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A 5-year study will peer inside how natural and manmade forces are affecting Idaho’s growth

Idaho’s population centers are growing.

Between 2000 and 2009, Idaho ranked fifth among the fastest growing states. Two-thirds of that population growth occurred in the Boise/Treasure Valley area, Coeur d’Alene/Post Falls area and in Idaho Falls, Pocatello and surrounding communities, reports Nate Sunderland of The (Idaho Falls) Post Register.

Mapping how cities grow and use surrounding natural resources is an increasingly important goal in Idaho, state researchers said.

As a result, Idaho universities are taking a closer look at future planning and how humans affect surrounding landscapes in a massive five-year research project.

“One of the challenges we are facing in the near future is trying to predict how decisions made by … cities undergoing rapid change … will impact the natural (resources) we rely on … such as agriculture, soil composition and natural water storage,” Idaho State University Associate Professor Kathleen Lohse said.

The project will bring together scientists from across several disciplines in hopes of helping stakeholders plan future growth while preserving much of the area’s character.

The corridor between Idaho Falls and Pocatello is a key research area in the study, which incorporates research teams from each of Idaho’s public universities.

The National Science Foundation is paying for the study. It awarded a $20 million grant to Idaho’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. The statewide academic cooperative includes the University of Idaho, Boise State University, Idaho State University and other state two-year institutions.

The grant is the largest the cooperative has received.

Local researchers will focus on the expansion of sewer systems, increased risk of wildfire caused by urban growth and the trade-offs between urban growth and lost agricultural land.

The study is significantly different from past investigations, Lohse said. While previous studies looked at how the natural world works, none incorporated human decision-making.

“A major benefit … will be improved public understanding of ecosystems and their public benefits,” Project Director Peter Goodwin said in a news release. “A greater ability to provide (scientific) information to support policy and management decisions will help protect … (Idaho’s ecosystems) and improve quality of life.”

The hope is that once complete, the research data will be used by local governments, farmers and land developers to plan urban growth.

Data are collected by interdisciplinary research teams that combine the skills of natural scientists, such as geographers and ecologists, with social scientists, such as sociologists and economists.

Natural phenomena will be studied using Graphic Information Systems techniques alongside studies of human birth trends, economic drivers and human values.

“What are the perceptions of change for people in Idaho Falls? What are their long-term values and how will they react in different scenarios?” Lohse said. “We want to identify (areas of) critical vulnerability at risk of climate change and the trade-offs (caused by) urban … growth.”

The grant is a significant financial boon to Idaho’s universities. It will support the addition of 11 new full-time faculty members at Idaho’s three major universities, including three at ISU.

The grant also will benefit some 150 undergraduate students statewide. The project will pay for dozens of student research projects and internships with an emphasis on recruiting science, technology, engineering and mathematics students.

“This will engage a lot of undergraduates in authentic research in Idaho,” Lohse said.

College faculty and undergraduates also will work with journalists and high school teachers and students on specific place-based research and education studies.

“This is a milestone for Idaho, as it allows our best scientists to address complex ecosystems and (identify ways) to sustain our valuable natural resources,” said Howard Grimes, ISU vice president for research and economic development.

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