In 1989, Fermilab was designated a National Environmental Research Park. There are currently six such research parks across the nation (in South Carolina, Washington, Idaho, New Mexico, Tennessee and Illinois). These parks have been established over the years by the Department of Energy in partial response to the National Environmental Policy Act. They can be thought of as protected outdoor laboratories for studying some of the complex and poorly understood ecological issues that confront humanity. Qualified investigators from universities, environmental organizations, or the private sector are encouraged to submit research proposals.
Fermilab is considered unique among the research parks because the site contains most of the major types of ecosystems representative of the midwest. These include tall grass prairie, oak savanna, agricultural fields, woodlands, grasslands, and wetlands. Studies can take advantage of the contrasting natural habitat at Fermilab and the nearby metropolitan area of Chicago. Because Fermilab contains no weapons and carries out no classified research, site access for NERP participants is far simpler than at other Department of Energy research parks.