ISU historians, political scientists participate in effort to understand benefits of Portneuf River Watershed and help form management decisions

Idaho State University social scientists are involved in a statewide study devoted to finding practical solutions to some of Idaho’s most important environmental challenges, including locally managing the Portneuf River watershed.

The scope of the National Science Foundation’s Managing Idaho’s Landscapes for Ecosystems Services (MILES) grant is huge – it encompasses large regions of the entire state and includes researchers from a variety of academic disciplines from ISU, Boise State University and the University of Idaho.

“As we face increasing challenges to our natural resources, it is imperative to understand both the science of our ecological systems and their societal impact,” said Howard Grimes, ISU vice president for research and economic development. “Our strategy is to engage stakeholders in a process we can envision as the democratization of science so that robust, informed policy decisions can be made.”

The five-year, $20 million grant is funded by the NSF’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). Its stated goal is to “advance the understanding of feedback between social and ecological systems and ecosystem services in mid-sized cities in the face of climate change and urban growth.”

Ecological and geological experts for the state’s public institutions are involved, but important roles in the study are being carried out by social scientists, including ISU history Professor Kevin Marsh and ISU political science Associate ProfessorKevin Marsh and Donna Lybecker. The focus of their work is on the ecological services – the supporting, cultural, production and regulating benefits – that the Portneuf River watershed provides to Southeast Idaho residents.

Marsh is studying the historical uses and flood patterns of the river, while Lybecker is surveying current users.
Lybecker, along with Mark McBeth and Jim Stoutenborough from political science and Katrina Running from sociology, is in the process of completing a stakeholders survey of people who have a direct interest in the Portneuf River and will complete a public survey this fall.

She and her colleagues are collecting information on what stakeholders value, how people view the connections between themselves and the river, and attitudes toward river management, Lybecker said.
“We want to educate the public and all Portneuf River stakeholders and to provide connections among the groups so individuals in Southeast Idaho can understand other peoples’ views,” Lybecker said. “We want to work together to help develop management practices that will benefit both people and the ecosystem. I think different groups are working towards the same goal but want to highlight or emphasize different elements. We hope our work will make connections among these groups.”

For his part, Marsh so far has focused his efforts on the historical uses, flooding history and management practices of the Portneuf River, particularly since World War II.

“Our goals are to review the options people faced, the management decisions they made, and the implications those decisions had on the past, current and future management of the river,” Marsh said. “One focus area is the interaction between federal agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers and local government.”

Both Lybecker and Marsh have received additional funding from the MILES project for the next fiscal year to expand the scope of their specific research, implementing it in the Treasure Valley and in the Coeur d’Alene area with researchers from BSU and UI.

“The MILES project is designed to be a public discussion and not an arcane research project,” Marsh said. “It consists of a lot of surveys and interactive elements. My scope is to conduct and oversee research and historical records in managing these ecosystems and to collaborate with others and integrate our findings into a whole variety of useful products.”

One sociology, two history and three political science faculty members, a post-doctoral student, and a number of graduate and undergraduate students in the College of Arts and Letters are assisting Lybecker and Marsh.

“The students are getting extraordinary research opportunities,” Marsh said. “Undergraduate and graduate students are being integrated into the research projects and are playing a huge role.”

The ultimate goal of all this collaboration is to create new knowledge about ecosystem services and establish the infrastructure to provide science-based decision support to the public and decision makers that is needed to sustainably manage Idaho’s resources.

For more on the project, visit