Why Are Roadless Areas Important? (back to top)
Roads are enormously important to our economy and our society, but they can also have serious negative consequences for the environment. Over the past two decades there has been a great deal of research into the impacts of roads on ecosystems, plant and animal populations, freshwater aquatic systems and surface hydrology. The most important broad finding of all this research is that we now know that the impacts of roads extend far beyond the edge of the road itself – in some cases as far as a hundred yards into the forest.
On many forest service lands, the density of road-building on public lands is extreme and not well planned.The image to the right is an example of over-built and poorly planned forest service roads seen from above. You can go to this example on the map here.
The impacts of roads can be devastatingly clear or incredibly subtle. Some of the more subtle impacts are the changes that forests undergo at the edges created by roads. To many observers the forest on either side starts right there at the margin of the roadway. However, research has documented significant changes that occur along a gradient from the edge of a forest into the interior. As you move deeper into a forest, the air is cooler and the ground retains more moisture. These changes in the environment influence the types of plants and animals that can live there. Certain groups of plants and animals do well in the interior of a forest where it is generally cooler, darker and more moist. Others are more adapted to edges or open areas where there is more light, less humidity and stronger winds.
When roads are built through forested areas, we are essentially reducing the amount of interior forest that is available for the plants and animals that require interior forest habitat. Plants that are adapted to live in the forest interior dry out more quickly or cannot compete against species that are adapted to edge conditions. Trees that matured on the inside of a forest often also have shallower root systems and can topple in the stronger winds that that prevail on the edge of a forest. These changes don’t occur just at the edge of a roadway, but can extend up to hundreds of feet into the forest. So even a moderately dense network of roads can dramatically fragment and reduce the functional area of an ecosystem through which the roads pass, and the effect of those roads can be more dramatic than clearcutting (1). In one study that looked at the net impact of this effect across the country, it was estimated that one-fifth of the total land area of the U.S. is ecologically affected by roads (2).
Are Roadless Areas Protected? (back to top)
In early 2001, the US Forest Service published a set of rules that set strict limits on road-building activities in the majority of inventoried roadless areas on forest service lands. The most widely recognized of these three rules is known as the Roadless Rule.
The Roadless Rule of 2001 was the most significant conservation action taken by the federal government since the Wilderness Act of 1964. The rule does not specifically protect roadless areas from development nor does it prohibit all multiple use activities on these lands. The rule was aimed at controlling the amount of road-building activities undertaken by the forest service, which has more miles of roads under its control than the interstate highway system.
The main rationale for limiting road-building in the inventoried roadless areas was to minimize the negative environmental impacts of roads. Over the past several decades, researchers have documented a wide range of impacts that roads have on the environment, and in this sense, the roadless rule provided a great deal of protection to a large group of lands that previously had little protection within the current forest service administrative structure.
The second impetus for the creation of the Roadless Rule was an effort to expand the system of protected federal lands to include ecosystems that are not very well represented in the current system of National Parks, wilderness areas and preserves (1). To a great degree, our current system of parks and wilderness areas is very successful at preserving high elevation ecosystems – places that are rugged, beautiful and otherwise difficult to develop. The Roadless Area Review and Evaluation, and several studies since, concluded that ecosystems that exist at mid elevations are not well represented in our system of protected lands, and many of the inventoried roadless areas include these areas (2).
A good example of a type forest that is not well protected are the Aspen forests of the west. Aspen are almost synonymous with the Rocky Mountains, yet only about four and a half percent of all Aspen forests occur on protected lands. In contrast, over 20% of all aspen forests occur on inventoried roadless areas in the Northern Rockies. Aspen forests are only one example. In the Rocky Mountains alone, over a dozen types of ecosystems are under-represented in our system of protected areas (2).
A Short History of Inventoried Roadless Areas (back to top)
The current political state of roadless areas in the US Forest Service stems from a set of Forest Service rules published in 2000 that set strict limits on road-building activities in inventoried roadless areas. The most significant of these rules was the Roadless Rule, but the Roadless Rule was built on a series previous inventories and assessments by the forest service.
The term Inventoried Roadless Areas came about in 1967 when, after the creation of the Wilderness Act by Congress in 1964, the forest service began compiling a list of areas that could be suitable for designation as Wilderness Areas. This effort was called the “Roadless Area Review and Evaluation” or “RARE I”, and culminated in 1972 with a finding that 56 million acres that were suitable to be designated as wilderness. However, the RARE I recommendations were abandoned by the forest service after courts ruled that the agency had not sufficiently complied with the regulations of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA).
A second roadless inventory, RARE II, was initiated in 1977, which culminated in a recommendation of wilderness designation for 15 million acres of national forest land and further study for another 10.8 million acres. This set of recommendations were quickly challenged in the courts and largely voided.
About Roadlessland.Org (back to top)
Even though the Roadless Rule of 2000 was a historic conservation action by the federal government, few people in the country know much about the rule or the lands that it aimed to protect. I created Roadlessland.Org to help people discover the inventoried roadless lands that were protected by the roadless rule. In the process of becoming involved with this issue, I have traveled to many roadless areas across the country, and I am currently writing a book about roadless areas.
I will be posting information about the book on this website soon, along with stories and photos from my exploits in America's public lands. I created the website so that you can post your stories and photos from these wonderful lands as well. I hope that you enjoy it. You can visit my homepage here