A global map of roadless areas and their conservation status

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Science  16 Dec 2016:
Vol. 354, Issue 6318, pp. 1423-1427
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf7166

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  • Roads threaten conservation status in developing countries
    • Shiliang Liu, Professor, School of Environment, Beijing Normal University
    • Other Contributors:
      • Fangyan Cheng, Doctor, School of Environment, Beijing Normal University

    Large-scale studies can reveal general rules of the relationship between road, conservation and development (1, 2). Ibisch et al.’s paper represents a milestone because of the importance of assessing roadless areas and conservation status on a global scale. However, Open street map (OSM) data selected as road data source in this study are less complete in some remote locations, especially in the western regions in China. It is for this reason the unrealistic conservation status in China seems similar to that in central Africa, while the most developed regions in eastern China are similar to those in the central United States.
    In reality, China's road construction is developing at an unprecedented speed. In the last 11 years, the total length of highways has increased exponentially from 193×104 km to 457 ×104 km, with a more than triple upwards development seen in expressways. In western China, the conservation status due to expanding road network is confronted with more pressure with the strategies of “Western development” and “the Belt and Road”. Regional studies have revealed the severity of ecological effects due to road construction(3). More knowledge should be acquired for the road threat on large ungulates and carnivores with long migration distances concerning ecological connectivity(4). As for most expressways in China, the two sides of the road are enclosed completely by wire mesh, which renders ecological connectivity virtually nil. Scientists in count...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • Roadless areas, sustainable development and biodiversity
    • Richard J. Smithers, Knowledge Leader: Ecosystems, Ricardo Energy & Environment, Gemini Building, Fermi Avenue, Harwell, Oxon, OX11 0QR, UK
    • Other Contributors:
      • Malgorzata Blicharska, Post-doctoral Fellow, Department of Earth Sciences, Uppsala University, Villavägen 16, 75 236 Uppsala, Sweden

    In their important analysis of a global map of roadless areas, Ibisch et al. (Science, 16 December 2016, p. 1423) conclude that “limiting road expansion into roadless areas may prove to be the most cost-effective and straightforward way of achieving strategically important global biodiversity and sustainability goals”. However, the authors’ consideration of conserving roadless areas identifies substantial imminent conflicts with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and ambivalence with regard to the Aichi Targets (ATs). These contradictions seem to arise because of the phrasing of the SDGs and ATs. The SDGs lead to the authors’ scores reflecting local, short-term concerns and solutions in relation to poverty, while the ATs result in scores that relate to an emphasis on “land sharing” at the expense of “land sparing” (1).

    The challenge is to think globally and act locally. For example, we will neither “End poverty in all its forms everywhere” (SDG1) nor “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all…” (SDG3) if we see road construction as a short-term means “to support economic development and human well-being” (SDG9, Target 9.1) rather than considering its long-term, global consequences for ecosystem services. Similarly, land sharing to conserve cultural landscapes at the expense of sparing roadless areas that support a greater biodiversity (2) will neither ensure that “extinction of known threatened species has been prevented” (AT12) nor “genetic diversi...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • 80-year old roadless assessment provides important context for recent global evaluation
    • R. Travis Belote, Research Ecologist, The Wilderness Society
    • Other Contributors:
      • Gregory H. Aplet, Senior Science Director, The Wilderness Society

    We were pleased to see Ibisch et al. (2016) evaluate roadless areas at a global scale. Their paper, combined with recent assessments by Venter et al. (2016) and Watson et al. (2016), highlights the power of mapped data to evaluate the human footprint on our planet and identify what is left of large, intact wildlands.

    Just last month marked the 80th anniversary of a similar effort conducted before geographic information systems, widely available spatial data, or computers. In November 1936, Bob Marshall (primary founder of The Wilderness Society) and Althea Dobbins published “The Largest Roadless Areas in the United States” in The Living Wilderness (Marshall and Dobbins 1936). Marshall and Dobbins identified unfragmented tracts of land exceeding 1,214 km^2 in forested regions and 2,023 km^2 in desert regions in the contiguous U.S.

    This 80-year old effort to map the roadless areas served as a call to action to protect what was left of large expanses of wild lands in the United States. Their paper inspired future generations of conservationists to protect land that remained free of roads and their associated impacts (Foreman and Wolke 1992). To assess the extent of their success, we recently digitized the Marshall and Dobbins map and determined that 45% of their original roadless areas are now formally protected in national parks, wilderness, and similar designations, 15% remains roadless but unprotected, and the remainder has been partially fragmented by ro...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.

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