The Ecological Disaster of Wildland Roads
adapted and expanded from “Thoreau’s Maine Woods, Yesterday and Today”
by Cheryl Seal (email@example.com)
Despite the 1.6 million recorded comments of American citizens, who made it plain they DO NOT want new roads sliced through America's remaining unfragmented forestlands, Bush is using every slick trick in his corporate flimflam manual to get his way. His latest maneuver: He waited until he was in Europe to allow Ashcroft and crew to file a suit in an Idaho court challenging the road ban. Meanwhile, for the benefit of the American public and his European audience, he is giving phony (and insultingly transparent)lip service to upholding Clinton's proposed ban - while smugly assuming all the while that once the Idaho case gets to his “pocket judges” on the Supreme Court, roads through the last wildlands will be a done deal.
He not only has no respect for the wishes of his fellow Americans, he has no respect for his fellow Americans, period.
Although the following essay was researched and written in the Maine woods in the early 1990s, it applies to forested wildlands anywhere today - and, unless something is done to stop it - tomorrow.
“For a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”
Henry David Thoreau
After the last log was driven down Maine’s rivers in 1974, the push was on to build good roads into the forests so skidders and pulp trucks could get in and out of timberland. In the last twenty-five years alone, over 20,000 miles of road have been bulldozed through the forest, more than a third of all the road mileage in the state in a region that is home to only a hundredth of its population. These “logging roads” are not the narrow, rugged tracks of yore: they are wide, well-maintained forest highways along which any vehicle can freely travel year-round. Tourists can now drive not just to Greenville but the the Allagash and the most remote stretch of the St. John River. Thanks to this road system, the north woods, once accessible only to the most dedicated sportsmen, is now just a leisurely day’s drive away for 65 million people.
Although roads may be a blessing for the tourist industry, they are anathema to wildlands. Roads devour collectively large amounts of land - from about four acres per mile for a rural road to as much as two hundred acres per mile for a major highway. Logging roads in the Maine Woods cause erosion and dust pollution in dry weather. They disrupt the hydrological cycle by creating extended “levy-like” barriers,. They lead to the sedimentation and frequent demise of nearby streams and ponds, which become choked with accumulated road dust. In summer, the borders of these roads are sprayed routinely with herbicides, while in winter, they are dosed with road salt. They are, in all seasons, receptacles for diesel fuel, gasoline, motor oil, and brake fluid, which are washed from the road surface when it rains and into the ground, where they may find their way into streams or ground water and gradually accumulate.
A recent study in Maryland revealed that along even roads built according to tough state EPA standards in a state with strict laws governing auto condition, petroleum-related compounds had found their way from road surfaces into ponds and streams and accumulated to levels above acceptable levels within just a few years. In wild areas, animals, especially deer, come onto road surfaces in the spring, attracted by the traces of salt. On several occasions when I lived in the area through which the famed Wilderness Miles of the Appalachian Trail ran, I had to stop for moose or deer who were completely absorbed in licking salty gravel. Unfortunately, in licking the salty gravel, they also inevitably consume traces of petroleum-related compounds as well. Road salt eventually washes off roads and into the soil, where it can damage trees and turn ground and surface water brackish.
Animals are attracted to the roads for other reasons: it is a wide, easy path between points, especially in winter. In Maine in winter, you’ll often see moose trotting along a logging road as if they were out for a jog. Smaller animals such as coyotes and raccoons may be attracted by the inevitable trash along the road. And, because wildland roads invariably run through the middle of natural, established territories of resident animals, animals routinely cross them to access their territory on the other side. As a result, even on logging roads, the number of animals hit and killed is staggering. In Maine, where logging roads account for most of the road miles, between 30,000-75,000 birds, reptiles, and mammals (including 3,000 white tailed deer) are filled on roads EVERY YEAR. Who knows how many others are crippled and maimed, or die slowly later from injuries.
Perhaps the most overwhelming damage created by roads is the access they permit to wildlands for larger and larger numbers of people. The recreational use of the Maine Woods has been increasing at a rate of 5% annually and with it,. the frequency of vandalism, forest fires, and littering. The latter is one of the most ubiquitous and damaging forms of wildland pollution. The degree of the problem is invariably underestimated, if not overlooked altogether. For example, over 40 pounds of trash per mile was recovered in a 1987 study along the relatively “unspoiled” shores of Maine’s Lake Cobbossecontee. Half of the total weight consisted of plastics: Styrofoam cups, plastic bags, lids, diapers, beer and soda can rings, fishing line, and fishing “bobbers.” This casually discarded trash has become an ecological minefield for wildlife. Shorebirds frequently become tangled in fishing line and are crippled or drowned in their struggles to escape - or they eventually starve to death. Untold numbers of fish slowly die after ingesting small bits of floating plastic, while small mammals and birds are regularly strangled by plastic beer and soda rings. As most of this garbage is nonbiodegradable, the level of hazard grows annually. Even the so-called biodegradable plastics remain viable and dangerous to wildlife for several months - even years.
