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Garrett Ahern is a biological sciences junior and Mustang News liberal columnist. These views do not necessarily reflect the opinion or editorial coverage of Mustang News.
Beneath groves of ancient trees and beside banks of roaring rivers lie the final remnants of America’s once endless wilderness. These lands, undisturbed and unscathed by human development, are home to plants and animals facing the constant threat of extinction. Had it not been for the persistence of people who believed their survival was a matter of necessity, these pristine places would be only something to read about.
Unfortunately, the threats America’s wilderness areas faced in the past persist with even greater force today, and it will be in the hands of our generation to safeguard their protection.
An often forgotten past
It was in 1964 that the federal government took measures to ensure the existence of wilderness within the U.S. by passing the Wilderness Act. This landmark piece of legislation set forth a concrete definition for what constitutes wilderness and attempted to protect wild places through the creation of the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS).
Despite its name, the NWPS did little to ensure the preservation of wilderness in its early days.
By the 1990s, development within wilderness areas — often in the form of roads — had become quite common. In 2001, former President Bill Clinton’s administration was in the process of leaving office when it realized America’s wilderness areas — once common even 50 years prior — were disappearing faster than ever.
By 1997, America’s wilderness was dwindling at a rate of 3.2 million acres per year. These dire circumstances called for meaningful action by the federal government. Appropriately and effectively, the Clinton administration responded with written legislation geared toward preserving and protecting America’s last remaining wilderness areas. This legislation later came to be known as The Roadless Area Conservation Rule, or “Roadless Rule.”
Unfortunately, its original rollout was hastily squashed by former President George W. Bush’s administration in 2002. On top of removing the protection this rule offered, Bush awarded government subsidies to commercial oil and logging corporations in order for them to capitalize on the abundant resources found in roadless areas.
Fortunately, in 2009, the Supreme Court deemed the repeal of this law unconstitutional, finding it in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.
Current legislative threats
Since its reinstatement, however, various members of Congress have proposed legislation aimed toward repealing the rule once more.
Years of effort would be for nought if roads and the destruction they caused to wild lands were permitted to be built in current roadless areas. Attempts to repeal the Roadless Rule have been met with fierce opposition, anchored by knowledge of the destruction wilderness roads cause. Efforts mounted in defense of the Roadless Rule have been supported by the general public, ruling that American wilderness must be preserved.
Conservative politicians, with concerns over government size and reach, wish to see the principles of a free market practiced on lands abundant with natural resources. This translates to desires for awarding large government subsidies with commercial oil and logging corporations as incentives for developing remote wilderness areas for resource capitalization.
Such questionable agendas are being met by concerted efforts among progressive politicians who strive to uphold the Roadless Rule and the protection it provides. With federally managed wilderness comprising only 5 percent of America’s total land area, there’s support for big oil and big logging to focus their efforts elsewhere. If the former’s efforts prevail, the repercussions will be catastrophic.
Environmental impacts of road construction
The lasting effects of roads within wilderness areas are complex and numerous, but the immediate damages caused by wilderness roads are dismal enough to provoke discomfort in even the most industrious of hearts.
When a new wilderness road is constructed, those first to arrive are surveyors, whose job is to find the most ideal land to be converted into paved road. Following surveyors are fleets of bulldozers aimed at leveling everything in their paths to produce a more “favorable” environment for road construction.
Once the ground is cleared, paving begins. This messy process involves the emission of noxious chemicals that contaminate habitats along the roadside. On top of the poisonous substances released into the surroundings, it creates the ideal environment for invasive species to establish themselves. Once present, invasive plants and animals detrimentally impact native ecosystems and further continue the destruction.
In addition to the endless biological disturbances created by wilderness roads, there are various geologic and hydrologic ones.
When a road is paved through wilderness, the area’s watershed, or underground network of water flow, is drastically disrupted. Often, the subterranean obstructions caused by a wilderness road, unlike an urban one, have the same effects as a dam on a river. As a result, these roads can cause destructive flooding that poses a risk to both humans and wildlife alike.
In addition to acting as a barrier to water, roads obstruct plant and animal communities. No different than a fence in the effect it has on wildlife, a road creates a major barrier through which many plants and animals cannot pass. This phenomenon has come to be known as fragmentation — one of the key factors linked to population decline among endangered species.
Once in use, a road brings about heavy pollution and noise that send wildlife fleeing to more remote areas, thus placing additional pressure on the road’s surrounding ecosystems and resources. The construction of wilderness roads pose significant threats to the lives of humans, but unlike wild plants and animals, it is not our lives at stake.
The hidden price paid
Within many national forests, national parks and various other public lands are wilderness areas — places many of us relate to memories of family camping trips and adventurous outdoor expeditions. Such lands represent the irreplaceable tokens of our country’s natural history.
Though roads afford us the luxury of easy access and travel (especially in remote areas), they do so at the expense of the beauty that draws us to nature in the first place.
We cannot allow all the hard work it took to preserve these places to be ceded to the interests of those who share no tie to their protection. Quite often, we are reminded that our patriotism is measured by the sacrifices we make for our country. With that said, nothing is more patriotic than to make a stand in the name of protecting our country’s land and preserving the places that define its character.
The arguments posed for the construction of roads in wilderness areas are built upon the interests of a select few at the expense of a great many. With only 5 percent of American land devoted to federally managed wilderness, questions arise as to why large corporations are lobbying Congress for access to these remote areas.
With focused thought, their agendas become clear. Building roads in areas abundant with natural resources allow companies access to lands that decrease their expenses and send their profit margins skyrocketing. This translates to deeper pockets for the individuals who lobbied Congress. It is a gruesome and viscous cycle that leaves large areas of wilderness, and the millions of Americans who enjoy such places, the voiceless victims of defeat.
Our last chance
Aimed toward preventing such situations, the Roadless Area Conservation Rule protects the places many Americans love dearly. With active threats against the survival of American wilderness still present, active measures must be taken to protect and preserve them.
The tireless work of past activists and the politicians who supported them produced great pieces of legislation such as the Roadless Rule. All that we must do now is uphold them.
It is imperative that we stand against this encroaching threat on America’s wilderness now so our descendants can stand beneath groves of ancient trees and beside banks of roaring rivers as we once did.