Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory

Global Environmental Sustainability Program

Mission: Provide feasible strategies to maintain or improve quality of life (access to clean water and air, adequate food and fiber, reduce risks from harmful invasive species and infectious diseases, and maintenance of soil fertility) while reducing human disruption of natural processes.

Goal(s): The overarching objective is to provide a framework by which the disparate research, monitoring, assessment, and decision support activities dealing with societal impacts on our natural resources can be better integrated (see core questions of Kates et al. 2001). The operational objectives are:

  • Develop an integrated understanding of the coupled human environment system under various physical, societal, and ecological conditions.
  • Assess the linkage between society and ecosystems in how the provision of goods and services are jointly affected.
  • Evaluate the factors affecting the vulnerability of different coupled human environmental systems.
  • Evaluate various pathways toward sustainability based on science related to ecosystem goods and services and societal objectives.
  • Develop interdisciplinary graduate courses and training workshops for preparation of new generation of researchers, educators, managers, and decision makers.

Why is it an important area of research?

Our research efforts have been successful in the analysis of specific regional case studies to evaluate the coupled system interactions across a gradient of social (e.g., rich to poor, industrial to traditional) and ecosystem complexity (e.g., low diversity to high diversity, low productivity to high productivity). These sets of case studies, spanning from the less severely impacted to highly modified urban settings, provide information to base a global synthesis of sustainability strategies based on environmental and societal characteristics around the world. Analysis of a set of specific ecosystem goods and services can be carried out in order to allow a cross-regional study of manner in which these goods and services are affected by social and environmental factors. These include water resources, soil fertility, conservation of targeted species, improve capabilities in ecological forecasting of harmful invasive species and infectious diseases of plants and wildlife, and food security.

What types of activities, tools, or people are needed to reach the goals or to enhance it further? What will it (this NREL area/cluster) do?

  • Integrated Assessment of the Coupled Human-environment system: local to global based on local knowledge scaled to regional and global scales.
  • Build an analytical framework to link the models we use to look at ecosystem services and the environment, to look at how society uses the resources, and conduct scenario analyses. Start at a local scale, and build-up to a global scale.
  • Develop agent based model with a fixed parameter set, go to the web, and a parameter file leading up to an integrated assessment.
  • Information and data base development

We will facilitate development of research activities to study global environmental sustainability and the development of an integrated analytical framework of the coupled human-environment system. The application of this integrated analytical system will be location specific or “place-based,” but be a general construct that can be used to generate global patterns of resource use and status of the quality of life. Conduct a set of case study analyses within a common analytical framework through meta analysis. Conduct modeling studies and other synthesis analysis of cross-regional or sectoral analysis factors affecting ecosystem services and the feedback on decision making processes. Provide workshops on the integrated analytical framework, develop the data bases, and assess the results. Stakeholder meetings will be held to further refine the information content and delivery system to various end-users. Conduct integrated analysis of situations in Colorado, Africa, Asia and other places where adequate information is available. Mapping, monitoring, and ecological forecasting is essential to evaluating sustainability from local to global scales. These research activities will include system models of ecosystem dynamics, agent-based models of land and resource use, economics, and include interfaces to evaluate policy impacts, institutional feedbacks, technological accessibility and economic factors.


  • Identify vulnerabilities of ecosystem services, improved regions, and trade-offs in use of various ecosystem services
  • Evaluate various coping strategies dealing with global change
  • Adaptive strategies for sustaining of the coupled human-environmental systems

How does it relate to NREL research strengths?

NREL has a strong record of coupled human-environment research and this research focus builds on the success and the continued need to refine our scientific understanding of the interconnection of human-environment connections. We have been involved in global change science for many years and continue to be leaders in this area of research development. These studies can be bolstered with greater interaction with policy, economics, engineering, and cultural sciences.

Who is involved at NESB (number and names of Ph.D's/ PIs) as a core group?

Dennis Ojima, Jill Baron, Kathy Galvin, Diana Wall, David Theobold, Richard Conant, Randy Boone, David Swift, Michael Coughenour, Keith Paustain, Tom Hobbs, Bill Parton, Tom Stohlgren, Mohammed Kalkhan, Geneva Chong, Sunil Kumar.