Fermilab: where physics meets ecology

Birdwatching is one of the many nature activities people enjoy on Fermilab grounds. Photo: Reidar Hahn

Fermilab is a unique federal facility, not only because of its mission to explore the most basic properties of the universe, but because our 6,800 acre campus is open and accessible for the public to enjoy the site’s many natural areas by walking, biking, birdwatching or photographing nature.

The Fermilab grounds are a green island in a region of intense development. The lab has areas of tallgrass prairie, woodlands and wetlands as well as civil construction and row crop agriculture. The site sits astride three watersheds, feeding the DuPage and Fox rivers. It is really a microcosm of the northern Illinois landscape.

There are many opportunities to experience nature, whether out of scientific curiosity or aesthetic appreciation. The Fermilab Roads and Grounds Department and the not-for-profit group Fermilab Natural Areas use prescribed fire, mowing, harvesting and replanting native plant seeds, and management of invasive plants to restore functioning ecological systems. These efforts have resulted in a rich ecosystem, with multiple communities of plants and animals available to the public and to lab employees to observe and study.

Many have taken advantage of these opportunities. There is a detailed record of bird sightings beginning in 1985 and documenting over 280 species of birds using the site. More recently added, a butterfly Web page documents over 50 species of butterflies and moths. Stewards affiliated with FNA are currently monitoring and studying dragonflies, amphibians and snakes. The Education Department also maintains a website for kids to identify plants.

All that said, there are limits to what the visitor can expect. Fermilab is not a manicured site. The Roads and Grounds Department maintains the site with limited resources, so providing a site that is perfectly groomed is not feasible. Mowing schedules are limited, and in many cases are actually designed to protect wildlife. For example, many open fields are not mowed until after ground-nesting birds have finished their nesting season. Unlike many parks and forest preserves, we don’t typically provide outdoor facilities like resting benches and restrooms.

Some inconvenience is inherent in natural areas. Mosquitoes, poison ivy, ticks, tall vegetation and the occasional coyote should really be considered as part of the experience. Visitors can enjoy and appreciate many aspects of nature, including some that may not be immediately perceived as positive!

Rod Walton