The Importance of U.S. Roadless Areas

Though largely unknown to many people, roadless lands in our national forests fill a vital niche among America’s public lands. How important are these “roadless areas,” so named because construction of roads is banned within their boundaries? A new study by The Wilderness Society reveals they are more essential than previously known, especially when it comes to protecting our national parks and clean drinking water for millions of people.

For years, mining and logging companies have tried to gain access to these untouched lands for corporate profit. Now we have a clearer picture of what we all would lose if they had their way.

Scroll to learn about the importance of roadless areas to our shared future.

Roadless Areas
National Parks or Wilderness Areas
Roadless Areas - Adjacent to NPS and Wilderness
Watersheds on Forest Service Lands
Important drinking water sources

Where there are roads, there is development

Roads spread across the nation like a dense spiderweb, and the impact of this development is vast. America is covered with some four million miles of both paved and unpaved roads—roughly the distance of traveling to the moon and back eight times. Where these roads exist, runoff deposits sediments in nearby lakes and streams, the loss of habitat threatens wildlife, and wild nature is put at risk.

Our roadless areas protect wilderness and national parks

Roadless areas are public lands that the National Forest Service has designated as off-limits to extractive industries and the construction of roads. Only two percent of the United States is designated as roadless, but these beautiful forests—typically adjacent to wilderness areas and national parks—give communities opportunities for recreation while providing a protective buffer to parks and wilderness that otherwise might be encroached upon by development.

You may have hiked, camped, picnicked or fished in a roadless area without even realizing it. Our nation’s roadless area are scattered across 39 states and are owned by all of us but, sadly, they are under threat. Extractive industries such as timber, oil and gas, and mining would like to develop them.

A new study by The Wilderness Society found why it’s so important to protect our roadless areas from development: In many cases, these forests are more wild than even our national parks and monuments. In addition to protecting those better-known public lands, roadless areas provide clean drinking water for millions of people. They help us fight climate change by capturing and storing significant amounts of carbon.

If these forests were given greater environmental protections, we would essentially expand national parks and wilderness areas by 57 percent, or nearly 50 million acres. This would give us all more opportunities to enjoy our public lands and provide more wildlife habitat in and around our nation’s most treasured places.

We all benefit from more protected public lands, in large part because we all need clean drinking water. Roadless areas are essential to providing clean drinking water to 47 million people in the contiguous United States. Major cities such Los Angeles, Atlanta, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Denver rely on roadless areas for their water supplies.

What could the loss of roadless areas actually look like? This is an image of the edge of Yellowstone National Park's western unprotected boundary, with Yellowstone on the right side of the green line. To the left is an area where roads were built and timber was harvested: The Targhee National Forest

The scars on the land to the left show where logging has occurred. Noise pollution from chain saws and movement of logging trucks drive wildlife out of such areas, while degraded water quality in streams outside the park often affect water quality inside park boundaries. Had the land on the left been designated as a roadless area, Yellowstone could have been better protected from the impacts of development.

By protecting our roadless areas we enhance our public lands, protect wildlife, and help ensure clean drinking water for millions of people.

"America’s roadless areas provide many benefits, including wildlife habitat, opportunities for undisturbed recreation, and carbon storage to protect the world’s climate. Yet, even when they visit these public lands, most people are likely unaware of their roadless status, which is essential to ensuring we all have clean drinking water. Protecting these places is a vital step toward ensuring a healthy, sustainable future."

—Travis Belote, Lead Ecologist, The Wilderness Society