It is increasingly common for the Forest Service, timber industry and even some conservation groups to assert to the public that temporary roads used to access logging/thinning projects on national forest lands are ecologically neutral.

Temporary roads, however, are nearly as destructive and in some cases even more damaging to wildlife and wildlands than a permanent road.

The impacts of roads are not hidden science. As early as the 1970s, Dr. Jack Lyons published an article in the Journal of Forestry that examined the cumulative effects of road density and how elk use the spaces between them. What he found is evident today – elk avoid roads.

Numerous other studies have only reinforced these findings. For instance, one study in the Journal of Wildlife Management, which used radio-collared elk to determine the relationship between roads and elk distribution concluded: “Our study, combined with several previous studies, suggests that substantial shifts in elk distribution away from open roads are a widespread phenomenon.”

Another study published just this year looking at the impact of roads, and motorized use on grizzly bears in Alberta concluded: “We found that motorized access affected grizzly bears at the individual and population levels through effects on bears’ habitat use, home range selection, movements, population fragmentation, survival, and reproductive rates that ultimately were reflected in population density, trend, and conservation status.”

The idea that an elk or bear displaced by a temporary road can go someplace else assumes there is someplace else to go. If the habitat is suitable for any species, it will already be occupied. In effect, roads reduce habitat quality and quantity for affected species.

Even when a temporary road is closed and “restored,” most remain effectively a transportation corridor that allows people to mountain bike, drive ATVs or even walk into areas that otherwise would provide refuge and habitat security to wildlife. Most “closures” involve no more than a gate or sometimes just a sign announcing that the road is closed. And numerous studies have demonstrated that such tactics are regularly ignored and violated.

The impacts go well beyond the effect on habitat security for elk and grizzlies. I have seldom seen restored roads that were fully converted back to the original condition. In most cases, the road lens is not restored, and the road cut allows subsurface water to collect on the road pathway, often contributing to increased erosion. The steep side slope of a road cut is one of the reasons why roads are a chronic source of sedimentation in streams, negatively impacting aquatic ecosystems.

Besides, stream crossings usually require culverts – which often block the upstream movement of fish and other aquatic animals and are prone to wash out by storms.

Road surfaces become compacted soil that can last for decades, and thus shed water instead of allowing it to soak in, again contributing to more gullying and erosion.

Roads are one of the main vectors for the spread of weeds and flammable grasses like cheatgrass that thrive on disturbance.

Roads are also associated with higher human ignitions. Again, even closed roads provide access to areas that might otherwise not see human use.

Then there is the issue of how roads affect fire spread. Several studies show that the area exposed by the roadbed heats up faster than shaded forests, thereby providing a suitable pathway for fire spread. The roadbed also facilitates the flow of warm air into forested stands, again creating conditions more favorable to fires.

Since “temporary” roads are not expected to be used as long as a “permanent” road, they are built to lower standards, thus more susceptible to blowouts and other erosion during storms and floods.

Anyone who asserts that thinning or logging is OK because there are “only” temporary roads is demonstrating overall ignorance of road ecology and their ecological impacts.

-By George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is a former Forest Service employee in Idaho and an ecologist who has published 38 books including “Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy.”

Updated: May 19

The U.S. National Wilderness Preservation System currently protects 757 areas covering 109.5 million acres, or 5% of the United States. In the lower 48 states, only about 2.7% of the land base is designated Wilderness.

The 1964 Wilderness Act defines Wilderness: "A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." - Howard Zahniser. The Act further defines wilderness “as an area to be “protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable…”

Wilderness was not and is not created specifically to facilitate certain kinds of recreation. It is set aside more to preserve primitive landscapes and protect the land itself and its community of life from development. Recreation is, however, allowed and even encouraged in Wilderness – with certain restrictions. No mechanized nor wheeled transport is allowed. Nor are motors of any kind allowed. Hang gliders as well are banned. So are all other aircraft, though this does not prevent them from flying over. Drones, too, are outlawed.

Although the original Wilderness Act did not mention bicycles, in 1986 the Act was interpreted by the Reagan Administration as banning mountain bikes which are clearly mechanized transportation.

In addition, large, organized adventure race type events, which bring hundreds of runners at once onto trails, are illegal in Wilderness.

This means Wilderness travelers must travel under their own muscle power, or by using the power of animals – horses, sled dogs, llamas, goats etc. Or they can travel by non-motorized craft where possible, allowing for paddle trips on lakes, ponds, rivers and creeks.

By definition, then, Wilderness travel is relatively slow. Given that much of our transportation takes place in automobiles and airplanes and trains and busses at high speed, the slow, measured pace of Wilderness travel is a much needed counterpoint to our hectic, race-around lives. It is also generally easier on the land and wildlife.

Hunting and fishing are allowed in Wilderness areas within season and according to state regulations, and in fact areas like the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the Teton Wilderness are very popular with hunters. Outfitters offer multi-day guided hunting trips in these areas complete with luxury backcountry camps.

One frequent problem with Wilderness is that it usually encompasses the highest, most rugged “rocks and Ice” mountain terrain. While spectacular and great for adventurous recreationists, this kind of landscape does not encourage visitation or recreation by less able or less ambitious segments of the population. We need more accessible Wilderness, closer to urban areas. One good example in Montana is Beartrap Canyon on the Madison River, a rare low-elevation, riverside Wilderness (and a BLM Wilderness as well).

Wilderness Watch reminds us that “Section 2 (c)(2) of the Wilderness Act defines Wilderness as an area that ‘has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.’ Recreation is again listed in Section 4 (b) as one of the six stated public purposes for Wilderness. It is important to remember, however, that recreation is not the dominant purpose of Wilderness, as illustrated in a Congressional statement of Howard Zahniser, author of the Wilderness Act, ‘Recreation is not necessarily the dominant use of an area of wilderness. This should be clearly emphasized…The purpose of the Wilderness Act is to preserve the wilderness character of the areas to be included in the wilderness system, not to establish any particular use.’”

Wilderness does however lend itself to certain kinds of recreation: Backpacking, horsepacking, llama packing, camping, hiking, mountaineering, backcountry and cross-country skiing, backcountry snowboarding, rock and ice climbing, snowshoeing, trail running, canoeing, kayaking, packrafting, whitewater rafting, bird watching and wildlife watching, and photography all fit in Wilderness. So does just sitting and soaking up the rare and precious silence.

Recreation in Wilderness does have some problems. Popular whitewater rafting rivers must be regulated via a permit system to avoid crowding and over-use, and they still get hammered. Airstrips in Wilderness bring rich clients and heavy impacts. Outfitter camps bring in large groups and trample the trails with pack strings of mules and horses and leave large caches of gear and heavily impacted camp sites. Popular backcountry campsites, often near lakes, are frequently strewn with multiple large fire rings of scorched rocks and wood ash. Trailheads can be crowded and overflowing. Human waste disposal in Wilderness is an ongoing nightmare, with pack it out requirements in many popular areas.

Anti-Wilderness groups like the so-called Sustainable Trails Coalition seek federal legislation to overturn the ban on bicycles in Wilderness, claiming they are human-powered and therefore appropriate. But bicycles are clearly mechanical and their fast potential speed does not fit in. Bicyclists claim they are “locked out” of wilderness when it is only their machines that are kept out.

Trespass in Wilderness by people on thrillcraft – mountain bikes, snowmobiles, snow motorcycles, dirt bikes and four wheelers – is a growing threat. A Forest Service with an ever shrinking budget and shifting priorities does not put a lot of resources toward patrolling Wilderness nor catching trespassers.

Wilderness enthusiasts like Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance seek to keep Wilderness from becoming just a glorified, scenic outdoor gymnasium filled with thrill-seeking, adrenaline-fueled funhogs.

Ultimately, Wilderness offers a recreational experience available nowhere else – one free of motors and fast-paced transportation. Wilderness gives people a chance to experience primitive, undeveloped landscapes where nature still holds sway. It also encourages self-reliance, where you are on your own to keep yourself happy and safe.

Future Wilderness must be designed and managed to deemphasize the human presence and to give nature that chance it needs to thrive. Our recreation can and should blend with the wild world in ways we understand and in others we have yet to imagine.

-Phil Knight

Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance

  • GYWA

Updated: May 13

Does anyone else feel like we have slipped into a parallel universe? While life goes on here in my little home and my wife and I feel well enough, outside the world is melting down. I keep trying to make some sense of the COVID 19 virus, what it means for our present and our future. I am not sure there is much sense to be made of it. But I will try.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we – the human race – had this coming. We have pushed Earth’s natural systems to the brink. Every day, we have become more numerous and more demanding. This planet is a finite world with limited resources. Yet we treat the Earth as if there is no end to what we can take. As a result, before our very eyes, extinction of species is exploding, the oceans acidifying, the climate in chaos, deforestation accelerating, pollution flooding our water and air, wildlife habitat being shredded. Glaciers are vanishing. Mountains falling apart. Seas are rising. Yet we go on demanding, using, consuming more, as if it would never end.

Is it really a surprise that human systems are also in a tailspin? I reckon we just hit the wall.

Whether or not the COVID 19 virus is the Earth reacting to the human plague, there is no doubt we cannot continue as we have. Something had to give. World leaders refuse to take concrete, meaningful steps to stem our over-consumptive ways. As individuals, we take a few steps – recycle, compost, use less packaging, drive a hybrid car – but these are window dressing when we keep having lots of children, taking long international flights, driving hundreds of miles per week, buying whatever knick knack currently attracts our attention. We have been in serious denial.

Picture the mega party at the end of time. We have been living it.

So along comes a tiny organism that is not really even alive, and brings almost everything to a screeching halt.

According to the Washington Post, the COVID 19 virus is “ little more than a packet of genetic material surrounded by a spiky protein shell one-thousandth the width of an eyelash, and it leads such a zombielike existence that it’s barely considered a living organism. But as soon as it gets into a human airway, the virus hijacks our cells to create millions more versions of itself.”

