- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 6, 2002

Americans like going places. Every year, U.S. tires grind out more than 2 trillion miles. That's enough for 377 million round trips from the District to Los Angeles, or 10,750 trips to the sun and back.
All that driving requires roads 4 million miles worth.
These highways and byways are the focus of the emerging field of road ecology, which holds that the concrete-and-asphalt arteries of American prosperity have serious consequences for the environment.
A new book, titled "Road Ecology: Science and Solutions," is part of a move among ecologists and developers to find better answers to transportation problems. The book's 14 authors include leading specialists in transportation, ecology and hydrology.
"This 4 million-mile network gets into everybody's back yard," says Richard Forman, a landscape ecologist at Harvard University's design school and an author and editor of the book, due out Nov. 22. "It hit me in the face seven or eight years ago. When I looked at any landscape, the road network was the most conspicuous aspect and the least known."
While some of the effects of roads are obvious pollution, roadkill others are less apparent. Engineers might reroute a stream, which once wound serenely through a field, into a straighter path. As a result, the stream flows more quickly, changing which animals can live by it. A channel cut through a hill might alter airflow patterns, increasing wind erosion.
Road ecology explores this relationship between the natural environment and the road system.
"It's an awesome challenge to bridge the huge amount of knowledge and methods that are needed to understand these relationships," says Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California in Berkeley and a co-editor of the book.
"I am particularly concerned," he says, "about the sprawling suburban development that is consuming land at a far greater rate than population growth, disturbing many fragile environments at the fringe of today's cities, as well as consuming wetlands."
Until recently, scientists and transportation experts worked on different parts of the same problem, Mr. Forman says. Scientists looked at the environment, developers looked at traffic patterns and neither talked much with the other.
This separation is extremely unhelpful when it comes to interactions between roads and nature, Mr. Forman says. He hopes to bridge the "lingo barrier."
"It's not 'rocket ecology,'" he says. "We don't have to invent anything, [but] we thought it was time to pull it together."
The big issue in road ecology is what the book calls "mitigation" minimizing the impact of society's need to travel. One way to do that is to limit human access to land.
"People can get in and over-hunt an area or trample a bog," says Mr. Forman. In some areas, road closure and removal is the only solution.
"It's important to have large green areas without roads," he explains. "We could easily expand many remote areas by closing one or two roads. By strategically closing and building roads, we can have large blocks of greenery to protect really sensitive species."
Another common problem is traffic disturbance. Researchers have discovered "avoidance zones," areas that animals shun because of their proximity to noisy traffic. One study found that many songbirds were sensitive to noise levels equivalent to those in a library reading room. Deer and elk also tend to stay several hundred feet away from thoroughfares. When multiple roads crisscross an area, habitat quickly fragments.
Similarly, roads present physical barriers that can block or impede animal movements, Mr. Forman says. When some species learn to associate busy roadways with danger, they may stop trying to cross. Populations can become inbred or reduced as they are hemmed in, especially for animals like grizzly bears that require a lot of land to survive.
These effects and others demand some tough choices, Mr. Forman says. To deal with high roadkill rates, he suggests developers either widen roads to prevent animals from crossing and being hit, decrease the traffic to reduce roadkill, or move the road elsewhere.
Routing traffic through a few major highways, Mr. Forman says, is less harmful to the environment than building a web of smaller roads.
Melody Flowers, a representative for the Sierra Club's Challenge to Sprawl Campaign, says the group agrees with the goals of road ecology.
"The proliferation of highways has had a huge impact on the environment," she says.
But the biggest concern with highways, Ms. Flowers says, is they contribute to urban sprawl.
"Automobiles aren't always the best way to get from place to place," she says. The goal should be "accessibility, not just mobility." The Sierra Club supports balancing transportation choices among cars, railways, buses and bike trails.
Not everyone is aboard the road ecology bus, though. Sam Kazman, general counsel for the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute in the District is concerned this type of research inevitably leads to increased government regulation.
The researchers, he says, while well-intentioned, help "advance attacks on mobility."
In fact, the car is one of the three most liberating technologies ever invented, he says, along with the printing press and the microchip.
"Statist intellectuals despise few things more than the suburbs," Mr. Kazman said in a speech last year. But "many people do not like the urban style of living, or at least they do not want it for certain phases of their life such as when they are going to raise kids."
"If we restrict mobility in the name of something like global warming, then the last groups that gain mobility, women and immigrants, will probably be the first to lose it."
Mr. Forman is optimistic about the future of the fledgling science.
"In state after state, the public is starting to see the ecological effects on wildlife," he says. "They are talking to their lawmakers. They are writing letters to the editors of their newspapers. The interest is catapulting because the public is doing something. It's not coming from the top."
"There are a good number of agencies looking for solutions," he says. "If society allocated even the tiniest bit of money to this, the gains would be enormous."

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