CORVALLIS - Oregon State University has formed a new Institute for Natural Resources that will give the state an opportunity that's never before existed to effectively analyze, research and resolve some of Oregon's most difficult and controversial environmental issues.

The institute is one outcome of the Oregon Sustainability Act of 2001 recently signed into law.

For the first time ever, officials say, anyone wrestling with a natural resource issue - from a federal agency to a concerned citizen - will have an ally that can coordinate research, organize data, and propose policy options. Solutions will be based on the latest science and take the multiple needs of the environment, economy and local communities into consideration.

Clients of the institute will be able - at a single site - to ask questions, request information, propose studies, learn about natural resources and environmental conditions across the state, and gain help in developing opinions or policy proposals. Those same citizens will be deeply involved in the work and participate in development of the solutions.

"The institute will bridge a big gap in Oregon's ability to make sound natural resource policy decisions," said Oregon State Rep. Susan Morgan. "Presently, it is an impossible task to look down through all the available data layers and see what is known, or not known, about a specific region or subject. The legislative vision for the institute is to be a trustworthy and technologically capable repository for all of our natural resource related data."

Under the umbrella of the new legislation, the new institute will become a focal place for answering the tough questions and providing data, research, policy options and public communication on issues ranging from salmon recovery to forest management, agriculture, endangered species, the use of biotechnology, rangeland, coastal and marine issues.

"We believe this institute will become the turning point in Oregon's pursuit of a sustainable environment and natural resource base," said Hal Salwasser, dean of the College of Forestry at OSU and one of the leaders in organizing the new initiative. "The time has come to address all of the needs facing the state, look at the big picture and find solutions that help both our environment and our people."

OSU President Paul Risser, a strong advocate of the new center, said that only OSU has the range of international experts and reputation of scientific credibility to successfully tackle these issues.

"OSU has an incredibly diverse research faculty with expertise on everything from forestry to oceanography, agriculture, habitat protection, fisheries, soils and climate change," Risser said. "Oregonians will now have someone they trust and somewhere to turn for credible, scientific options to deal with the challenging issues we face. We'll find the answers this state so badly needs."

OSU is already heavily involved in many areas that will be a key to success of the new center. Extensive databases and sophisticated data management systems for natural resource and other issues have been set up by its ecological researchers and computer scientists.

The university leads the state in research on forestry, agriculture, marine resource management, fisheries, soil and habitat protection, and many other key areas. And OSU's Extension Service stands ready to contribute expertise from across the state and communicate findings.

Right now, officials say, about two dozen state and federal agencies - not to mention numerous local and tribal jurisdictions - carry some responsibility for research, regulation and policy making on environmental and natural resource issues. Many of these agencies have staffing or expertise to consider part of every problem - virtually none of them can address the whole picture.

"The challenge is to meet people's needs and expectations for a healthy environment, vital economies and livable communities," Salwasser said. "And we have to do this while dealing with rapid population growth, the forces of a global economy and increasing public concerns about environmental quality and protection. No institution in the state other than OSU can tap into the expertise necessary to consider all of those important, and sometimes competing objectives."

The new institute will be based and housed at OSU, and a national search is already under way for a permanent director. It will collaborate as necessary with other institutions and agencies around Oregon. At first it will operate on a very basic staffing level and later expand to include permanent scientists with expertise in appropriate areas.

Most of the work, Salwasser said, will be done on a project and contractual basis that could eventually entail millions of dollars of projects per year. Start-up funding of $145,000 for the first fiscal year will be provided by the OSU Research Office and 12 collaborating OSU colleges or programs, and the institute's goal is to become self-supporting within five years.

As designed, the new institute will include a research office, policy office and information office to accomplish such tasks as data acquisition, original studies, development of policy options, linking of databases, synthesis of information and communication of findings. Citizen participation in development of policy options will be encouraged. Customers could be anyone from a state agency to tribal government, natural resource industry, environmental group or involved citizen. The institute will also have an executive board of directors, an interdisciplinary scientific and scholarly advisory board, a stakeholder advisory board, and, as needed, ad hoc working groups.

Various state agencies have already inquired about projects, Salwasser said, affecting recreation, forestry, salmon research plans and other topics. The institute should be operational by this fall.

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Hal Salwasser, 541-737-1585