Pretty ironic eh? Our doomsday scenarios often involve nuclear war, zombie humans, space alien invasion, asteroid impact, supervolcanic eruption, solar flares and the like. Stuff we can see and maybe find a way to divert or defeat or avoid. Now along comes this invisible, unpredictable, indiscriminate killer. And in weeks, it brings the whole world to a near standstill. It is truly bizarre.

Coronavirus is nothing we can reason with nor argue with. It has no malice toward us, no evil intent. Which makes it that much harder to understand. You look out at the world, there is no zombie horde approaching. No missiles streaking down. No giant volcanic cloud, no F5 tornado (well, there might be, but not everywhere). Just a world gone quiet, with deserted streets and shops. Instead of being soothing, the quiet is ominous.

So far we have found no cure for the coronavirus. Our only defense is avoidance. We are being forced to pull in, to take time to slow down, to gaze at our navels and wonder, how has it come to this? What have we done? Is this our fault?

It’s pretty clear what we have done.

We pushed too far into the heart of nature, and finally uncovered something really nasty. We found the Heart of Darkness.

Nature is left with no safe refuge from our constant slashing, cutting, drilling, roading, mining, logging, killing, skinning, eating, exploiting, and consuming. In the “bush meat” trade, wild animals of all kinds are eaten raw and cooked, either as sustenance, for a thrill, as a sexual stimulant, or as a status symbol. And finally, the animals have bitten back.

There are literally hundreds of thousands of viruses out there, lurking in animals, often with no symptoms or signs. Some can obviously jump from one species to another, especially when we move and mix wildlife and domestic animals at a frantic pace. The livestock industry, the pet trade, wet markets, zoos, game parks, all mix animals and animal products and humans in ways we never have mixed before.

COVID 19 is hardly the first zoonotic disease we have unleashed. Nor will it be the last. They do not all start in wet markets or jungles. Remember Mad Cow Disease? Brucellosis?

Of course this current outbreak was predictable, and indeed, predicted. US Scientists warned in January that climate change and habitat disruption could unleash zoonotic diseases into the human population. Speaking about his book Spillover:Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, Author David Quammen said on March 25 “I asked people in 2010 ‘what’s the next big one?’ Scientists said it would be a virus, coming out of a wild animal, very possibly a coronavirus. What kind of wild animal? Very possibly a bat. Where? Very possibly a wet market. Where? Very possibly in China. Ten years ago, I was hearing that from scientists and put that in my book. And yet, the policy makers were left flat-footed.”

Here in North America, ticks, mosquitos and other pests are thriving in a warmer, wetter world, with more and more people (and less wildlife) to feed on. Lyme disease is a tick-borne bacterial horror that has taken decades to get a handle on and still affects thousands of people a year. Zika virus emerged a few years ago, resulting in a nightmare of microcephalic infants. SARS, Marburg, Ebola, Hendra, leishmaniasis… There are plenty more out there, waiting for a chance to spread and expand their life cycle. These viruses and parasites could care less about your stock portfolio. You are a perfect host for their success.

The COVID 19 virus has also left our lack of real leadership in the United States exposed for all to see, with politicians fighting, flailing, blaming, getting sick, strutting, preening, posturing, and looking to profit from our mutual misfortune. Meanwhile some rise to the occasion, displaying real leadership and care, shining lights in a dark sea. There is nothing like a crisis to show true human nature.

We are now isolated from one another, billions of tiny human islands in a sea of chaos. Just when we need each other the most. We can safely connect only electronically. Hugs, handshakes, high fives, kisses, back slaps, all canceled. Concerts, church service, sporting events, rallies, marches, parades, classes, school, seminars, meetings, clubs, gathering, happy hours, conferences, all off limits. Even family gatherings are a bad idea. We move in a bubble of fear, keeping our distance, avoiding those we should like or love.

One possible bright side…the planet is getting a much needed respite. Air travel, car travel, cruises, shopping, are all scaled way back. Air has cleared significantly in many urban areas. It will be interesting to see if C02 levels will drop from the 415 ppm measured on April 23. Wildlife may be able to reclaim some areas as people stop traveling. Roadkill should decrease.

Unemployment in the US went from 4% to 20% almost overnight. 28 million people are suddenly out of work. The stock market has tanked, erasing years of gains in a week. The fragility and illusory nature of our financial system has also been exposed. It is one giant Jenga game, and the key block has just been removed, with nowhere to place it. What is going to be left when the market stabilizes? If it stabilizes?

We need some time here to adjust to this new reality. These sort of disease mega-outbreaks could become more common. Faith in money and stock markets will hopefully decline while our faith in one another, in human kindness and the wonder and importance of the natural world, will rise. We can rise to this, we can overcome. But we must embrace humility and realize the Earth has its limits. The more we push those limits, the more we will suffer.

We are setting sail for the place on the map where we have never been. Hole up and hold on tight, it will be a wild ride.

-Phil Knight

Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance

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© 2020 Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance

P.O. Box 5256

Bozeman, Montana 59717

501(c)(3) non-profit organization.