Roadless Forests and Mountains: Buffer Zones for Climate Change
Earth’s atmosphere currently holds about 416 parts per million of carbon dioxide, more than in the last 800,000 years. Greenhouse gasses like C02 and methane, released by the burning of fossil fuels and by agriculture and decomposition, trap heat from the sun and from other sources, concentrating it in the atmosphere. Warmer air holds more water and transports it to drop as precipitation. Some areas dry out more quickly while others bear the brunt of more extreme rainfall and snowfall.
Plants store carbon by metabolizing CO2 and incorporating the carbon into their trunks and branches, stems, leaves and roots. According to the Congressional Research Service, intact temperate forests like those found in the Northern Rocky Mountains contain on average 70 tons of carbon per acre. This is equal to the carbon found in about 25,500 gallons of gasoline. Almost 2/3 of the carbon is stored in the soil. Leaving these forests alone helps them store carbon more effectively.
Keeping forests roadless and undisturbed is a good way to offset climate change. Forest management via logging and thinning disturbs the carbon cycle and releases some of that stored carbon – up to 2/3 of it in some cases. It also inhibits further carbon storage by removing some of the plants that do the work of storage.
Carbon storage is a free service provided by the forest, which also filters and releases water and replenishes oxygen in the air. There is no cost to us unless we are planting the trees in which case the cost of the seedlings and planting labor must be factored in.
Roadless areas and wilderness areas also help to buffer the effects of extreme weather caused by climate change. The weather has a chance to play itself out somewhere not inhabited by humans nor exposed to the elements by disturbance caused by development. With no pavement or buildings to block water infiltration, roadless areas serve as giant sponges absorbing precipitated water and releasing it slowly. Roadless areas also allow natural cycles such as fire, floods, snowstorms, natural disturbance regimes, evolution and regrowth to play out with little human interference. Think of these roadless wilderness areas as giant buffer zones.
Up to one million species of life on Earth are at risk of extinction according to the United Nations. One of the main things these animals and plants need is intact habitat – a secure home. Roadless lands harbor many threatened and endangered species, offering these creatures and plants refuge from development, disturbance, and killing by humans. They also need places to go when and if extreme weather and warming make their current habitat hostile to their survival. Some species are migrating upslope in the mountain to find cooler living conditions. Plants are moving north to colonize areas that are more in tune with their habitat needs. Other animals such as elk, grizzly bears, moose and lynx need cool weather and certain food sources and must be able to migrate north overland through relatively secure landscapes via migration corridors to find friendlier places to survive.
Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance supports full Wilderness designation – the gold standard for land protection – for all our roadless public lands.
By Phil Knight - Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance