(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 459: Crossings
This week on Talking Headways we’re joined by author Ben Goldfarb to talk about his book, Crossings: How Road Ecology is Shaping the Future of Our Planet. We discuss how roads cut off ecosystems, wildlife crossings, and animal mobility at different scales.
You can get the book from The Overhead Wire book club at Bookshop.org.
Below is a full unedited AI generated transcript of the episode:
Jeff Wood (1m 26s):
Ben Goldfarb, welcome to the Talking Headways podcast.
Ben Goldfarb (1m 50s):
Thanks so much, Jeff. Thanks for having me.
Jeff Wood (1m 52s):
Well, thanks for being here. Before we get started, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Ben Goldfarb (1m 56s):
Sure. I am an environmental journalist, so I write about wildlife conservation and Ecology and, you know, public lands management for all kinds of different publications from the Atlantic to National Geographic to the Smithsonian Magazine. And I’m the author of a couple of books, one about beavers called Eager, and my new book, which we’re talking about today, is called Crossings How. Road. Ecology is Shaping the Future of Our Planet. And I live in Colorado,
Jeff Wood (2m 24s):
So usually I ask folks, you know, ’cause it, we focus on transportation in cities mostly. I ask them, you know, how did you get into city planning? Or you get into transportation, but how did you get into the work that you do?
Ben Goldfarb (2m 33s):
Well, let’s, let’s see. I I always loved to write and I always cared about nature and you know, I I actually, after college, I had a kinda a series of kind of field Ecology tech type of jobs working for the National Park Service and the New York City Parks Department and, you know, various environmental organizations. And, you know, I sort of thought that I, maybe I was going to do that for a living, you know, be a, a professional conservationist in some capacity. But I always loved to write. And at some point I remembered that and I started writing about the things that I, I was working on and learning about. And eventually that became my, my whole life. And so, you know, writing about nature is my experience has been, that’s a great way to synthesize my passion and concern for conservation and wildlife with my love of writing.
Jeff Wood (3m 15s):
That’s awesome. Well, let’s chat about your book Crossings. How Road Ecology is Shaping the Future of Our Planet. I found it really easy to read and I really appreciate that. And I also found it very compelling because of just thinking of it from a transportation perspective, from the roads that are cut through wilderness and non wilderness everywhere. And you, you really do discuss how roads carve up the land and, and have through history. And I I’m wondering what started you on this specific journey?
Ben Goldfarb (3m 41s):
That’s a good question. you know, I, I think that if you write about conservation and wildlife biology as I, as I do, you know, the theme of habitat fragmentation just comes up over and over again. you know, this idea that animals need to move across large landscapes to find food and habitat and mates and all of the things that they need to survive. And, you know, one of the ways in which we’ve made life incredibly difficult for wild animals is by fragmenting that habitat with our farms and our cities and our, our infrastructure. And, you know, most of all our, our roads, you know, roads are sort of the ultimate forces of habitat fragmentation in a lot of ways. So this idea of, of roads being really problematic for nature just came up over and over again.
Ben Goldfarb (4m 25s):
And, you know, the work that I was, I was doing, and at some point along the line, I had the opportunity to visit and tour these wildlife crossing structures, you know, these bridges and underpasses that had been built on highway 93 in Montana for, for wildlife. And, you know, I just found that in incredibly powerful and compelling, you know, I felt like roads had been in the background of everything I was doing, and here was this project that foregrounded them in a way and showed that, you know, this problem of habitat fragmentation primarily by roads is not entirely intractable. you know, there are things that we can do to heal some of the ecological wounds that roads create. So it was that experience seeing these wildlife crossings in Montana that got me thinking about roads and moved them from background to foreground and started me on the journey of this book.
Jeff Wood (5m 15s):
And it’s not a new thing either. It feels like it’s something that’s been happening for millennia, you know, the roads cutting through nature through wild spaces. And I’m curious if you look back at the history of roads and road building, even going back to the Roman period, how this has impacted the landscape over time, because now we have obviously the interstate highways and a whole, you know, plethora of road building in places like Brazil, but it goes back to maybe earlier than that,
Ben Goldfarb (5m 37s):
Much earlier. Yeah. you know, I think that one of the ironies of roads is that, you know, today there there are these forces of the destruction of wild animals. And yet, you know, their origins are often as animal trails. you know, especially in North America. It was these giant herds of bison, you know, moving through the landscape, often migrating to salt licks. And you know, these sort of early accounts from colonists are full of these descriptions of these amazing bison trails where 10 men could walk abreast, that sort of thing. And over time, you know, those bison trails became native American footpaths that were, you know, used very widely. And there were these extensive corridors of native infrastructure paralleling many of our, our rivers like the Mississippi and the Columbia.
Ben Goldfarb (6m 19s):
And then, you know, over time those native footpaths became wagon roads, which were eventually paved and became, you know, sort of country roads for Model T’s and you know, and, and then eventually became our, our major federal highways. So, you know, the history of road building is this history of layers of infrastructure built by both wild animals and human users over the course of many centuries. But you know, you’re right that, I mean, ever since the dawn of road building, you know, roads have had impacts. There are, you know, some, some amazing early kind of proto road Ecology studies, you know, you know, you mentioned the Romans showing that, you know, all all of those Roman roads and aqueducts were just bleeding sediment into adjacent lakes, which was, you know, profoundly changing the lake’s ecosystems.
Ben Goldfarb (7m 4s):
So the impact of roads really predates certainly the, the automobile. But, you know, obviously cars and traffic dramatically accelerated those impacts and turned roads from, you know, mostly relatively benign structures to these, you know, these really transformative features of the landscape.
Jeff Wood (7m 24s):
And that’s an interesting part as well, is that the evolution of roads themselves almost, you know, outpace the evolution of the animals that were trying to cross them. And I found that really fascinating too.
Ben Goldfarb (7m 33s):
Yeah, that’s, you know, that’s one of the really tragic and I think pernicious things about cars and, and modern roads that permit really high speeds, right? Is that in some ways, you know, traffic subverts evolution, you know, you sort of imagine the, the most common defense mechanisms of many of our beloved species. you know, you can picture a turtle withdrawing its limbs into its shell or a, you know, a porcupine bristling its quills or a skunk spraying or, you know, an a possum playing possum, right? These are all evolutionary defense mechanisms that were honed over thousands of generations and worked really well against coyotes and foxes and hawks and, you know, natural predators.
Ben Goldfarb (8m 14s):
And then, you know, all of a sudden along comes the car, which is, you know, this bigger, faster, heavier predator than anything, you know, wildlife has ever experienced before. And you know, the worst thing you can do in the face of a car is withdraw into your shell, right? You’re gonna get crushed, you know, the worst thing you can do is to hunker down. And I think that’s a, a big part of why roadkill, you know, is really this epic biological crisis because it, you know, it takes these otherwise useful adaptations and, you know, not only renders them useless, but actually renders them maladaptive. Which, you know, I’ve, I’ve always found really tragic.
Jeff Wood (8m 50s):
There’s also another evolutionary issue, which is the cutting off of ecosystems from other ecosystems by roads. And that was another piece of the book that really, I don’t know if it made me sad so much as like disappointed because of the impact that we’ve had on, you know, evolution of animals overall or their migration patterns or whatever it might be, but just like the way that we’ve impacted them, maybe more than they’ve impacted us.
Ben Goldfarb (9m 15s):
Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. you know, that that kind of genetic fragmentation is, is really, that’s really deleterious, you know, and, and the, the loss of migration pathways is something I think about a lot, right? I mean, you know, we, the kind of the direct mortality caused by roads, right, roadkill, it’s, it’s is this very conspicuous manifestation of the, the problems that cars create. you know, we’ve all, we’ve all seen the dead deer or raccoon or squirrel by the side of the highway. It’s this very visible demonstration of how damaging roads can be. But you know what, what you don’t really see are the animals that never even attempt to cross roads because there’s this steady stream of traffic whizzing by, you know, the, this phenomenon that some biologists have called the moving fence again, this impermeable wall of traffic.
Ben Goldfarb (10m 1s):
And, you know, that’s even worse I think in, in some cases than roadkill itself In the book, I, I tell the story of this, you know, this herd of mule deer in Wyoming that can’t reach their winter habitat because, you know, I 80 gets in their way and they, again, they don’t even really attempt to cross I 80 in some years. Many of them starve as a result. And, you know, and I think, you know, again, that’s worse than roadkill, you know, a herd of mule deer or antelope or elk or what have you, you know, they can probably survive a few collisions on the highway. What they can’t survive is starving en mass because, you know, they’ve lost access to really important habitat. So, you know, a road itself might only be a hundred feet from shoulder to shoulder, and yet it’s depriving wild animals of access to potentially hundreds of thousands of acres of land.
Jeff Wood (10m 48s):
That’s another part that I found inspiring as well, is the amount of space that animals take up and need to propagate their species and as well as survive. I mean, going from one part of North America to another part of North America seems like a long trip for us, obviously, but for some animals it’s like their whole habitat. And so we might place them in our minds as being in a certain place, a mule deer, maybe in southern Utah or something along those lines, but they actually go very far north and very far south. Or the butterflies, for example, that you talk about the monarch, you know, while they have three different life cycles to get from one place to another. And so one monarch might not even see the other two migration areas, but it’s part of their journey as a species. And so that whole needed space that we kind of don’t think about as much is, is really compelling as well.
Ben Goldfarb (11m 33s):
Yeah, absolutely. you know, I think that’s a really important point that, you know, that animals are moving constantly at all kinds of different scales, right? you know, there are, there, there are these migrations, you know, you mentioned the monarch butterfly, you know, I mean, those migrations span the continent, right? Those animals are going from Mexico to Minnesota covering hundreds and hundreds of miles. And then, you know, you might get frogs or salamanders, you know, which are, which are migrating seasonally, but they’re only going a quarter mile from their kind of upland forest habitat to their breeding ponds. And yet, you know, that quarter mile was likely bisected by a road because we tend to build our, our roads, you know, close to water where the topography is flat and the, you know, the building is relatively easy.
