Skip navigation Wilderness: Roads to Ruin?


1. Road rage

2. Pavement or depravement?

3. Spreading like weeds

4. Amphibian perambulations

5. Down the corridor

To haul this much timber, you need a substantial road. Ecologists are now focusing on the long-term impacts of these and other roads. Photo of logging truck: Department of Energy
  On the right road?
A logging truck lumbers down a forest road.As one of its final acts, the Clinton Administration put a lock around 58.5 million acres of untrammeled national forests. After 600 public hearings by the U.S. Forest Service, the Roadless Area Conservation Rule banned roads and other development in the most inaccessible parts of the forests.

That rule is under severe strain:

On June 10, the federal government settled a State of Alaska lawsuit, and agreed not to apply the roadless rule to Alaska's giant Tongass National Forest. The agreement may lead to logging on 300,000 acres of the largest temperate rain forest in North America.

On July 14, a Wyoming federal court blocked the roadless rule nationwide, calling it a "thinly veiled attempt to designate 'wilderness areas.'" (see "Administration to Exempt..." in the bibliography.)

On July 15, as part of the June settlement, the administration proposed a ruling that would formally exempt the Tongass from the roadless rule.

Why focus on roads, instead of wilderness? For one thing, wilderness is tough to define now that the entire planet gets some human impact. For another, the two "have always been on parallel terms," says Donald Waller, a professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He points out that the 1964 Wilderness Act, which established national-forest wilderness areas, "had a roadless area review."

Tall trees line a wide, muddy, shady dirt road.
Logging roads are not exactly footpaths. This road is on private land near a Wisconsin national forest. Photo: David J. Zaber

Roads are also, Waller adds, "a surrogate for how intensive the management is. If there are no roads, we don't manage the area intensively." Translated: Without roads, it's almost certain there is no mining, no logging, no drilling for oil or gas.

In broad terms, roads affect their surroundings by:

Interrupting migration corridors

Killing wildlife through vehicle impacts

Blocking movement of surface water.

Compacting soil, harming burrowing animals and changing groundwater flow.

Causing air pollution and traffic noise.

Allowing entry of invasive species

Opening forests to light and wind (see "Conservation Biology..." in the bibliography).

A recent estimate by Harvard landscape ecologist Richard Forman summed up these effects and found that while 1 percent of the lower 48 states is covered by roads, they affect about 20 percent of the landscape.

Just another land grab?
Interestingly, while Clinton's roadless rule was sometimes seen as a land grab, the same accusation was lodged against the Republican president who started the national forest system almost a century ago. In 1908, wrote one biographer of Theodore Roosevelt, "Americans began to be aware of the extent to which [Roosevelt], often by stealth over the past six years, had used his powers ... to set aside an extraordinary large and varied swath of the national commons." Roosevelt had doubled the size of the national parks, set aside the Grand Canyon and 15 other national monuments, and declared 13 new national forests, Morris wrote. (See p. 519, "Theodore Rex..." in the bibliography.)

At any rate, environmentalists were furious at the Forest Service announcement, by Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey, a former timber-industry lobbyist, that Tongass National Forest would lose roadless-rule protection.

The decision is "bad policy, but it produces short-term gain for powerful political entities," says David Zaber, formerly director of science at the environmental organization Defenders of Wildlife.

A pile of logs rests near a new forest road.
This "road" is to be used for logging in the upcoming Northwest Howell timber sale in Chequemegon-Nicolet National Forest. Many of these poor-quality roads are grown-over. Photo: Courtesy David J. Zaber

Roadless rule detour?
The effort to build roads and "open up the forest" ignores the fact that national forests typically spend more on road-building than they earn on timber sales, Zaber says. The national forests now have 380,000 miles of roads, many in badly deteriorated condition.

In announcing the exemption for Tongass, the Forest Service said that it was "retaining" the roadless area conservation rule.

We asked Forest Service media representative Joe Walsh to help us clarify how the service was "retaining" the roadless rule by undermining it. He promised to find us an interview, but did not.

However, he did send direct us to a press release in which the Service invited roadless-rule exceptions for:

"Protecting human health and safety,

reducing hazardous fuels and restoring essential wildlife habitats,

maintaining existing facilities such as dams, or to provide reasonable access to private property or privately owned facilities,

and making technical corrections such as boundary adjustments to remove existing roaded areas."

To Michael Dombeck, who directed the forest service while the roadless rule was written, the backing-off on roadless conservation is, "a chipping away, acre by acre, at the last remaining wild places."

Still, Dombeck, a professor of global environmental management at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, says that outside of Alaska, the change may not trigger immediate action. "Because they are backpedaling on the rule does not mean the bulldozers are waiting to crank up." The best areas have already been logged, he says, so "There will be some roading, but not much, aside from Alaska."

Alaska houses the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest (the largest in the United States), which could see major increases in road building and logging.

That, of course, is exactly what the national forests were designed for, say those who argue that local economies depend on a steady supply of logs from national forests. But many critics say that an over-emphasis on timber production flouts the "multiple-use" goal, under which the national forests are supposed to do more than simply supply logs.

Few trees remain in a denuded landscape.
A clearcut, like this one in Minnesota, is never pretty. But the roads built to haul out the logs may be more damaging in the long run. Photo: Courtesy David J. Zaber

Instead of getting further ensnared in the political and economic disputes about roads and logging in National Forests, we'll take a different route. Roads, after all, are a major cause of habitat fragmentation -- the subdivision of the landscape into ever-smaller pieces. Scientists already know that the greater genetic diversity and larger populations found on larger patches of habitat improve the chance for survival.

In this Why File, we'll look at a scientific study of road impacts, at one effect of forest fragmentation, and at an effort to reunite the landscape with "habitat corridors."

First: Do roads bring weeds into forests?

The Why Files

There are 1 2 3 4 5 pages in this feature.
Bibliography | Credits | Feedback | Search

©2003, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.