Ground broken for environmental research facility

Author: Carol Bradley

ND-LEEF groundbreaking

Groundbreaking ceremonies were held in June for the Notre Dame Linked Experimental Ecosystem Facility (ND-LEEF), located at St. Patrick’s County Park in St. Joseph County, five miles north of campus.

ND-LEEF will allow University scientists, graduate and undergraduate researchers, visiting scholars and others to study experimental watersheds in a controlled setting.

“It’s a place where we can do cutting-edge research on environmental change,” says Jennifer Tank, biologist and director of ND-LEEF. “We needed something between small-scale experiments in the laboratory and research in the field.”

The facility will be home to two constructed experimental watersheds, each about the length and width of a football field and consisting of an interconnected pond, stream and wetland. The ponds, streams and wetlands can be disconnected from each other, providing maximum flexibility for experimentation.

The site will be restored to the natural prairie ecology, offering the opportunity for terrestrial research as well.

From the beginning, the effort has been a partnership between the University and St. Joseph County Parks, says Tank.

Jennifer Tank

Under the terms of the agreement with the parks administration and parks board, the University will lease 28 acres of undeveloped park land on the east side of Laurel Road, inside the gates of the park. A buffer strip will be maintained between the construction and the road.

ND-LEEF complements the county parks department mission to provide environmental education for school-age students through adults. In addition to an educational kiosk, Notre Dame will provide an on-site program manager who will help local educators develop curricula for schools.

Funding through Notre Dame will cover all building and maintenance costs for the three-season facility. The University expects to invest $1 million in the initial phase of the project, with the county incurring no costs.

Says Evie Kirkwood, county parks director, “The parks department staff is wholly committed to promoting understanding and stewardship of our unique natural and cultural heritage through innovative programs and services.”

ND-LEEF, Kirkwood notes, “gives us an opportunity to expand that work with little or no additional impact on taxpayers or the parks department budget.” The partnership with Notre Dame, she adds, positions the parks department to serve as a model for similar partnerships around the country.

David Lodge

The entire site will be wired with a network of embedded sensors, allowing scientists, students and school groups the opportunity to follow the research online in real time, from anywhere in the world.

In addition to the partnership with the county parks department, ND-LEEF represents a multidisciplinary collaboration between the College of Science, College of Engineering and the School of Architecture.

Construction is expected to be completed by fall 2012, with initial research experiments beginning in 2013. Construction can be followed online via webcam at

ND-LEEF is part of the Notre Dame Environmental Change Initiative (, which conducts policy-oriented research designed to help decision-makers manage environmental challenges.

“St. Patrick’s Park offers scientific opportunities that few sites have in our area—the presence of water, wetlands and dry land conditions in proximity, as they occur in nature,” says David Lodge, biology professor and director of the ND-ECI. “This facility will provide us with a missing research link—a site where scientists can study the interactions between land, water and wetlands as well as indigenous life forms in a natural setting.”