CORVALLIS - The Institute for Natural Resources at Oregon State University is now beginning a phase of rapid expansion in its effort to provide "one stop shopping" for information, assistance, research and scientific expertise that can help address some of Oregon's toughest environmental issues.

This agency, created as one part of the Oregon Sustainability Act of 2001, is now conducting some of its first studies, has a new advisory board set to begin work, is developing funding sources and a strategic plan, coordinating scientific research efforts, and looking towards a busy and useful future.

It was created to give state agencies, policy makers, land managers and citizens one place where they could go to get objective information, propose studies, explore policy options, or learn about the latest scientific findings on issues ranging from forest management to watersheds, soils, fisheries, endangered species, climate change and other topics.

"The institute is up and running, we're already doing some interesting work and we're ready to help the people of Oregon deal with some critical issues," said Gail Achterman, the new director of the program who began work last year. "In a simple sense, we're a service organization. An agency, an interest group, a company can come to us, and we'll help them get whatever they need, whether it's just some existing information or a major new research study."

The institute is designed to be mostly self supporting, and hopes to achieve a research and operational budget of $4 million by 2006-07.

Right now, Achterman said, the group is helping the Tillamook and Clatsop State Forests review their salmon habitat strategy, and is providing technical support for an Oregon Department of Forestry review of wildland fire management. It's working with OSU's Valley Library, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and other partners in the Willamette Basin Conservation Project to build two web portals that will enable citizens to access information on Oregon watersheds and use it effectively in their own restoration projects. It's helping the governor's office and the legislature evaluate gravel mining needs and permitting challenges, and working on salmon and watershed restoration in the Walla Walla Basin.

But the current activities, Achterman said, are tiny compared to the services the institute may be involved with in a few years.

"We've developed a list of 70-80 potential projects, such as ways to promote business and economic development in an environmentally sensitive way, or do a better job of environmental restoration without a lot of new government regulations," Achterman said. "There is no lack of problems, resource needs, or potential areas of cooperation among different groups. Our job is to bring the right people together and start making some progress."

According to Achterman, the institute will often serve as a go-between, helping to identify problems, potential funding sources and the scientific or professional expertise that could help tackle the issues. They will develop a comprehensive information system that could make such things as environmental impact statements dramatically less expensive to produce. And in many cases, they will help bring to the table the diverse resources of OSU and other state universities.

"We've talked to a lot of people in Portland, our legislature and in state agencies," Achterman said, "and I've been stunned by how few of them understand what OSU and the other state universities can do to help solve their problems. With our huge faculty base, there's a lot we can do to bring people together and become a catalyst for solving problems."

When Achterman says she hopes to bring people together, she means it literally. One of the mechanisms on tap to identify problems and needs is a series of monthly dinner meetings in Portland, to which people from diverse groups but with similar interests will be invited.

"Our first dinner, for instance, discussed climate change issues," Achterman said. "We invited the OSU dean of oceanic and atmospheric sciences, the governor's assistant in the area of climate change, the head of the Oregon Department of Energy, representatives from utilities, a venture capitalist and state legislators."

Such conversations, Achterman said, should provoke multiple ideas about the problems facing the state, some possible solutions, some areas that need further study, and even some groups or organizations that might be able to fund needed work. The ultimate goal, she said, is to identify the state's problems and then bring together the people, resources or information best able to solve them.

Part of the current problem, officials say, is that the information or expertise which could be useful in tackling environmental issues is often scattered in numerous university labs or state or federal agencies. The Institute for Natural Resources hopes to consolidate much of that information, help fill in the blanks with new research if needed, and give policy makers and the people of Oregon a solid scientific foundation for addressing environmental resource controversies.

The institute will have both a Research Program and a Policy Program to explore issues and then suggest the relative strengths and weaknesses of different policy options. The Information Program will house and make available data and analytical tools to help with these tasks.

OSU President Ed Ray will address the first meeting of the institute's new advisory board in early July. One of the first goals of that group, Achterman said, will be finalizing the institute's draft strategic plan.

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Gail Achterman, 503-725-3099