Sometimes, the tiniest transactions can have incredible consequences.

This is especially true of the earth’s ecology, an intricate fabric consisting of billions of organisms interacting with one another and with the planet’s environment.

When ever-changing human habits–driving cars, harvesting lumber, building cities and suburbs–are thrown into the mix, the need to understand ecological change becomes paramount.

For that reason, a nationwide project has been established called NEON (National Ecological Observatory Network). Consisting of researchers from across the country NEON has identified seven “grand challenges” in the environmental sciences that are central to managing the earth in future generations: biodiversity, biogeochemical cycles, climate change, hydroecology, infectious disease, invasive species, and land use.

NEON will be the first national ecological measurement and observation system designed to answer these and other regional- and continental-scale questions on an interdisciplinary basis.

“We have more people working more places than ever. The fact that our people are intimately involved in these big projects brings recognition to the university.” — Jim MacMahon, Ecology Center

“NEON will transform the way we conduct science by enabling the integration of research and education from natural to human systems, and from genomes to the biosphere,” says the project website. Social scientists and educators have joined ecologists and physical scientists in NEON planning and design and will participate as observatory users.

USU researchers are key leaders in the success of NEON, most notably James MacMahon, director of USU’s Ecology Center. “We have a major role to play,” says MacMahon. “NEON will forecast ecological change in the U.S. If the change is undesirable, then hopefully we’ll know what to do about it.”

To create a nationwide system, NEON is attempting to establish a complex network of

sensors and towers across the country to monitor changes in biodiversity, land use and other ecological barometers.

The Ecology Center is the unit that facilitates much of USU’s environmental research. NEON is just one example of scores of USU projects facilitated by the center.

Currently, the Ecology Center is involved in many important projects, including surveying land development in southern Nevada, studying the effect of rangeland fires on Utah wildlife, and developing a method for predicting water quality by examining insect life in streams.

MacMahon and other USU researchers have been contracted by the federal government to assess how to keep suburban sprawl in Las Vegas, Nevada, from overwhelming delicate desert ecosystems. This project, funded by the Bureau of Land Management, focuses on a 15,000-acre plot of land in Nevada, which the USU team will study to determine which areas ought to be conserved and which ones can be sold to developers.

Why send Utah researchers to Nevada? Because of their expertise, and because like the Silver State, Utah is one of the five fastest-growing states in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, so the same issues will likely arise here as growth catches up to that of Nevada’s southern metropolis.

“The same thing is going to happen in Utah, around the St. George area first,” MacMahon says. “In a way, this is practice for St. George. We’re not working there yet, but it’s directly applicable.”

In addition to NEON and the Vegas project, USU researchers are studying the inner workings of our ecosystem, starting with smaller forms of life. Todd Crowl, professor of watershed science, is interensted in the effect of wildfires on native plants and endangered species, an issue that southern and central Utah environments cope with annually. Charles Hawkins, professor of watershed science, leads an aquatic group that’s trying to predict water quality by studying insect communities in streams. Because water is such a critical resource in the arid West, finding a method for detecting water pollution is incredibly important.

Consisting of researchers from across the country, NEON has identified seven “grand challenges” in the environmental sciences that are central to managing the earth in future generations: biodiversity, biogeochemical cycles, climate change, hydroecology, infectious disease, invasive species, and land use.”

Each of the center’s three-score projects are highly relevant in a world where human actions are altering the ecosystem, MacMahon says. Perhaps that’s why the Ecology Center is able to continually expand its influence.

“We have more people working more places than ever,” MacMahon says. “The fact that our people are intimately involved in these big projects brings recognition to the university.”