Ben Goldfarb (12m 13s):
So, you know, animals are moving all the time at all of these different scales, and those are just migrations, you know, I mean, animals also move in their daily lives, you know, especially larger carnivores like mountain lions and grizzly bears, you know, those are species whose home ranges might encompass hundreds of square miles. You know, it’s pretty hard to have a home range of a couple hundred square miles that’s not bisected by a highway in this country where, you know, highways are, are ubiquitous. So for every different species, whether it’s monarchs migrating across the continent or salamanders trudging a few hundred feet from pond to forest, or, you know, a, a mountain lion circling his territory once a week, you know, in search of mates or prey, animals are moving all of the time.
Ben Goldfarb (12m 54s):
And, you know, I think that’s why roads again, are so, are so pernicious, you know, they’ve made our lives freer and more mobile in a a lot of ways, even as they’ve done the exact opposite to wild animals. They truncate all of these movements and journeys.
Jeff Wood (13m 9s):
How important are deer to this discussion, thinking about how roads have spread out across the United States in the last, you know, 50 to 150 years? I’m curious how deer have kind of changed the discussion.
Ben Goldfarb (13m 21s):
Yeah, you know, I think that, I mean, really starting in the 1950s and early sixties, you know, deer really made the intersection of roads and wildlife this prominent national issue, right? I mean, it’s interesting to go back into some of, some of the early roadkill studies, which started in the 1920s. And all of these biologists are sort of driving around and they’re packers and model tss and you know, they’re counting ground squirrels and woodpeckers and garter snakes, all of these different species. But none of those early wildlife biologists ever document any white-tailed deer. And the reason is, is that there just weren’t really many deer to be hit at that point. you know, we think of deer as these incredible ubiquitous animals, but you know, we hunted them almost to extinction by the, the end of the 19th century.
Ben Goldfarb (14m 4s):
So in sort of the first half of the 20th century, there really weren’t many deer on the landscape, but you know, by the 1950s deer populations are recovering. And that really coincides with the construction of the interstate highway system, you know, so we’ve got these giant new highways. Americans are driving farther and faster than every before, and suddenly there’s this, you know, big, relatively common 150 pound mammal blundering into their, their way and crossing highways and causing all of these really dangerous collisions. you know, and I mean, today, deer are, are the most dangerous wild animal in the country, a responsible for between two and 400 driver deaths every year. And, you know, in deer vehicle collisions, of course, it’s not the deer’s fault, right?
Ben Goldfarb (14m 45s):
It’s the car obviously that has made the deer so dangerous. But, you know, it is interesting to think that, you know, in the early 19 hundreds, back when people were only hitting snakes and squirrels and turtles road Ecology, this discipline that studies how roads and nature interact, you know, really was kind of the fringe concern of a, a, a few naturalists who were considered a little bit kooky. Then once deer proliferate and driver safety becomes a big problem, you know, suddenly all of these wildlife biologists and transportation departments are suddenly concerned. So the issue, you know, wasn’t necessarily how cars endangered wildlife, it was how wildlife endangered cars somewhat perversely.
Ben Goldfarb (15m 27s):
But you know, certainly this field of road Ecology wouldn’t be nearly as robust as it is today. you know, if it weren’t for the recovery of white-tailed deer and all of the deer vehicle collisions that ensued.
Jeff Wood (15m 40s):
So then this leads to some sorts of solutions and trial and errors and figuring out ways to keep the deer from, from maybe crossing when they still wanted to cross.
Ben Goldfarb (15m 50s):
That’s exactly right. you know, in the 1950s, sixties, seventies, you know, you see all of these solutions being tried. I mean, of course the deer sign, right? That’s the first thing that everybody, that all the, every transportation department sort of falls back on the classic yellow diamond with the leaping black silhouette of the buck. And those are totally useless, right? And there’s, you know, plenty of research showing that, you know, the drivers just habituate to those things and ignore them. you know, nobody slows down when they see a, you know, a, a, a deer crossing sign, they’re basically visual pollution at this point, right? So most of the early strategies like signs and reflectors and deer whistles, you know, those, all, all of that stuff doesn’t, doesn’t really work.
Ben Goldfarb (16m 32s):
But by the 1970s transportation departments in states like Wyoming and Colorado and Utah, start building these wildlife crossings that we were talking about earlier, you know, these passageways mostly for deer and elk and antelope and other kind of migratory species of big game that’s moving around the American West. And that over time, you know, really becomes clear that that’s the most effective solution to this problem of wildlife vehicle collisions and the loss of these migration routes. you know, give animals a chance to cross the road separated from the surface of the highway itself. They take advantage of those opportunities. And, you know, roadside fences are a big part of that as well. you know, the fences guide the animals to the crossings, and then they go through.
