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National parks are home to some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes in the world: sweeping ranges with gaping gorges, soaring peaks, lush forests, and colorful red rock. Though each national park is unique in its own beauty, they all have one element in common—dirt. The soil in Rocky Mountain, Glacier, and Teton National Parks largely determines the biodiversity of the ecosystems found there. The National Park Service works to maintain the natural beauty that inspired early explorers and thousands of others since then. In order to do this, the ecosystems, which include the soil, must be monitored.

Much of the terrain in Rocky Mountain, Glacier, and Teton National Parks is above the tree line and is considered alpine tundra. These alpine ecosystems have very short growing seasons, and even small alterations in the chemical makeup of the soil can cause drastic changes.

Increases in nitrogen in the soil, which can be caused by intensified air pollution coupled with changes in temperature and precipitation, alter carbon and nitrogen cycles and lead to changes in biodiversity; one plant species takes over another, and certain species die off.

For the last ten years, Helga Van Miegroet, professor in USU’s wildland resources department, and her colleagues have been monitoring carbon and nitrogen levels in the aforementioned national parks to monitor changes occurring in the soil. Their research will help resource management teams monitor these changes and be prepared for their consequences. It’s hard to imagine that dirt can have such a major impact on unique landscapes, but the livelihood of national parks depends on it.