Routes of Ruin
There are few more irreparable marks we can leave on the land than to
build a road.
Mike Dombeck, U.S. Forest Service Chief, 19981
The United States is more wedded to vehicles than is any other nation, and “freedom” to many Americans seemingly means driving their individual vehicles anywhere they choose. Opinion polls commonly show high proportions of U.S. citizens more concerned about gas prices, potholed highways, or restrictions on vehicle access to backcountry washes and dirt roads than about government scandals, stolen elections, or environmental damage.2 Unfortunately, vehicles and roads exact a huge toll on lives and health and threaten our future well-being. Driving wheeled vehicles, and constructing roads to support them, comes close to topping the list of humankind’s most environmentally damaging activities.
On most soils, even foot traffic creates tracks, trails, and roads. After ancient people invented wheeled vehicles to carry their burdens and themselves, they found that running water quickly rutted and potholed the cart tracks, and gully erosion chopped them up on slopes. Rainstorms eroded the tracks, flooding the dislodged sediment into streams and creeks and burying downslope croplands. Rutted tracks prevented Roman chariots from driving as fast as they were designed to go, so the talented Roman engineers quite naturally invented paved roads—some with better staying power than asphalt highways. But Roman paving did not solve the erosion problems that roads created, and in some ways made it worse.
Today, some parts of the United States contain more motorized vehicles than people. The varied vehicle uses, including military training, have vastly proliferated roads and roadlike corridors—especially numerous utility routes—across every type of American landscape. Erosional forces and their effects have not changed since Roman times, but modern engineers still fail to choose transportation routes or build roads to minimize environmental damages. The roads spread severe erosional effects everywhere, along with pervasive pollution. On top of it all, television images encourage Americans to take recreational cars, trucks, motorcycles, and all-terrain vehicles anywhere we wish. The naked ruts they create are an insidious form of road building.