Ben Goldfarb (17m 15s):
And in a lot of ways, that’s been a lot of what road ecologists have done for the last, you know, 40 or 50 years, is figure out, you know, how to build those things better and where to put them and you know, what species they, they work for and so on. So today, you know, that wildlife crossing is, that’s really the best tool in our toolbox for dealing with the problems that roads create, or at least some of the problems
Jeff Wood (17m 36s):
They cost a fair amount of money. And the other thing that was important was trying to do the math so that highway agencies would care about them because, you know, thinking about how much money they cost, they’re gonna have to figure out how to offset that cost by saying, well, we’re gonna save this many human lives and we’re gonna save this many car fenders and, and do the math to do the calculations. But ultimately, it doesn’t seem like it’s always necessarily a positive thought for the animals. It’s more like, what can we do for ourselves? That’s how I took it anyways. And reading the book,
Ben Goldfarb (18m 7s):
You know, I think you’re, I think you’re exactly right about that, you know, I mean, and that is the great thing about, you know, a lot of these wildlife crossings, right? Is that they, you know, they do tend to pay for themselves. you know, today the average deer vehicle collision cost society more than $9,000 in vehicle repairs and hospital bills and tow trucks and insurance costs and so on, right? So these are really, you know, these really expensive incidents. And if you can build a structure that, you know, prevents, let’s say 50 of them a year, some of these wildlife crossings have done, those structures pay for themselves really, really quickly. So, you know, like there’s often some initial sticker shock when, you know, you say, wait a second, we’re we’re gonna spend, you know, $5 million on helping elk across the highway. That seems kind of crazy. And then, you know, you realize that, oh yeah, these structures are actually pretty thrifty in a, in a sense.
Ben Goldfarb (18m 51s):
But, you know, I think you’re right that, you know, our focus on cost savings and prevention of dangerous crashes, you know, has been somewhat myopic. I, I would say, you know, because there are lots of animals out there, you know, like frogs and turtles and all those reptiles and amphibians especially, you know, that are some of the most road endangered animals on the Planet. And yet, you know, nobody’s ever totaled their car hitting a spotted salamander, right? So we tend not to build crossings for those animals. you know, the history of wildlife crossings, I think is definitely focused on mitigating for those large dangerous animals that threaten us. And at least here in the us you know, I think we’ve mostly ignored the smaller critters for which roadkill might be a conservation crisis, but, you know, is not a public safety problem.
Jeff Wood (19m 39s):
Yeah. And that doesn’t get as much money. Right. You went on a lot of field trips for this book, it felt like, which one impacted you the most?
Ben Goldfarb (19m 47s):
Hmm. That’s a good question. you know, the one that I always think about is going to Tasmania, which is the roadkill capital of the world that has, you know, some of the highest roadkill rates ever recorded. And, you know, I mean, anecdotally, it’s just, it’s inescapable. you know, how many dead wallabies and wombats and possums and all kinds of different marsupials are, you know, dead on the road. And you know, what’s fascinating about Tasmania, and this is true of a lot of Australia is, is that the animals are, you know, they tend to be marsupials, right? I mean, they’re basically all marsupials, which means that they, you know, they raise their offspring in a pouch. And what happens frequently is that female marsupials will get hit by cars and they’ll die, but their joeys, their babies will actually survive in the pouch. And so there are, you know, hundreds of wildlife rehabilitators, which in Australia are known as carers who just drive around the countryside looking for dead female marsupials, and then extracting the babies within their pouches, and then raising those babies to adulthood, which, you know, in some cases can take years pretty incredibly.
Ben Goldfarb (20m 48s):
And you know, I just, I just find that fascinating because, you know, here in the US I think that roadkill tends to be mostly invisible to us, right? We see so much of it, we kind of endure ourselves to it, or sort of desensitized to it in a lot of ways. you know, it’s, again, it just stuff that we, you know, we, we’ve all driven by all of those carcasses and, you know, almost as an act of self-preservation, I think we, we kind of blind ourselves to them, whereas, you know, in, in Tasmania, there are literally hundreds of people driving around out there looking for roadkill for the sake of saving some of the orphaned animals, you know, that are created in the process. So I just found that really inspiring.
Ben Goldfarb (21m 29s):
It suggested a kind of a different relationship with roads in nature, you know, one in which humans are capable of paying heeded to the problems that roads cause. And, you know, and, and in some small way attempting to almost pay reparations for those problems. And, you know, certainly, I mean, that system of, you know, all of these wildlife cares driving around, picking up marsupials and raising them to adulthood, you know, it’s, I mean, it’s heartwarming. It’s not probably the most effective thing in the world because, you know, then you’re just, you know, you’re raising animals to adulthood, and then you’re releasing them into the exact same dangerous environment that orphaned them in the first place. Right. you know, it would certainly be much better if Tasmania invested heavily in wildlife crossings and other ways of preventing the roadkill in the first place.
Ben Goldfarb (22m 12s):
So I don’t, you know, I don’t wanna be too warm and fuzzy about this policy, but again, I was just inspired by how, you know, people pay attention to roadkill there in a way that they, they really don’t, here in the US
Jeff Wood (22m 24s):
There seemed to be a large number of roadkill, obviously, but they weren’t as worried about it because they felt like there were so many animals out there, which is a little bit of a disturbing thought to a certain extent. Yeah.
