Satellite view of roads radiating out from a highway in the Brazilian Amazon. 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. Photo: NASA

21 March 2014 ( – 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.

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.

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. [more]

Scientists urge ban on roads in intact wilderness areas



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