What makes the wilderness, you know…wild? Is it the ratio of resident wildlife to humans? Proliferation of flora? A lack of indoor plumbing?
According to top international scientists, one of the biggest differences between wilderness and civilization is the existence of roads. And if we really want to protect our wild places, and the important ecosystems they contain, we’ll stop making it so easy for humans to travel there.
In late March 2014, a group of prominent European scientists chose to celebrate the 2nd International Day of Forests by urging the world to keep wild areas free of roads. ”Scientific reports and satellite imagery have demonstrated road building is a major driver of deforestation from the Amazon to Indonesian and Congo Basin forests,” stated MEP Kriton Arsenis, founder of the RoadFree initiative, adding that 95 percent of forest loss occurs within 50 km of a road. “Keeping our last intact forests free of roads is a cost-efficient way to protect the climate, halt biodiversity loss and keep illegal traffickers at bay,” Arsenis explained in a statement.
As Earth’s human population continues to grow, wilderness areas, even those that should be protected and preserved, will come under increased pressure. Many of these roads–some experts say up to 90 percent–will be constructed in countries with the highest levels of biodiversity, putting our most essential asset at risk.
3 Reasons to Stop Building Roads in Wilderness Areas
1. Roads facilitate logging, mining and energy development – “Intact forests store vast amounts of carbon, most of which is contained in large, old trees. Keeping these forests intact and free of roads not only prevents dangerous carbon dioxide emissions, it also preserves the homes and livelihoods of tens of millions of indigenous peoples around the world, and helps them adapt to a rapidly changing climate,” said Dr. Sean Foley, Chairman of The Samdhana Institute.
2. Roads discourage actual interaction with nature – When I lived in Tennessee, one of the most popular destinations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park–Cades Cove–was only a 30 minute drive away. But once inside the park, people rarely got out of their cars. Why? Because someone built the Cades Cove Loop, an 11-mile, one-way loop road that circles the cove, offering motorists the opportunity to “sightsee at a leisurely pace” and without actually setting foot on the ground. Boooring.
3. Roads invite invasive species – When you carve a road into an otherwise undisturbed area, it becomes an artery for foreign entities. ”Roads disturb the soil, open the forest canopy and allow more light to reach the ground,” explains Todd Hawbaker, a graduate student at University of Wisconsin-Madison who studied the impact of forest roads on the ecosystem. “These conditions allow invasive weeds to take hold and displace native plant life.” Generally the only question is how long it will take for invasive species to colonize a new road, he added.
Want to learn more about the impact of roads on forest ecosystems and join the fight to keep more wilderness areas road free? Watch the video below and check out the work of RoadFree.org.
Lead image via Johan Larsson, forest images via Thinkstock