Scientists urge ban on roads in intact wilderness areas

mongabay.com
March 21, 2014



Roads radiating out from a highway in the Brazilian Amazon. Courtesy of NASA.
Roads radiating out from a highway in the Brazilian Amazon. Courtesy of NASA


A group of prominent scientists chose to mark the second International Day of Forests by urging the world to support an initiative that aims keep wild areas free of roads.

Roadfree, an initiative led by Member of the European Parliament Kriton Arsenis, has been growing in prominence over the past year, gaining supporters ranging from indigenous rights leaders to deep ecologists. Now the Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers and Thinkers (ALERT), a group of prominent conservation scientists, has thrown its weight behind the concept.

“It’s reached crisis proportions,” said William Laurance, a professor at James Cook University in Australia and the director of ALERT. “Whether you’re talking about the Amazon, Sumatra, Siberia or the Congo, there’s hardly a wilderness area left that isn’t under assault from new roads. Those roads usually open a Pandora’s Box of environmental problems—such as illegal fires, deforestation, hunting and gold mining.”

“It’s become one of the biggest environmental worries of this century,” said Thomas Lovejoy, an ecologist who has served as an environmental advisor to three U.S. presidents. “Roads are driving a great deal of habitat loss and fragmentation around the world.”

According to the group, 95 percent of forest loss occurs within 50 km of a road, which is a dire prospect given projected road expansion — 90 percent of which will be in countries with the highest levels of biodiversity — in coming decades.

“It’s been estimated that we’ll have another 25 million kilometers of paved roads by 2050—enough to encircle the Earth more than 600 times,” said Lovejoy.


Logging road in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Photo by Rhett A. Butler


While ALERT acknowledges the role roads play in economic development, it is urging policymakers and financiers to consider the considerable environmental costs of building roads through intact ecosystems.

“Once a new road goes in, that’s often the beginning of the end,” said Corey Bradshaw, a professor at the University of Adelaide. “The only way to ensure the survival of wilderness and biodiversity is to keep roads out altogether—by avoiding the first cut.”

Roads are often built initially for logging, mining, and energy development. After valuable timber is harvested, minerals extracted, and oil and gas shipped away, the next wave of people arrive. These may be land speculators, informal loggers and miners, slash-and-burn farmers, industrial farmers and plantation developers, or commercial poachers. Forests are rapidly cleared, often illegally and without generating much in the way of revenue for the state, while wiping out wildlife, generating carbon emissions, degrading important ecosystem services, and putting traditional livelihoods at risk.

Logging road in Borneo.
Logging road in Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler. "Road building, associated with industrial logging in the tropics, is almost always the first step towards destruction of forests," said Barbara Zimmerman, Director of the Kayapo Project with the International Conservation Fund of Canada. "High-value timber species are completely extirpated, leading to degradation of primary forest to a state from which it is impossible to recover or at best, its regeneration is severely depressed."


Kriton Arsenis, Roadfree's founder, says that limiting road construction in intact forests would be an effective way to meet several environmental goals.

"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”, said Kriton Arsenis in a statement.

"Intact forests store vast amounts of carbon, most of which is contained in large, old trees," added Sean Foley, Chairman of The Samdhana Institute. "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."

Disclosure: author Rhett Butler is an operational advisor to ALERT, but had no role in ALERT's press release on this issue.












AUTHOR: Rhett Butler founded Mongabay in 1999. He currently serves as president, head writer, and chief editor.





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CITATION:
mongabay.com (March 21, 2014).

Scientists urge ban on roads in intact wilderness areas.

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