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Long-term forest health implications of roadlessness

Author(s): Sean P. Healey
Year Published: 2020

The 2001 Forest Service Roadless Rule prohibits roadbuilding in forests across an area equivalent to the combined states of New York and Maine (236 000 km2). There have been recent assertions that roads are needed to prevent fire and to keep forests healthy. Despite twenty years of ongoing forest health monitoring and the unique scope and ecological significance of this network of roadless areas, there has to date been no integrated assessment of the relationship between roads and forest health. Here, this question was addressed by synthesizing different sources of nationally consistent, longitudinal monitoring data. Agency management records show that a lack of roads has not stopped fire prevention measures; fuel management activities in roadless areas have actually been more numerous on a per-square kilometer basis than elsewhere in the National Forest System, although activities in areas with roads cover larger areas. Historical fire maps indicate that forests with and without roads have burned at similar rates since the Rule took effect. The apparent neutrality of roads with respect to fire occurrence may be due to higher rates of human caused ignition near roads offsetting advantages related to more agile positioning of fire-fighting assets. Beyond the fire dimension of forest health, analysis of over 15 000 inventory plots showed that while tree root disease is only weakly correlated with proximity to roads, roads are strongly associated with the spread of invasive plant species in national forests. Non-native plants are twice as common within 152 meters (500 feet) of a road as farther away. Speculation that eliminating road prohibitions would improve forest health is not supported by nearly twenty years of monitoring data.

Citation: Healey, Sean P. 2020 Long-term forest health implications of roadlessness. Environmental Research Letters. 15: 104023. https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba031
Topic(s): Fire & Wilderness
Ecosystem(s): None
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 22491
Record updated: Jan 13, 2021