Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory

History of the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory

Although the ecosystem concept was first explicitly sketched in 1935, the International Biological Program (IBP) (1968-1974) propelled ecosystem ecology into the mainstream of ecological science. As a key research center in the IBP, the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory (NREL) at Colorado State University was a major contributor to this exciting developmental phase of ecosystem science. Since 1969, NREL has contributed to the present status of ecosystem science as a discipline accepted by other scientists, and used by managers and policy makers around the world.

Situated at the edge of the foothills that mark the boundary between the Rocky Mountains and the rangelands and croplands of the Great Plains, NREL was established in 1967 to administer the multidisciplinary Grassland Biome Study of the International Biological Program (IBP).

George Van Dyne, the first NREL director (1970-1973) established a tradition of rigorous research based on the then emerging field of systems ecology. Van Dyne recognized the importance of bringing together researchers with diverse knowledge to work in interdisciplinary teams in order to address the ecosystem-level problems facing managers of natural resources. Ecologists traditionally studied individual organisms and their interactions with each other and with their environment. Early studies of simple ecosystems at NREL instead focused on the flux of energy and materials among components of systems rather than on the components themselves. This approach to ecosystem research was adopted by many centers around the world during the International Biological Program.

James H. Gibson, director from 1973-1984, came to NREL as an atmospheric chemist. Gibson was instrumental in obtaining substantial funding for construction of the Natural and Environmental Sciences building where NREL is housed. Gibson also developed and led the United States national precipitation monitoring network for the National Atmospheric Deposition Program from 1978-1982, and established the ongoing UVB Monitoring Program.

The third director, Robert G. Woodmansee (1984-1992), integrated landscape ecology and regional analysis into ecosystem research at NREL. During his tenure Woodmansee served as the Director of Ecosystem Studies at the National Science Foundation and paved the way for global change research. Woodmansee emphasized that humans are a part of ecosystems and need to be considered in the context of ecosystem research.

Diana H. Wall, director from 1992-2006, vision for NREL continues to be a model for the diverse roles that an ecosystem research center plays in today's world. The importance of making ecological knowledge more accessible to citizens and decision-makers at all levels of government. Americans depend upon ecological knowledge to manage our natural resources, protect human health and to prevent small problems from becoming large, expensive problems. To solve the increasingly complex environmental problems will require scientists who work to integrate their knowledge from the natural, physical and social sciences, with practitioners.  After leaving the directorship of the NREL, Diana became the founding director of the School of Global Environmental Sustainability (SOGES) at CSU.  She recently received the Tyler Prize for environmental achievement, the premier award in environmental science and environmental health.  

John C. Moore has been director of the NREL from 2006 to the present.  John is an NREL product himself, having received his Ph.D. degree from CSU in 1986 under the tutelage of Doctor David C. Coleman – a long time and very influential member of the scientific staff of the laboratory.  John’s scientific interests center around soil ecology, the ecology of food webs and the teaching of science to younger students.  His interest in science education has resulted in numerous programs linking NREL scientists and graduate students to the K-12 public school systems in the local area.  He has also been instrumental in the creation of the new department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability in the Warner College of Natural Resources at CSU.

NREL began in 1968 as a world leader in grassland research. Over three decades, the scope of research at NREL has expanded to include projects on every continent and topics ranging from the soil microbial dynamics associated with the grazing of bison to global-scale studies of climate change and its impact on the terrestrial carbon cycle. Despite the diversity of study sites, scales and topics, however, the ecosystems approach to research questions runs as a common thread throughout our work.  Since about 1980, NREL scientists have been leaders in incorporating humans as components of the ecosystems under study; developing strong linkages between the natural and social sciences and aiding in the understanding of the numerous interactions between human and natural systems.

NREL scientists have been pioneers in linking ecosystem theory, experimentation, field measurements and computer modeling. In particular, NREL has emphasized the use of systems analysis and computer modeling to reduce ecosystem complexity to a manageable level. CENTURY, one of the first and most widely used ecosystem models in the world, was developed at NREL.

NREL's research efforts are leading to integrated assessments linking ecosystem studies to socioeconomic concerns to form an expanded basis for environmental management and policy development. NREL science is also at work at the global level to understand the consequences of modifying the chemistry of the atmosphere and mitigation strategies to overcome potential problems.

Clear understanding of the complex interactions that characterize whole ecosystems is required if we are to devise management strategies for the conservation and use of natural resources that will assure the long-term viability of the biosphere.