ND to grow $1 million LEEF at park

Author: Erin Blasko, South Bend Tribune

ND to grow $1 million LEEF at park

Research site at St. Pat's part of Environmental Change Initiative.

February 15, 2012|ERIN BLASKO | South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- The University of Notre Dame will construct a cutting-edge experimental research and education facility at St. Patrick's County Park under a lease agreement approved Tuesday by the parks board.

Under the terms of the agreement, the university will pay $1 a year to the parks department to lease 28 acres of undeveloped land on the east side of Laurel Road for a period of 49 years.

Work on the $1 million facility will begin no later than June, Tony Polotto, senior project manager in the university's architectural office, said Tuesday, and conclude in the fall.

"That said, there probably won't be a significant amount of experiments this summer," Polotto said. "But next spring ... we'll be ready to roll."

A part of the university's Environmental Change Initiative, the Notre Dame Linked Experimental Ecosystem Facility, or ND LEEF, will allow scientists and researchers to study the interrelationships between land, water and wetland ecologies in the face of environmental change, according to a press release.

The facility, for which the university will cover all building and maintenance costs over the life of the lease, will consist of a series of linked streams, ponds and wetlands, as well as a small service building and adjacent reservoir.

It will be the only one of its kind, Polotto said.

"Here we have an opportunity no one else has to link up separate ecosystems -- stream to pond to wetland -- in a controlled setting but out in the natural environment," Jennifer Tank, a Notre Dame biology professor and director of ND LEEF, said Tuesday.

"It provides us with (artificial ecosystems) that are much more realistic than what we can create in a lab or aquarium, but it's also much more manageable than a real pond or a real stream or a real river," David Lodge, a Notre Dame biology professor and director of the Environmental Change Initiative, added.

In the works now for about three years, the project represents a "true partnership," said Tim Sexton, Notre Dame's vice president of public affairs, in that it advances the missions of both the university and parks department in terms of environmental research and education.

"There's an opportunity for shared education programs, so that park visitors can take advantage of the facility in terms of learning activities," parks director Evie Kirkwood said, adding, "The opportunities for cooperative learning are pretty exciting."

At the same time, Kirkwood said, the parks department will "gain proximity" to new utilities, including high-speed Internet, at the research facility.

Furthermore, cutting-edge sensor technology will be used to monitor experiments at the facility in real-time, Tank said, allowing local students and community members to participate as virtual researchers through the Internet.

Regarding the specific kinds of experiments the university plans to conduct at the facility, that has yet to be determined, Tank said. As an example, however, a researcher might introduce an organism into one of the linked ecosystems and then observe its impact on water quality, she said.

The site proposed for the facility is part of a 144-acre tract of farmland purchased by the parks department back in 1999. It represents less than 1 percent of the park's 398 total acres, which hug the east bank of the St. Joseph River north of Auten Road.

Notre Dame chose the site, Lodge said, based on its unique character and proximity to campus.

"St. Patrick's County Park offers scientific opportunities that few sites have in our area -- the presence of water, wetlands and dry land conditions in proximity, as they occur in nature," he said in a news release issued as part of Tuesday's parks board meeting.

"This facility will provide us with a missing research link -- a site where scientists can study interactions between land, water and wetlands as well as indigenous life-forms in a natural setting."

Staff writer Erin Blasko: 574-235-6187