America’s Roadless Wilderness

America’s Roadless Wilderness


Photograph by Daniel Shea
From Atmos Volume 04: Cascade

The Roadless Rule helps keep millions of acres of forest safe for Indigenous peoples and away from industry. In an Atmos exclusive, the Wilderness Society shares maps highlighting this law’s value. Welcome to The Frontline, your introduction to this protection.

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Imagine a world without roads. Humans would have a hard time, but wildlife? They’d thrive. Roadkill would be a thing of the past. Migrating species could reach all corners of their habitat without encountering a road barrier.


Our paved society is a sad story that the Wilderness Society has illustrated quite beautifully through a digital project shared exclusively with Atmos that highlights the ecological significance of roadless areas that exist today thanks to the 2001 Roadless Rule. This little-known law protects some 58 million acres of National Forest System lands from roads and timber harvesting. This is the law President Donald Trump exempted the Tongass National Forest from in October to allow industry to enter the Alaskan wilderness


Erasing these protections not only threatens invaluable old-growth forests that help sequester carbon—it also threatens the well-being of Indigenous peoples who depend on these forests, rivers, and wild places to hunt, fish, and practice cultural traditions.


Welcome to The Frontline, your introduction to the Roadless Rule. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. In our continued celebration of wilderness and its first caretakers, you’ll learn about the law that keeps some of our national forests wilder than even our national parks or monuments.



It’s likely that your favorite local trail exists because of the Roadless Rule, but you’d never know it. Some forests protected under the rule are the least-developed in the contiguous U.S., like in California, Idaho, and Minnesota. And in others, like Wisconsin and Alabama, these areas are among the last remaining places that are truly wild. While national parks and monuments often come with giant wooden signs signaling their entrance, roadless areas often go unnoticed.


But many of these swaths of land are in close proximity to national parks, boosting their effectiveness in protecting wildlife that may travel outside designated parkland. A September paper published in the journal Conservation Science and Practice found that if legislators strengthened the Roadless Rule to join the protected land network of parks and monuments, more than 28 million acres of extreme wilderness would be added. Nearly a quarter of all lands the rule covers are in the top 10 percent of the wildest places in the lower 48. 


“A third of [roadless areas] literally share a boundary with national parks and wilderness areas,” says Travis Belote, the lead ecologist at the Wilderness Society and a co-author on the paper. “As I say, a Thanksgiving Day turkey trot’s distance away… In some ways, [roadless areas] are part of the greater ecosystems of our national parks and our wilderness areas. They help buffer our most iconic protected areas.”


As the Wilderness Society shows in the below image, key watersheds sit on lands such as the Sacramento River Watershed and the Rio Grande Watershed. Keeping out roads and development at large helps maintain these bodies of water, which provide drinking water for some 47 million people in the U.S. Industry activity may compromise the safety of that drinking water due to runoff and other pollution. As for the animals, noise pollution can push them out. A 2017 study in Science found that humans were doubling the amount of noise in the majority of protected areas—including in critical plant and invertebrate habitat. The sawing of trees is a sorrowful sound; the creatures of the forest know it means they should seek refuge elsewhere.

Watersheds on Roadless Areas
Map courtesy of the Wilderness Society

For many of us, these impacts may feel distant. But for Indigenous communities that often live in close relation to these lands, the loss of land is a direct blow. Worst of all, it’s a loss that never seems to end.


“It is a reoccurring attack,” says Kashudoha, the preferred Tlingit name of Wanda Culp, the Tongass Coordinator for the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network. “This is not new.”


She shares a word in the Tlingit language with me: kayaani. “To us, that means all living plants from the top of the mountain to when the tide goes out; our table is set,” the 72-year-old tells me. “All that in a word: kayaani.


What the Roadless Rule does, Kashudoha says, is bring back those protections. Despite its colonialist roots—as is the case with most modern institutions in the U.S.—she’s grateful for the conservation law but recognizes the limitations of legislation, too. 


“Every one of them, all those laws, mean nothing to industry,” she says. “It does not matter how many of us speak out as American people to our government. It bounces off of them because they’re already bought and paid for by the industry.”


The Tongass National Forest is the most recent example of this. The Trump administration didn’t care that 96 percent of public comments supported the forest’s continued protection. The state of Alaska is in such serious cahoots with the timber industry that it gave $1.3 million in public dollars to Alaska Forest Association, which represents the timber industry.

“It is a reoccurring attack. This is not new.”

Wanda "Kashudoha" Culp
Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network

The nation’s largest forest sits on the ancestral homelands of Kashudoha’s people, the Tlingit. They fish in the waters that surround the forest. Rising temperatures are hard enough on the wildlife the Tlingit depend on for sustenance. The incoming Biden-Harris administration may be able to reverse this move in the Tongass, but it can go even further by bolstering the legal protection of the rest of the nation’s roadless areas. In the meantime, advocates have vowed to challenge this exemption in court.


The climate emergency requires protecting our forests to draw carbon out of the atmosphere. The Anthropocene’s sixth mass extinction, demands we keep habitats intact to save the wildlife that remain. The unfolding human rights crisis among Arctic Indigenous peoples compels us to maintain the lands that aren’t melting or falling into the ocean due to global warming.


And the Roadless Rule is a small but critical piece of that puzzle.

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