Build it and people will follow — that’s the nature of roads. In many parts of the world, that fact is having an impact on ecosystems, with increased human access leading to habitat and wilderness loss, fragmentation, wildfires, overhunting and other environmental degradation. With a 60 percent increase in global road expansion predicted by 2050, careful planning of road building is crucial.
In a report published this week in the journal Nature, researchers have offered a “global road map” to steer road expansion into areas that would have maximum human economic and social benefits while protecting areas with high environmental values such as biodiversity, ecosystem services and carbon storage.
“So much road expansion today is unplanned or chaotic, and we direly need a more proactive approach,” said William F. Laurance, James Cook University, Cairns, Australia, in the Nature news release about the study. “It’s vital because we’re facing the most explosive era of road expansion in human history.”
Across the globe, logging, mining, agriculture, transportation, energy and trade require roads. “While new roads can promote social and economic development, they also can open a Pandora’s box of environmental problems. This is especially the case in pristine or frontier regions, where new roads often dramatically increase land colonization, habitat destruction, and overexploitation of wildlife and natural resources,” the study noted.
Christine S. O’Connell, graduate research assistant with the Institute on the Environment’s Global Landscapes Initiative and a co-author of the study, said, “This study was a true team effort from a global team of researchers. I was delighted to participate and bring GLI’s agriculture and land use impacts data and expertise to the table.”
“We focused on agriculture because global food demand is expected to double by mid-century, and new or improved roads are vital for farmers,” said Nathan Mueller of Harvard University in the news release. Mueller completed his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota working with GLI. “With better roads, farmers can have improved access to fertilizers, information, and markets for their crops — the whole economic equation changes, which can make farming more efficient and profitable.”
The researchers used data from GLI and other public sources to figure out where roads and road improvements would have the biggest costs and benefits. From that information, they developed a map showing where high environmental costs suggested road construction should be avoided, where roads could provide big agricultural benefit at a relatively small environmental cost, and ”conflict areas,” in which roads would bring both great agricultural benefit and substantial environmental harm.
Also contributing to the study were Gopalasamy Reuben Clemens, James Cook University and Universiti Malaya Terengganu, Malaysia; Sean Sloan, Miriam Goosem and Oscar Venter, James Cook University; David P. Edwards, University of Sheffield, U.K.; Ben Phalan and Andrew Balmford, University of Cambridge, U.K.; Rodney Van Der Ree, University of Melbourne; and Irene Burgues Arrea, Conservation Strategy Fund, Costa Rica.
“We hope our scheme will be adopted by governments and international funding agencies, to help balance development and nature conservation,” said Laurance in the news release. “It’s very exciting to see GLI data contributing to a study that we hope can contribute directly to conservation planning efforts.”
The maps are available online at www.global-roadmap.org for immediate use.
The University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment seeks lasting solutions to Earth’s biggest challenges through research, partnerships and leadership development. For more information, visit environment.umn.edu. To learn more about the Global Landscapes Initiative, visit gli.environment.umn.edu.
Banner: Deforestation associated with forest roads in Roraima in the southern Brazilian Amazon (image from Google Earth).