Boise State University

Through Boise State initiative, studying interplay of people and natural world

Boise State graduate student Matt Unitis, right, and a colleague integrate imagery collected remotely with detailed field data to detect invasive wetland plants.
Boise State graduate student Matt Unitis, right, and a colleague integrate imagery collected remotely with detailed field data to detect invasive wetland plants. Provided by Boise State University

Idahoans have a complicated relationship with the environment. Strong opinions on topics from species conservation to agricultural land use have been a defining characteristic of the Gem State for decades.

But as the poet John Donne noted, “No man is an island.” The decisions we make that affect the natural world also have social consequences that ripple through all segments of the population.

It’s this dance between personal and societal well-being that prompted a new area of research at Boise State University. The Human-Environment Systems Initiative recognizes that the great environmental challenges facing the planet require us to understand the interplay between the biophysical world and our societal actions. HES researchers work to answer the fundamental question of how the environment and human societies are interconnected.

Boise State is one of the few institutions in the world that focus explicitly on human-environment systems interactions. While working to understand and solve complex social and scientific questions, faculty also are training a new generation of students to meet the challenges of the next century. And they’re engaging stakeholders to help them identify the best solutions to environmental issues.

One project, a collaboration between Boise State and Idaho State University, focuses on land use change in Idaho, where private lands often function as critical corridors between protected areas for wildlife.

For another project, a team of researchers is identifying the primary drivers and impacts of change in southern Idaho, a region attempting to maintain its identity, while also helping residents understand and accommodate inevitable changes. The population is experiencing rapid growth. As more people move in, the economy is shifting, the demand for water is increasing and the environment is feeling the burden. It’s imperative we find ways to sustainably allocate natural resources while also allowing for managed growth.

In addition, HES faculty researchers Jodi Brandt, Neil Carter, Vicken Hillis and others are working on several projects that reflect the larger scope of the program.

Brandt, a land-use scientist who studies landscape change and its drivers, is surveying supply and demand for local ecosystem services. The project, a collaboration with a researcher at Idaho State University, is an effort to understand how Idaho’s environmental benefits (such as clean water, food production and outdoor recreation) might change as the population expands into agricultural and open spaces. About 500 Treasure Valley residents are being asked to identify which environmental benefits are most important for their well-being. Data will be incorporated into land-use policy and decision-making processes.

Carter, a wildlife conservationist whose work focuses on the coexistence of people and wildlife, is looking at how human-produced light and noise at night are affecting wildlife adjacent to cities. Among the questions: What are the causes of night light? What sounds do communities create? How do these affect the behavior and habitat of animal populations? As suburbs grow and expand, what are our options for reducing the overall anthropogenic impact?

Hillis, an environmental social scientist, examines individual and group decision-making in environmental settings. A current study explains why some groups work together to make sustainable decisions even if the decisions come at the short-term expense of an individual. Examples of policies that highlight this tension between the collective and individual good include those regarding water rights, bike-friendly commuter lanes and wilderness trail usage.

Other projects include efforts to restore large species in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, protect endangered tigers in Nepal, assess the impact of sustainable development policies on Himalayan forests, find cost-effective ways to manage invasive species in the Great Lakes region, understand how children develop environmental values as they grow up, explore how farmers are responding to groundwater restrictions in the eastern Snake River valley, and create better models to predict water availability in the Treasure Valley.

The goal is to understand what people do and why, how they affect the environment, and how the environment in turn affects them. Without hard data, we’re just guessing. The Human-Environment Systems Initiative is committed to providing accurate information that is readily available to allow policymakers to do what’s right for Idaho.

Mark Rudin is vice president for research and economic development at Boise State University, where he oversees the Office of Sponsored Programs, the Office of Research Compliance, and other administrative and technical offices. He writes monthly about scientific discovery and economic development in Idaho and beyond.