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Conducting Research to Solve EPA's Scientific Problems

Scientists at the Western Ecology Division are addressing current ecological questions and anticipating future ecological problems. Some are seemingly simple questions, while others are bewilderingly complex. The questions include:

ˇ  Exactly what influence do human activities in cities, towns, farms, and forests have on natural food webs in Pacific Northwest coastal estuaries?

ˇ  What, precisely, is our impact on wild Pacific salmon, or on other creatures that live in streams, lakes and ponds across the United States?

ˇ  How can agencies regulate a pesticide used in such low doses it is almost impossible to detect on crops?

ˇ  What is the condition of a freshwater ecosystem? How can researchers best measure departures from expectations?

Meeting such challenges requires the brightest minds and the utmost creativity and dedication. It also involves careful planning, organization, and priorities. Research at WED is sharply focused on high priority questions facing EPA specifically and society generally. As part of EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD), WED scientists operate within the framework of EPA’s Strategic Goals. These goals drive WED’s research activities, and the success of those activities toward achieving the goals is measured as part of the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) passed by Congress in 1993 to assure effective use of public funds.

Research at WED is specifically addressing three of these goals – Goal 2, Clean and Safe Water; Goal 4, Preventing Pollution and Reducing Risk in Communities; and Goal 8, Sound Science. EPA’s objective for Goal 2 is to conserve and enhance the nation’s waters; the research focus is on aquatic stressors – specifically habitat alteration and nutrient loadings. For Goal 4, the Agency objective is the safe handling and use of commercial chemicals and microorganisms with research targeted to improve measurements, methods and models. WED’s research will focus on the effects of pesticide on non-target plants and plant communities. Goal 8 research, Sound Science, provides the fundamental tools for monitoring design science and ecological risk assessment that can be used to meet specific needs under the other goals.

To improve the Division’s ability to address these goals, WED’s scientists have organized themselves into four multidisciplinary branches, a framework that allows sharper focus on scientific problems than the previous three-branch structure.

ˇ Aquatic Monitoring and Bioassessment Branch scientists will continue to develop the tools for assessing the status and trends in condition of streams, rivers, lakes, wetlands and riparian areas. Their research expertise includes environmental statistics, creating scientifically accurate methods for analyzing surface waters across vast regions or in small areas, and developing criteria and reference conditions for aquatic resources.

ˇ Ecosystem Characterization Branch scientists are doing research that is determining effects of natural and human-caused stress on the structure and function of ecosystems. Their expertise includes determining how complex ecological processes relate to the condition of specific ecosystems, especially over entire watersheds or other large areas, and they study how landscape patterns influence the quality of habitat for wildlife.

ˇ Pacific Coastal Ecology Branch scientists are studying the ecological resources of Pacific Coast estuaries and how stresses such as nutrients, sedimentation, pollution and exotic species affect these resources. They are resolving key scientific questions about coastal ecosystems including individual estuaries and coastal watersheds.

ˇ Terrestrial Ecology Branch scientists are determining the effects of stressors on plants and plant communities. They are working to resolve important scientific questions regarding responses of plant-soil systems to anthropogenic stressors such as chemical pesticides and genetically engineered organisms.

A new director, Dr. Thomas D. Fontaine, assumed leadership of the Division in August (see http://www.nheerl.epa.gov/nheerlnews/2001/current/ fontaine.htm). Having recently served as Director, Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Division, and prior to that, Director, Everglades Systems Research Division, South Florida Water Management District, he brings experience in scientific management that complements WED’s fundamental specialties. Dr. Fontaine replaces Dr. Thomas Murphy who retired two years ago after directing the Corvallis lab for 18 years; after Murphy’s retirement, leadership at WED was provided by acting directors Dr. Peter Beedlow, now WED special assistant to the Director, and Dr. Harold Kibby, now acting chief of the Terrestrial Ecology Branch.

Within each of WED’s four branches, there is in progress a broad array of specific research projects, and some research at WED combines the work of scientists from different branches. The Aquatic Monitoring and Bioassessment Branch is doing a wide variety of research involved with EPA’s Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program (EMAP). One example is the crucial statistical design and analysis for aquatic monitoring. This highly technical work is allowing EPA and states to report on the status of waters as required by the Clean Water Act, and it provides technology transfer to states, EPA regions, tribal governments and EPA’s Office of Water. The research is an example of Goal 8 science.

Research within the Ecosystem Characterization Branch includes complex computer modeling designed to accurately extend specific ecological effects known on small or local scales, or on short time scales, to large areas or lengthy time frames. One example of this work includes predicting the responses of Pacific Northwest forests to stressors, and assessing changes and trends in forest conditions. Another is development of general probabilistic analysis tools for habitat that will predict the functioning of ecosystems. Much of this work also pertains to Goal 8 – core research for sound science.

Located on Yaquina Bay at Newport, Oregon, the Pacific Coastal Ecology Branch conducts research to develop an estuarine food-web model to study changes caused by different nutrient-loading scenarios in Northwest estuaries. Crucial research insupport of the model focuses on understanding the biogeochemistry of seagrass habitats and nutrient cycling of the ubiquitous burrowing shrimp. This research applies to Goal 2, clean water.

The Terrestrial Ecology Branch, known for effects research on plants conducted in experimentally controlled chambers on the WED campus in Corvallis, has broadened its scope to address entire forest ecosystems. Its scientists also are working on methods to test and monitor the effects of new high-toxicity, low-dose pesticides, which cannot be detected in the environment by traditional means. Molecular biology is an important tool that they are employing in this research. This research applies to EPA’s Goal 4, safe communities by preventing pollution and reducing risk.

The study of environmental problems often involves extended periods of observation and experimentation. Salmon restoration is a good example. Salmon life cycles are from two to eight years and scientists need as many as 10 salmon generations to understand how an action, such as halting fishing, may influence salmon runs. However, consumers of research information, such as fisheries managers, or land-management agencies, must enforce laws and regulations in a timely manner; their decisions can’t wait 50 or 100 years. Further, the budgets to support ecological research are on a 2-year cycle, and often intense public concern about specific environmental issues lasts for only a matter of weeks or months, even though the issue may not be resolved. Therefore, research planning at WED means being responsive to public concerns while satisfying the exacting demands required for good science and the time-frames that are relevant to the system being studied.

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