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    To Save Nature, We Need to Build Better Roads

    Written by

    Michael Byrne


    It is very difficult to be "nowhere" in the United States. Some of the most nowhere places I can think of are in southern Utah, the vast sandstone labyrinths of the Maze or the no-man's land of Beef Basin, and even out there, you're still rarely more than 10 or 15 miles from a road and even less from cell phone reception. Sure, it feels far, but the ranchers, miners, loggers, and tourists of the world have found reasons to blaze a path for four-wheels into most anywhere you can think of. In fact, the farthest one can be from a road in the U.S. is a mere 22 miles, in one corner of Yellowstone National Park. This should be a depressing fact; we've run out of places to run to.

    Roads are bad for the environment too, of course, at least as they've been realized in most of the world. Which is chaos. We build a road to a new place along the quickest allowable path whenever an immediate need presents itself. So we have road chaos, roads laid upon the ruins of older, slower roads, carving even more direct routes through mountains, forests, and, even cities of America. And roads beget more roads, naturally. A road is still the ultimate conquering of landscape. Over the weekend, I even visited a monument to a road, the Hole-in-the-Rock route Mormon settlers carved through the brutal geography of Utah's canyonlands. And I have to admit: it's an impressive road.

    Overall, we've done roads wrong, with little to no larger planning. It's even startling when we look at a road atlas and happen to find any order at all. "The current situation is largely chaos," writes Professor William Laurance of James Cook University in the new issue of Nature. "Roads are going almost everywhere and often open a Pandora's Box of environmental problems." Examples woud include the division of ecosystems, destruction of habitat, air and water pollution, noise. "Just look at the Amazon rainforest," Laurance adds. "Over 95 percent of all forest destruction and wildfires occur within 10 kilometers of roads, and there's now 100,000 kilometers of roads crisscrossing the Amazon."

    Laurance and his co-author Professor Andrew Balmford make the argument that we need to start doing roads differently and, done differently, those roads can even be environmentally beneficial, protecting areas by drawing land users away from them. It just takes planning, the real sort of planning that looks at how a road fits into the larger system of roadways and nature rather than the ad hoc building of the past couple centuries.

    It sounds pretty "duh," but the authors suggest concentrating roads in development-friendly areas, rather than wilderness. This is especially crucial in areas beyond the U.S., like the Amazon, that are still relative open-slates for development. They note that farming capacity will have to nearly double in the next couple of decades to meet the demands of the planet's projected 10 billion people. That means a lot of new roads.

    "... Roads can improve farming, making it much easier to move crops to market and import fertilizers. This can increase farm profits, improve the livelihoods of rural residents, enhance food security and draw migrants away from vulnerable wilderness areas," Prof. Balmford says. The duo is calling for a global mapping program and epic collaborations between local leaders, ecologists, agriculture experts, and development experts.

    The point is that roads can be done right, and we have plenty of lessons by now on doing them wrong. Will we learn from them? Or will the rest of the world sprout the same ugly webs of concrete and gravel diving the U.S. into an infinity of parcels and disconnected ecosystems?

    Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.