Byline: Josh Earl, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
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. …