Ben Goldfarb (22m 35s):
You know, in a, in a sense, and I, I think that’s true, right? That the animals that we hit tend to be common ones. And so if you see a lot of roadkill, it suggests that there are probably a lot of animals on the landscape, you know, which is, which is a big part of why Tasmania has so much roadkill because it’s just, you know, a very abundant and biodiverse place. So yeah, there is something a little bit, a little bit perverse in that, I think, and, you know, and I think that’s another reason that we, again, you know, we don’t really think much about roadkill because the animals that we tend to see here in the US as well are the common ones, right? Again, the gray squirrels and the raccoons and the white tailed deer, you know, all of the animals that are ubiquitous and for which roadkill probably isn’t a, a real existential threat, right?
Ben Goldfarb (23m 17s):
And so it’s easy to conclude that, you know, roadkill is not a conservation crisis because, you know, the animals we see are common, but, you know, for lots of rare and endangered species, you know, like ocelots or Florida panthers or, you know, Tasmanian devils and Tasmania for those rare species as well, roadkill, is it, it is truly an existential threat. And because they’re rare, you know, we tend not to see those animals hit very often and just aren’t many of them out there. you know, you think about Ocelots in Texas, for example. I mean, there are only a hundred ocelots left and 40% of them are killed by cars, and that’s a population for which traffic really is, you know, driving them, literally driving them to extinction.
Jeff Wood (23m 57s):
Yeah. I think about the ant eater as well. I was reading the book and I saw the number of ant eaters that they said were killed, and it was like 600, 800 or something along those lines. And I was like, well, how many are there left? And it’s like, 5,000. It’s like, that’s a huge percentage of their numbers. And the fact is made worse by the amount of time it takes to have offspring and how much care goes into like a year of care. And so if you killed a, a female who hadn’t had any kids yet that just like totally, you know, chopped off one of the family tree limbs that could have actually grown the species, but now it’s gone.
Ben Goldfarb (24m 27s):
Yeah. you know, you’re, you’re exactly right. you know, and that’s true of lots of species, you know, like the grizzly bears, for example, you know, have the same kind of life history where they invest a lot of time and effort in raising their cubs. And so, you know, if you invest all, all of that time and effort, and then an important breeding female is killed, or the cubs themselves are killed, it’s certainly, it’s, it’s a catastrophe. you know, and it’s very easy, I think to, you know, concoct these scenarios where, you know, the loss of really just a few important mature breeding females, you know, is really spells disaster for the entire population. you know, I mean, that just happened in Iran actually just a, a few months ago. There are these cats, the Asiatic Cheetah, which live in Iran, and, and I forget the, the name of one of these female cheetahs.
Ben Goldfarb (25m 12s):
you know, there are so few of them, just a couple dozen that they actually, you know, they’re all named at this point. And, you know, and a female pregnant female was killed by a car, and that was considered, you know, one of the potential death nails for that entire species
Jeff Wood (25m 26s):
That can help too, right? Because when you talk about things like the P 22 cougar in southern California, there was a popularity to it. There were able to attach celebrity to it to get funds raised for wildlife crossing and everything else. I mean, there’s some benefit to that celebrity, although there is a negative, negative aspect as well, because the reason why P 22 was over there was because it got stuck in the freeway mass of Southern California.
Ben Goldfarb (25m 50s):
Yeah, exactly. And, you know, yeah. And P 22 is probably the most, at least before his death, by Carr, you know, he was probably the most famous wild animal in America, if not, if not the world, you know, and he was this cougar living near Los Angeles who, you know, somehow managed to cross a couple of the giant freeways, you know, the 1 0 1 and the 4 0 5. And then he ended up, you know, trapped in this little urban park, Griffith Park, you know, stuck. He had the smallest home range of any cougar in the world because he was just, again, trapped in this little island of habitat surrounded by freeways. And, you know, he really, in some ways, that whole population of cougars that live near Los Angeles, that P 22 became the mascot for, you know, they are some of the poster animals I think for, you know, for the damage that roads do.
Ben Goldfarb (26m 31s):
They’re trapped on, again, this little island of habitat in the Santa Monica mountains, you know, surrounded by freeways. And, you know, they’ve become incredibly inbred as a result, you know, because no new cats can cross the 1 0 1 to enter the population and, you know, refresh the gene pool. So those, you know, those cougars are stuck mating with their own daughters and granddaughters and great-granddaughters, and they’re, you know, they’ve become very inbred and they’re, you know, suffering all of these genetic defects, and they would be basically doomed were it not for this giant wildlife crossing that’s being built over the 1 0 1 to connect them with cougar populations elsewhere in, in California. So, yeah. you know, they’re, you know, they’re certainly the, again, the poster animals for this problem.
