No Thruway

With more than 100 million kilometers of roads and highways now criss-crossing the landscape, the world’s transport network plays a major role in shaping the environment. In Europe, however, officials have been slow to map and protect the continent’s few remaining roadless areas, a new study argues.

Europe “is probably the continent most highly fragmented by transport infrastructures,” an international research team writes in Environmental Management. And the paving continues: More than 13,000 kilometers of “motorways” were built in the European Union (EU) between 1995 and 2005, according to one study, and more than 10 hectares of land were converted to roads every day between 1990 and 1998 in a subset of 15 EU nations. In Belgium, transport infrastructure already occupies more than 4% of the country’s surface area, the researchers note. But while other nations – including the United States – have made concerted efforts to map roadless areas and develop policies for protecting them, they are “widely neglected as a legal target” in Europe.

To explore the consequences of that neglect, the researchers carefully examined the relationship between roads and protected areas in Germany. They found that although Europe’s Natura 2000 parks network covers nearly 16% of the nation, most sites are “highly fragmented and most low-traffic areas (75%) lie unprotected outside this network.” This proportion is even higher in western Germany, where just 20% of the low-traffic areas are protected.

There is urgency in those numbers, the authors conclude. “We call for a pan-European conservation strategy,” they write. “The few remaining roadless and low-traffic areas… should be urgently inventoried, included more explicitly in the law and accounted for in transport and urban planning.” And a changing climate will make this type of road work even more important, they add. “Preserving “unfragmented large patches of natural habitats seems a prudent strategy under any climate change scenario.”David Malakoff | October 17, 2011

Source: Selva, N., Kreft, S., Kati, V., Schluck, M., Jonsson, B., Mihok, B., Okarma, H., & Ibisch, P. (2011). Roadless and Low-Traffic Areas as Conservation Targets in Europe. Environmental Management, 48 (5), 865-877 DOI: 10.1007/s00267-011-9751-z

Image © Richard Clark