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Next big idea in forest conservation? Global road map to mitigate damage from roads

Innovation in Tropical Forest Conservation: Q&A with William F. Laurance

Logging road in Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

In the world of conservation, Dr. William Laurance is a household name. He has worked in tropical systems, worldwide, for over 25 years, publishing over 300 articles, five books and receiving numerous awards and honors for his work as a researcher, science communicator, and conservation practitioner, including one of Australia’s highest scientific honors, the Australian Laureate Award.

A crucial innovation in tropical conservation, Laurance believes, is planning better roads. Roads grant access to settlers and industry, leading to increased deforestation and displacement of resources. The movement of animals and water systems can also be disrupted by poorly planned road systems. But, according to Laurance, roads designed and placed with the whole landscape in mind have the potential to help the environment rather than further its destruction

Laurance is currently a Distinguished Research Professor at James Cook University in Australia, holds the Prince Bernhard Chair in International Nature Conservation at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, and is a research associate the Smithsonian and Harvard University. His work focuses on conservation policy, climate change, and the impacts of intensive land-uses, such as logging, wildfires and habitat fragmentation, on tropical forests and species. He has become a leading voice for the active engagement of science with the public and policy makers and continues to devote his life to effecting change.

An Interview with Dr. William F. Laurance

Mongabay: What is your background?

William F. Laurance in Gabon.

William Laurance: I grew up in the western US, in Oregon and Idaho, and then did my PhD in California, at Berkeley. As an undergraduate I initially wanted to work with endangered species in zoos but later realized that protecting habitats was much more important, so I became an ecologist and conservation biologist.

During my junior year in college I started hearing a lot of about disappearing rain forests and so decided to focus my PhD on this. I worked on the impacts of habitat fragmentation on mammals in the rainforests of north Queensland. I went back to Australia for a postdoc and met my Australian wife there. Shortly after that I was hired by the Smithsonian Institution and we ended up spending 14 years in Latin America, before returning to Australia in 2009.

Mongabay: How long have you worked in tropical forest conservation and in what geographies? What is the focus of your work?

William F. Laurance.

William Laurance: I did my first serious fieldwork in the tropics in 1984 and have been doing it full-time since then. I’ve pretty much worked all over the tropical world—the Amazon, Central America, the Congo Basin, Southeast Asia, New Guinea, Pacific islands, and of course tropical Australia.

My work is very broad and really has only one unifying theme—that it focuses on real-world conservation. I’ve worked a lot on the impacts of habitat fragmentation, but have also studied the effects of industrial logging, fires, and hunting on forests and wildlife. And I work also on climate change impacts and, of course, on conservation policy and outreach.

Mongabay: What do you see as the next big idea or emerging innovation in tropical forest conservation? And why?

William Laurance: Well, one of my biggest issues is the incredible expansion of roads into the last remaining tropical wildernesses—this is a true environmental crisis, because such roads open up a Pandora’s box of problems, often leading to large-scale forest destruction and degradation. We are currently working on a “Global Road Map” that will identify where roads should and shouldn’t be located, across the entire world. I’m excited about this because I think it’s something that’s really needed—a proactive approach to road planning.

The idea of a global road map is to identify those areas where roads would have the greatest environmental impacts and lowest benefits, as well as the areas where roads or road improvements could actually be beneficial. There are many places where roads would clearly be harmful—almost anywhere that is forested or has intact habitats, for example.

Mongabay: What are the obstacles/challenges to implementing the Global Road Map and proactive road planning on a large scale?

William Laurance: I think there will be real challenges in implementing a global road map, but we have to try. There are technical challenges involved in doing something this ambitious, and then practical challenges in actually getting decision-makers to consider a map like this. Right now it looks like we’ve surmounted a lot of the technical issues and that a draft map will be produced fairly soon.

Mining road in Indonesia

Mongabay: Are you currently involved in any projects or research that represent emerging innovation in tropical forest conservation?

William Laurance: I’ve actually just founded a new scientific organization entitled ALERT—the Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers and Thinkers. It’s a relatively small, agile organization that designed to help world-class scientists have an influence on key environmental issues.

Prior to this I spent many years trying to get some of the big scientific organizations, such as the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, the Society for Conservation Biology, and the American Society of Mammalogists, to have an active voice in conservation. I was only partially successful—these groups do a great job of promoting research, but they just can’t react quickly to real-world conservation issues, which are often urgent and time-critical in nature. ALERT is designed specifically to help leading, action-oriented scientists engage in conservation, and also to promote conservation-related research. I think it’s a good model—please visit our website ( to learn more!

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