktail Deer Creek in the park. Key infrastructure and operations would include a tower with sensors, aquatic instrumentation, an annual aircraft flyover and regular field work.

“Ecology, in general, is done on a smaller scale,” said Rick Farnsworth, senior program manager for NEON.­­­ “What NEON was envisioned to do was to have an entire continent of data, so you can look at changes on a continental scale.”

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 $65 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.

Since beginning site construction in 2012, 31 locations are fully operational, including facilities in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, near Denali National Park in Healy, Alaska, and Guanica Forest in Puerto Rico. Each site will record data for 30 years.

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.

Specifically, NEON will be looking at what climate change might mean for the future at various locations in the U.S. “The aquifers across the country are changing,” Farnsworth said. “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,” he said about NEON.

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.

If the Yellowstone proposal is approved, Farnsworth said, “We’re going to set [the Northern Rockies installation] 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].”

Kathy Kirby, NEON project manager for the Yellowstone location, said they have worked closely with the park in order to minimize the impacts to the area.

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, she said part of the concern was trail development as field technicians return to the same location for sampling. According to the environmental assessment, “operational crews would be advised to tread lightly in and around existing vegetation taking care not to create social trails.”

NEON’s tower in Rocky Mountain National Park resembles the proposed tower that would be installed in Yellowstone National Park. The tower, used to monitor air temperature, humidity, precipitation, air quality, soil chemistry and other data, is proposed at 70 feet tall, with an alternative height of 59 feet. It would be powder coated green. PHOTO COURTESY OF NEON

Kirby said the tower needs to extend above the tree canopy in order to get complete and accurate readings of the air. “When the vegetation is short, so is the tower,” she said. “The Yellowstone tower is proposed at 70.5 feet with an alternative of 59 feet.” It will also be powder-coated to blend in with its surroundings.

Doug Madsen, Yellowstone’s outdoor recreation planner, has worked as the liaison between NEON and the park. “Most visitors probably won’t even know this is going on,” Madsen said. The most visible structures will be the aquatic instruments in Blacktail Deer Creek, he said. Visitors may also notice the tower from a distance at select spots on Grand Loop Road, he added.

“[The NEON site] is going to offer the park a very long-term data set,” said Madsen, adding that in general, ecological surveys are short. “Five years is considered a long study.” Having data collected over the span of 30 years, that is publicly available and comparable in the way it was gathered with other national sites, would be very valuable, Madsen said. “The park sees that as being a very useful thing going into the future.”

If approved, groundbreaking could begin as early as August, Kirby said, with data available to the public starting in February 2018.

The environmental assessment may be viewed and comments submitted at parkplanning.nps.gov/ynpneon. Comments may also be hand delivered to the Albright Visitor Center or mailed to: Yellowstone National Park, Compliance Office, Attention: NEON Proposed Core Site Project, P.O. Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming 82190. Comments must be received by midnight on July 18.