Ben Goldfarb (27m 11s):
And, you know, and P 22 became this amazing symbol of what these cats were up against. And, you know, I think you’re absolutely right that we’re, you know, we’re it not for P 22 celebrity that wildlife crossing wouldn’t be getting built. Right? Now,
Jeff Wood (27m 27s):
There’s a thread of, of thinking from some in American life that favors man over nature or man conquering nature. Like, we’ve conquered this space. We are allowed to build roads wherever we want to. We can do whatever we want, dam the environmental impact statements or whatever. If I wanna build a, a road through a national forest, then I’m gonna build a road through a national forest. And I’m, I’m wondering like how we think of that specific feeling that some have with regards to like all the information that you share in your book related to the gene pool splicing, the, the problems with, you know, migration patterns, the, the issues with smaller animals, you know, being at the end of their species, just like that kind of weighing of one type of, of person who just feels like none of that matters.
Jeff Wood (28m 11s):
It’s all about human advancement.
Ben Goldfarb (28m 14s):
Yeah. you know, I, I think it’s really good in complex question, and I’m just trying to, you know, I’m just feel like there’s so many directions you could take it. I think in a very real sense, the history of road construction in, in the United States is, is a history of conquest, right? I mean, these were the structures that we built, you know, all these early wagon roads, many, many of which were built by the US Army to open up the interior of the continent to, you know, agriculture and logging and, you know, certainly bison hunting and roads were really how we, you know, invaded Native American lands and attempted to conquer those many tribes. And, you know, roads became, again, this, these tools of imperialism and colonialism and, you know, that’s, that’s also their relationship with nature, right?
Ben Goldfarb (28m 55s):
Again, that these are the structures that we use to, you know, bend nature to our will. You know, in some ways, as I put it in the book, they’re the roots of all environmental, evil, you know, R-O-U-T-E-S, right? That, you know, before you can log the Amazon, you know, you need the roads to get the machinery in and the logs out, right? That’s true of, you know, oil and gas drilling and, and mining and every conceivable ecological impact is, you know, it all begins with road building. So you’re right that they are, they are the kind of the tendrils that we extend into nature in order to dominate and, and subjugate our landscapes. And, and I think that that’s always how we’ve perceived them in a, a very real way, especially as roads became better over time.
Ben Goldfarb (29m 38s):
you know, it’s interesting to, to read about the early history of roads, and they were kind of subject to the elements, you know, they would turn into, you know, these muddy ruts in, in, you know, in the spring, and they would, they’d be blowing dust in the summer and they’d become these, you know, these icy slicks in the winter. And so travel was really constrained. But over time, as we got better and better at road building, you know, they really became decoupled from the elements in many cases and were no longer part of nature. But again, you know, sort of subjugated it in an interesting, and, you know, ultimately ecologically catastrophic way. And so, yeah, I agree with you that if we’re going to rethink our relationship with nature and with infrastructure, you know, we, we have to not only conduct a, a lot of research about how best to blunt the environmental harms of roads, we also have to kind of reconfigure our own imaginations in some ways and, and, you know, really rethink what these structures mean and symbolize, you know, and I mean, I mentioned earlier that my journey in this field, you know, really began 10 years ago with seeing these wildlife crossings on highway 93 in, in Montana, you know, and those crossings are on the reservation of the Confederated Salish and Kuny tribes.
Ben Goldfarb (30m 51s):
And, you know, those crossings were built because the tribes basically had this concept, you know, this really beautiful idea that roads should be visitors to the land rather than conquerors of the land. And, you know, I think that notion, you know, how can we make our roads lighter and, and more benign and, you know, again, visitors rather than rulers of ecosystems, you know, I think there’s a, a lot of truth and beauty in that concept.
Jeff Wood (31m 17s):
It’s also interesting in light of our discussion about infrastructure to save the Planet, right? Because we’re having this big national conversation about how permitting should happen so that we can build more power lines and we can build more things that can connect maybe renewable energy to places where it needs to go. And so I, I find that fascinating to connect all those dots where we’re saying like, well, we need, you know, NEPA and, and environmental permitting for thinking about these larger impacts, but then maybe we should push it aside for, you know, building these things faster because we can’t seem to build things fast anymore.
Ben Goldfarb (31m 51s):
Yeah, no, I, I think you’re absolutely right. I mean, it’s, it is interesting to think about this issue of, you know, roads impacts on nature and, you know, really reflect on how, you know, historically, the, the environmental movement is one that opposes construction, right? And now all of these different environmental organizations are, you know, they’re very much in favor of building these wildlife crossings, culvert retrofits. There are billions of dollars in, you know, 2021 federal infrastructure act for nature friendly, or at least nature friendlier infrastructure, you know? So I find that trajectory fascinating. you know, that at one time the environmental movement was again, you know, one that tried to prevent things from, from getting built, but so many of those structures, you know, be it roads or dams or power lines got built regardless.
Ben Goldfarb (32m 39s):
And now, you know, we’re, we’re sort of saddled with this infrastructure, and the movement has really turned to retrofitting it and, and rebuilding it. And okay, if we’re stuck with all of this asphalt, you know, how can we tweak it? And that’s, you know, and there were times working on this book where, you know, I almost felt like a defeatist in, you know, in advocating for more wildlife crossings because, you know, because you’re essentially accepting the permanence of the road and the tyranny of the car as, as a given a permanent given. And, you know, the best, the best that we can do is, you know, sort of retrofit this infrastructure to make it less catastrophic for nature. But, you know, I I, I think there’s, unfortunately, there’s truth to the fact that we’re, you know, we’re sort of stuck with the car in a, a very real way, you know?
