Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"Division Street" and "The Calf-Path"

At work today, one of the departments screened a documentary called "Division Street." The movie explains the history of why roads were built in the United States and that currently the furthest you can get from a road in the lower 48 states is in the wilderness of Yellowstone Park (the distance to the nearest road is 22 miles). In the Eastern United States you can't go further than 5 miles from the nearest roads and that spot is somewhere in the mountains of Virginia. It also explains the need for wildlife over and underpasses because roads divide the historic territories of most wild animals, and lead to localized extinction. Out West, most of the wildlife related accidents happen on about 2-5% of the total roads, so it's very easy to pinpoint those stretches and do something about it. In the East this is not quite so easy, in part because we have a much denser population and road network.

It was also recommended that we take a look at the poem "The Calf-Path" by Sam Foss which talks about how roads were built on the top of 2-lane wagon trails, which were built on top of wildlife paths, etc. That poem really made me think about the wisdom of how we build things and its impact on the environment. I'm always so amazed when people talk about Portland, OR and about how concerned the politicians there are about city planning and the environmental impacts of urban sprawl. The movie made a point that no one seems to be willing to talk about the issue of urban and road planning on a national level or about the need for a shift in societal thinking.

Both the movie and the poem make me so mad that a country as rich and powerful as the United States can't get its act together and do something positive for the environment on a national scale. It acts as a model for other countries around the world just developing their own infrastructures. For example, the Tanzanian president is pushing for a trans-country highway that will cut across the oldest and longest wildlife migration in the world and has rejected offers of help to make the road more friendly to wildlife.

However, there seems to be hope on the horizon at a local level. Western States and American Indian reservations are taking up the fight. Arizona started a wildlife-friendly road program in 2008, which routinely includes over and underpasses for local wildlife such as mule deer, elk, desert tortoises, and other animals. Some Eastern states have joined the movement. Even Orlando, Florida is experimenting with ways of getting more cars off the roads (mainly through commuter rails) to cut down on the need for a larger road network.

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