This overuse and disruptive use of the wildlands resources is fast changing the character of the north woods. Streams that were once fished by only a handful of local resident are now lined by sportsmen from Memorial Day through Labor Day and the average size of the catch is declining yearly. Small ponds once accented only by the cry of a loon now resound with the roar of high-speed motorboats, jetskis and boom boxes in summer, while the woods echo with the sound o snowmobiles in winter. Snow mobile trails, by the way, compact the snow in such a way that they disrupt the ground surface hydrology, melt more slowly in spring than the surrounding snow, and lead to erosion and the destruction of underlying vegetation. In addition, petroleum products from snowmobiles accumulate in trace amounts through the winter, then are introduced at once into surface and ground water with the spring thaw. Narrow trails once used just by hikers and moose are now deeply eroded thoroughfares for all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes.
Because roads make an area more accessible to more people, it also makes an area more attractive to more people. In the wake of new roads into wildlands often comes peripheral development. When this occurs, both native animals and native humans are affected. In Maine, as many north woods natives struggle to hold onto their homes, more affluent southern Mainers and people “from away” are buying up prime forest land, much of it on lakes and ponds, and building second homes, driving up tax rates and home prices. In 1988, out of the 11,000 houses standing in the state’s unorganized townships, only 3,000 were year round dwellings. The rest were vacation homes used only a few weeks each year. Even in the remote township of Elliottsville where I lived, the population in summer and during hunting season could climb to as high as a few hundred, while in winter it dipped to 27 year round residents.
Unlike with logging, the environmental changes and loss of wildlife habitat imposed by development may be completely irreversible. With development comes even more roads, power and phone lines, septic systems, buried oil and gas tanks, landfills, new schools, Wal-Mart Superstores and other eyesores and water lines. Subtler effects are also felt, such as light, noise, and heat pollution, and domestic pets. In Elliottsville, the person who owned a summer camp on our road put in a monstrous flood light, which he intended to leave on yearround though they only used the place a few weeks each year. (Fortunately, one of my neighbors was an excellent shot with a riflle). Once when the light was still glaring through the forest night, I saw two lovely, rare pale green luna moths, apparently stranded on the wall of the camp after having been attracted by the light. There, they had become easy pickings for predators.
In many regions, more deer kills can be traced to domestic dogs than to coyotes and bobcats combined, while house cats can have a significant impact on local populations of squirrel, bird, and chipmunk. Developed land is also toxic land. More chemical pesticide and fertilizer is dumped on each acre of American lawn and garden than on any other type of land, including farmland and industrial forests, unless it is golf courses - and, once development comes in, golf courses are not far behind. Despite tighter state regulations on septic systems, hundreds of Maine Woods homes, especially seasonal camps still illegally spew sewage directly into the nearest water body. Most forest animals spend their entire lives within a territory of 20 acres or more upon which they must depend for food and water, and across which they must regularly travel Too many Americans - especially our policymakers - engage in magical thinking, assuming that when land is taken for a road or house, that the resident wildlife just packs its bags and moves on to a new territory. But most species will remain in their home range all their lives, adapting to encroachment as best they can or, more likely, succumbing to starvation, gradually poisoning through pesticides or polluted water, or to a motor vehicle. Multiple small pieces of privately-owned land that has been developed cuts more sharply into wildlife habitats and ranges than do the larger tracts owned by the state and paper companies.
Roads are an open invitation not just to development, but to more logging, drilling, and mining. I suspect that for Bush, forcing the road issue through is tantamount to forcing his foot through the door for the logging, oil/gas and mining industries, who, once the roads are built will find it oh, so much easier, to move in for the kill.
The bottom line is, when roads come in, wildlife just can’t win for losing.
Do not let Bush get away with his selfish, sneaky and horrendously destructive scheme to open up the rest of our wildlands to roads and all that comes with roads. Call, write, fax, or e-mail the White House - jam their communications if you have to through the sheer bulk of messages - but let Shrub know you aren’t fooled by his latest scheme to use the Supreme Court to, once again, override the will of the American people.
NOTE: This article may be freely reprinted by anyone who wishes to use it or any part of the information therein contained. C.S.