To Get to the Other Side

Roads and the future of life on Earth

Gabriel White/Flickr
Gabriel White/Flickr

Crossings: How Road Ecology Is Shaping the Future of Our Planet by Ben Goldfarb; W. W. Norton, 384 pp., $30

There are the snowshoe hare years when the furred lumps of their bodies spot the roads where I live in Homer, Alaska, like some kind of terrible acne. Usually, all you can identify amid the hairy mess is a single hind foot—in life, a miracle of engineering with such propulsion, it lands in front of the forefoot after a leap. There are the porcupine seasons when the pavement is littered with their flattened bodies, a few quills rising like exclamation points on their demise. There are winters of moose kills, when friends get a call from the state troopers in the middle of the night, then groggily venture out to salvage the meat right off the road.

These deaths on pavement are windows into the wild world, telling of the years when the hare population booms, of the autumns when porkies hit the road to find mates, and of months when heavy snow accumulations push belly-deep moose onto the highway, where it’s far easier to hoof around. Roadkill, Ben Goldfarb writes in Crossings, is “an ethical crisis as well as a biological one.” This assessment neatly sums up the problem of our roads in toto. And with 15 million miles of new roads scheduled for construction across the planet in the coming years, now is the time for a more nuanced understanding of the harm our roads are causing and what we can do about it.

Roads, as Goldfarb explains, shape the lives of animals in many ways. Of course, countless animals are killed or maimed by vehicles. In New York State alone, Goldfarb recounts, a deer is hit by a car every eight minutes. Vehicle impacts are cruel, and they’re also a threat to the survival of species. Unlike predation, disease, and other natural causes of mortality that typically weed out the sick and the weak, roadkill plucks healthy animals out of a population, setting back generations to come. The relentless squashing of female salamanders under tires—before the amphibians have reached their prime breeding years—has led to a drop in the average size of their egg masses. Death by road is an overlooked contributor to the sixth major extinction, Goldfarb writes, when species are disappearing as much as a hundred times faster than at any point in Earth’s history.

But there are many other ways in which our transportation infrastructure collides with animal lives. Highways cleave habitats into constricted islands and act as “guillotines” to migrations, severing animals from the land and water they need to survive—an increasing problem as warming temperatures and wildly changing environmental conditions necessitate that animals be able to move in order to survive. Roads also ooze salty, oily pollution. And then there is the noise, so ubiquitous in this country that even our national parks echo with the din. The roar of roadways leads to a host of health consequences in people and animals alike.

Not surprisingly, the United States is bullish on roads. With four million miles, it is home to the world’s largest road network, about one-sixth of the planet’s total. The most infuriating example of our national love affair with roads might be the case of the U.S. Forest Service, an agency many of us think of as the caretaker of some of the most beautiful and wild lands in the country. But the Forest Service is likely the largest manager of roads on the planet, Goldfarb writes, overseeing some 370,000 miles within our public lands. Roads crisscross these landscapes, lying at the intersection of the angry (and often violent) debates over what public lands are for and who gets to decide.

Road ecology forces us to face other hard questions as well. Black and brown communities are disproportionately affected by road noise and pollution. Decades of redlining coincided with large-scale bulldozing of buildings in vibrant communities of color to make room for new roads. And globally, roadways have, from time immemorial, been instruments of empire, routes of rape, pillage, and plunder. Thankfully, road ecology demands that we seek to understand the effects our roads have on us and on the creatures with whom we share this planet, forcing us to stand in their shoes, hooves, paws, scales, and webbed feet to envision pavement from different points of view. Road ecology, Goldfarb writes, is “empathy manifested as science.”

And this science points us to solutions. Goldfarb explains the movement to construct wildlife passageways over and under highways to enable migration and act as “sutures of habitat” in a gashed-up world. He takes us to an ambitious wildlife road crossing, a highway overpass in Washington’s Cascade Mountains. A soaring span more than three stories above I-90, the hill-like bridge has concrete walls to block the view and clamor of the vehicles below and features landscaping to match the natural surroundings—wild rose, Douglas fir, scattered rock piles, and downed trees. The crossing is a conduit for elk and many smaller mammals, connecting prime habitat on either side of the interstate.

Goldfarb, author of the award-winning Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, travels to Costa Rica, Brazil, Tasmania, and across the United States to gather stories of people who rescue and rehabilitate road-injured animals, efforts to decommission and rewild roads, and the gentle armies that help small creatures cross to safety. For him, the work is important in large and small ways. When he volunteers with a nighttime effort in Portland, Oregon, to ferry frogs by bucket across a pavement deathtrap so that the amphibians can complete an ancient wetland-to-forest migration, he describes the work as “spiritually nourishing.”

Crossings is science writing at its best. Each page brings something interesting and new. Goldfarb’s writing is full of metaphor carefully crafted to help us understand our complicated world and the tricky tradeoffs inherent in conservation: Will an effort to plant milkweed along U.S. interstates help support the flagging monarch population or just lure them to their deaths? Ultimately, his book is a hopeful reminder of our responsibilities in the Anthropocene, our duty to clean up our messes and help other species survive. If we are to reduce the havoc we inflict on the planet and one another, we must look at our roads.

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Miranda Weiss is a science and nature writer. The author of Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaska, she also wrote the Northern Lights blog for our website.


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