Ben Goldfarb (33m 23s):
And certainly there are lots of things that we can do and that, you know, your listeners are doing to, you know, to make our, our lives less car dependent and to promote other forms of mobility. And, you know, those are all wonderful, but it’s just hard to imagine a future that’s car free altogether. you know, we’re, I think we’re largely stuck, you know, with especially our interstate highways. And, you know, if we are, then it’s, it’s incumbent upon us, you know, to again retrofit them to make them less catastrophic.
Jeff Wood (33m 52s):
You did have some really good examples in the book in Alaska, just deciding not to go with a bus every 10 minutes or so, just because, you know, that messes up the Ecology from the noise pollution. The noise pollution impacts are really interesting to me as well, all over the country thinking about how noise, you know, it’s not just the vehicles hitting animals or killing animals, it’s actually the noise that, that impacts how they live their lives as well. And so, you know, in Alaska, there’s a solution. There’s don’t have the buses go every five minutes. It can go every 10 minutes. And, you know, people might not be happy about not being able to make money off that five minute headway bus, but it actually is beneficial over time.
Ben Goldfarb (34m 30s):
Yeah. Yeah. I, I love that example that, you know, that’s in, in Denali National Park where decades ago the park made the decision to, you know, prohibit the vast majority of private cars from the vast majority of the park’s main road, and, you know, sort of forced visitors onto buses, which, you know, not everybody liked it first, but, you know, certainly has just done wonders. I, I think for, you know, reducing the impact of the road and, and traffic on the park. And, you know, now as you say, the buses are at least in theory, you know, spaced in intervals that provide animals the ability to migrate between them. So there’s not this steady stream of buses and shuttles. you know, there are these nice long interregnums where wildlife can, can move around.
Ben Goldfarb (35m 10s):
So yeah, to me, that’s a really inspiring example. you know, as one of park biologists put it to me, you know, I mean, where, how many, how many roads in, in the United States can say that they have, you know, the same amount of traffic today as they had in the early 1980s, right? There’s almost heretical, you know, we have this idea that we’re supposed to, you know, be able to drive everywhere and go everywhere and get around as fast as we want. And, you know, here is this place that sort of deliberately froze its traffic, you know, for the sake of nature. And, and there’s certainly something, you know, really beautiful and in inspiring in that. And that’s a model that can be replicated in so many of our national parks and forests, right? I mean, these are, I mean, especially parks, you know, these are areas that were set aside, you know, largely to protect nature.
Ben Goldfarb (35m 52s):
But because the, you know, the park service wanted and still wants people to experience these beloved landscapes like Yosemite and Yellowstone, we have these very automotive tourism models, you know, where literally millions of cars enter these sacred natural places every year and, and, you know, are destroying the, these ecosystems. And there’s, I mean, to me, a fascinating tension there, you know, that looked at roads and cars dramatically increased the constituency for protecting these places. you know, I mean, how many Americans fell in love with nature, you know, thanks to road trips bopping around our, our national parks, right? It’s sort of this quintessential way of experiencing our landscape. And yet again, you know, our automotive approach to tourism was destroying those very same places, right?
Ben Goldfarb (36m 35s):
So, so to me, Denali presents this alternative model, you know, this, this opportunity for visitors to experience these incredible landscapes and the wildlife that inhabits them without letting cars just totally run amuck in a, a protected area.
Jeff Wood (36m 52s):
I was just at Zion last week and rode the buses there and obviously on Nice, yeah. On the section of it, they don’t allow, they allow e-bikes now, which is, I’m, I’m wondering about the e-bikes and, and like, the impact of that, because I don’t think you mentioned that in the book, but there’s a lot of e-bikes in addition to the buses going down to all the places where you can hike. But every five minute there’s a bus and, you know, you saw a number of mule deer and, and a number of animals, you know, hanging out, not necessarily close to the road, but I wish I would’ve read your book before I got to the park, because then I would’ve listened, right? I would’ve listened for what was there and what wasn’t there, because I feel like the tire sounds that were so used to, are so ubiquitous that sometimes we don’t even think to listen to see if they’re there or not.
Ben Goldfarb (37m 34s):
Yeah, no, you’re absolutely right. I mean, I, you know, I think that road noise is really one of the great unsung ecological and public health crises of our time. you know, I mean, I mean, road noise pollution is truly a form of habitat loss, you know, that we don’t really think about, you know, when you have, you know, all of this engine and tire noise bleeding into the surrounding landscape, you know, I mean, that’s driving animals away from places they’d otherwise like to live. you know, of course all wildlife kind of relies on their hearing, whether it’s, you know, an, an owl listening for the rustle of a mouse’s feet in the leaf litter, or, you know, a songbird singing to attract a mate. you know, that the ability to hear is fundamental to life. And if you can’t hear, because, you know, road noise pollution masks all of those subtle acoustic signals, you know, you can’t live in a place.
