In June, I bicycled the Dalton Highway (aka Haul Road) from Prudhoe Bay to Fairbanks. It was everything I expected — hot, dusty, buggy and endless mountains with 12 percent grades. In other words, it was an experience, not a vacation.
The Haul Road is clearly iconic among American roads. It is one of only two North American roads that cross the Arctic Circle. It is one of only two roads that bridge the Yukon River. It crosses the continental divide through the 4,739-foot Atigun Pass, the highest road maintained in Alaska year round. And it has the distinction of having the longest segment of service-less road in North America, stretching for 240 miles from Prudhoe Bay to Coldfoot. I biked that stretch in two days, propelled by the knowledge of coffee and burgers awaiting me at the Coldfoot truck-stop.
My ride was also a good time to reflect about roads in general as I stared at this one and part of the Elliott Highway for just shy of 500 miles over five very long days.
In 1869 when the first transcontinental railroad was completed in the U.S., roads were mostly rutted horse and wagon trails, particularly away from cities. Ironically, interest in improving roads began in the late 1800s with the proliferation of bicycles. Cyclists began to call for “good roads” with hard, smooth surfaces for country rides.
But Henry Ford’s genius ensured that the first transcontinental road, the Lincoln Highway, was built for automobiles in 1913. The ALCAN, which connected Alaska to the Lower 48, was completed in 1942. The Sterling and Seward Highways, which ultimately connected the Kenai Peninsula to the ALCAN, were completed in 1951. And the Haul Road, which connected the Arctic Ocean to Florida and eventually to Ushuaia at the tip of South America via the Pan-American Highway, was completed in 1974.
The Haul Road was not open to the public until 1994. Since then, almost half the highway has been paved. While commercial truckers and hunters still constitute most travelers on the highway, I can testify that tour buses now make their way to the Yukon River, the Arctic Circle, and to Coldfoot regularly in the summer. Mostly European adventurers bounce and slide down the Haul Road on BMW dirt bikes rented in Fairbanks.
I’m sure you get the picture. Roads take on a life of their own as they spread like a spider’s web across the landscape. Nationally, the U.S. has almost 4 million miles of roads, covering an area the size of North Carolina or 1 percent of the American landscape. In Alaska, the Department of Transportation maintains 1,500 miles of paved roads and 2,000 miles of gravel roads. This translates to a road density of 1 mile of road for every 175 square miles, far below the average elsewhere in the U.S. of 1 mile per square mile. Urbanized states like New Jersey average 5 miles of road per square mile and much higher road densities can occur at local scales. Here on the Kenai, road densities reach 17 miles per square mile in urban areas like Soldotna.
Six short decades ago, the Sterling Highway bridge that crossed upstream from the mouth of the Kenai River helped create the truck-stop now known as Soldotna. And now 1.4 million vehicles each year pass through the 22-mile section that bisects the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge just east of town. The 357 miles of state highway on the Kenai Peninsula has evolved into over 3,000 miles of roads and driveways of various widths and materials.
And let’s be frank. Roads are very unfriendly to wildlife. They fragment habitat, displace wildlife, modify hydrology, and serve as vectors for invasive plants and barriers to wildlife movement. Traffic causes wildlife-vehicle collisions, produces noise, and generates pollution.
An estimated 1 – 2 million mammal-vehicle collisions occur annually in North America, causing more than 200 human fatalities and one billion U.S. dollars in property damage each year!
An entire scientific discipline has developed around the direct and indirect effects of roads. Dr. Richard Forman, a Harvard professor of landscape ecology and arguably the father of “road ecology”, is the lead author of a text book by the same name.
Chapter 5 describes how there is a time lag after road construction because the various effects occur at different rates. Initially there is habitat loss due to the road itself, followed by reduced habitat quality adjacent to the road, then increased wildlife mortality due to more traffic, and finally reduced connectivity as development follows.
The cumulative effect over many years is increased risk of local extinction for some species. Forman promoted road density as a single metric for representing these very complex and interacting effects of roads on wildlife and their habitats.
This same book points out, however, that although road density is important, construction of the first road into an area has the largest relative impact on wildlife. And that brings us back to the Dalton Highway. As the first and only road to connect the high arctic to the rest of Alaska, it is in the early stages of this time lag. But already I can see increased traffic volumes, certainly during the summer tourist season, even as white sweetclover and narrowleaf hawksbeard, two exotic invasive plants, march northward along the road right of way.
As one of the last great frontier roads, it’s still an experience by whatever means the Haul Road is traveled. I’m glad I biked it, but I’m also in no rush to repeat it anytime in the near future.
John Morton is the supervisory biologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. You can find more information about the refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.