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30 July, 2011

Backroads: Habitat

Mmmm. Shoulder verdure.
Roadless wilderness is a sublime thing...I've been told. Like most of you, I've never been that far from some sort of road. Maybe I have a pretty loose definition (re-arranged lines of 'a'a lava that would kill any car, 'Opihi Road on Moloka'i, Grays Harbor County ruts sporting alder just small enough to barrel through, tire tracks through pastures,...the list goes on), but still, I've rarely been more than a couple of miles from a motor vehicle trail of some kind. Old rail grades, rotten remnants of corduroy, routes traveled once by horses iron or meaty--maybe little more than a scar on the land now, but evidence of prior human traffic nonetheless. Sometimes these routes are harder to walk, much less drive, than the non-road nearby, but the point is that these are not pristine, wild places.

And yet, nature always reclaims them. Weeds sprout (rudely or restoratively so? depends on your perspective, or maybe your human hubris score) into the most heavily traveled roads in the nation. Even if the DOT crews manage to spray them, still the undersides and crevices and shoulders support spores and seeds and all manner of microbial life ready to start the reclamation process again.

Until there is a verdure. I've driven enough places poorly traveled to recognize the progression: forbs climbed by vines pierced by seedlings topped by a relentless future that tunnelizes the road before erasing it entirely. As long as the road is still maintained, the progression stops somewhere along that line, but on the back roads I spend so much time driving, it has begun, and stands poised to pounce. The day after construction, the artery begins to narrow. Some growth happens between tire tracks, but the real action is at the boundaries of this incursion, flanks subject to constant attack as nature abhors the biological vacuum of exposed subsoil or fresh gravel. Grading, mowing, chainsaw work all sweep it open to one degree or another, but in fact all back roads are terminal patients, and the further out they are, the more reliant they are on extensive life support.

Or from another angle, they return to life support. The early succession plants feed critters from mice to moose. Tribes used to burn their trails and other clearings in the forest for exactly this reason, to provide forage. Where can the four-leggeds find something to eat? Not in the dark understory of decades-old trees, but there's plenty along the road shoulder mowed last fall. Eventually, salal and salmonberry establish themselves, setting out a berry buffet. Roads tend to track in weeds, it is true, but this includes blackberry and other species that despite their alien-ness (and maybe egged on by their invasiveness) quickly establish themselves as abundant food source for native animals. On each shoulder lies a line of edge habitat, between the flat barren road and the forest or field or sage beyond is a strip of ecotone, often with resources not available outside it. There may be a ditch in a dry land, a berm raised above swamp, some anomaly that creatures will recognize and exploit.

These back roads, the more remote of which only see the occasional vehicle, have been adopted by some of the wildlife for travel as well. In a park where they know they are protected, you can see deer and elk making use of the open paths, pausing sometimes until cars come to a standstill, but in wilder places the animals generally yield the right of way, bounding off in that moment when they can hear your truck, but before you see them. Bears make heavy use of the roads, much easier traveling than having to haul those big bodies through the woods (not to mention the berry buffet, always a sure lure for the ursine).

I'm not an advocate for more roads. There are too many already, and it bums me out to see the number of newer roads failing to make use of older road beds, adding insult to injury, braiding ever broader impacts. Something about sitting up on a D-9 makes a guy want to cut new ground, not dress up something pioneered long ago. Pressure from environmentalists and the First People mean that a new road now may be less likely to be an ecological disaster than a new one 50 years ago, but they still become scars. Culverts clog and become landslides sometimes, ripping far larger gashes in the landscape. Sadly, some of these are built for a single use, from the wagon roads built by the army and abandoned all in a few 19th Century years to the ones still built for a timber harvest that won't be needed for another 80 years or so (at which time the dozer operator will scoff at the design and rip open a new one).

But it is also a mistake to plan as if this will stop. Or to believe that we humans are so powerful that we've permanently ruined a placed by driving into it. We drive back to our homes, and the plants grow, the animals traipse and browse. Nature cushions the blow, eventually makes the road something only an archaeologist would recognize. She shrugs it off, beginning with the shoulders.

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