Ben Goldfarb (38m 20s):
And, you know, I think that road noise does something similar to us humans, you know, it, it is really, again, a public health crisis. And you look at the literature and it’s just horrifying. you know, it’s, I mean, road noise pollution is elevating our stress levels and our blood pressures, and it’s making us more susceptible to heart disease and stroke and diabetes. And there’s one just horrifying study that was set in Paris that found that, you know, that Parisians living in the quietest neighborhoods lived three years longer than Parisians living in the noisiest neighborhoods. So, you know, road noises literally taking years off of our, off of our lives. So I think you’re right that we’re so constantly exposed to it and awash in it that we don’t really notice it even as it’s dramatically affecting us.
Jeff Wood (39m 8s):
I asked this question from time to time, and I really like it ’cause I think it kinda gives a focus on your journey. I’m wondering if there’s a question that you, you’ve probably been on a lot of press tours and talked to a lot of folks about your book, but is there a question that you wish you were asked more?
Ben Goldfarb (39m 24s):
Hmm. That’s a a good question, Jeff. I don’t know. I mean, I, I love some of you are probing questions about, you know, Rhodes is roads is conquerors of nature.
Jeff Wood (39m 34s):
I guess I could reframe it too, as like, is there something that you talk about in the book that you feel doesn’t get enough attention?
Ben Goldfarb (39m 40s):
Hmm. Yeah. you know, I think that one thing I actually wish I’d written about more in the book is, you know, the electrification of our car fleet. you know, this is certainly like reflected in, you know, in Biden administration policy and, and rhetoric. you know, I think when we, when we think about the environmental impact of transportation, you know, we think about the carbon footprint, right? All of that internal combustion, you know, releasing greenhouse gases and you know, certainly that’s a huge problem, but it’s only one of many problems that roads and traffic create and electrifying our fleet is, you know, is not going to do anything for, you know, that barrier effect that highways create for animal migrations or roadkill. I mean, even road noise, you know? Yes, of course there won’t be engine noise, but, you know, tire noise is, is actually the kind of the dominant form of road noise pollution at highway speeds.
Ben Goldfarb (40m 27s):
So, you know, we can’t, you can’t just take the carbon out of traditional automotive transportation and suddenly make it ecologically benign. And, you know, at times, I wish I’d made that point more strongly in the book and really emphasized that. And, you know, it’s also easy to concoct scenarios where electrification makes all of these problems worse. you know, in, in that, you know, j Vons paradox, right? That when behavior is cheaper, we do it more. And if you know, and if all you’re doing is plugging your car into the house rather than, you know, filling up the gas tank at five bucks a gallon, you’re gonna drive more. And the, again, there’s lots of modeling suggesting that the dual forces of electrification and autonomy are going to increase vehicle miles traveled.
Ben Goldfarb (41m 7s):
And that’s going to make this whole situation a lot worse for wild animals. So I, I wish that I had sort of come out more strongly, and I, I don’t wanna say that I’m, you know, anti electrification, but I just, you know, wish that I had emphasized the idea that you, again, you can’t just take the carbon out and, you know, assume that you’ve made car based transportation benign.
Jeff Wood (41m 30s):
Yeah. We talk about that a lot on the show, the weight of these new vehicles because of the amount of batteries Yeah. That are needed to go, the distances that people expect their vehicles to go. And obviously you mentioned in the book the discussion about the tire wear and how much the rubber and the chemicals have been known to kill fish and things like that. So we, we have all of these understandings about how cars impact nature and the environment overall, but then you add on top of that the discussion that you have about crossings and wildlife ecosystems more generally, the sprawl that’s generated, et cetera. Just, it’s funny ’cause I read the book and I love it because I found that it brought me something new, a new perspective, and something very interesting. But at the same time, I feel like lately a lot of the stuff that I’ve been reading has been making me like, not sad, but just reflective on how we’ve kind of built society overall.
Jeff Wood (42m 18s):
And you know, what that means. And, you know, if humans don’t even have a chance against cars, you know, 40,000 people are killed every year on the roads, what chance do, do animals have? And it’s disconcerting, but also necessary to understand.
Ben Goldfarb (42m 30s):
Yeah. you know, I think Jeff probably like you and you know, probably like a lot of people who work on transportation and urban planning, you know, I just, I kind of oscillate wildly I think between hope and hope and despair, you know? Yes. Because, you know, look, I mean, I, I feel hopeful because, you know, there are so many smart people working on these issues, right? And there, you know, there are lots of fantastic case studies of cities that have managed to reduce the, you know, the impacts of cars on their urban core and you know, in transportation departments that have built these wildlife crossings that have, you know, incredible success rates and we’ve successfully addressed these problems that localized scales in various places all over the country. And, you know, and that’s, that’s hopeful and inspiring.
Ben Goldfarb (43m 11s):
But, you know, then you look at the macro view and yeah, it’s, it’s hard to feel good about where we’re going. I mean, this planet’s gonna have 15 more miles of paved road, at least by the middle of this century, right? We’re building roads rapidly, we’re heading to a world of 2 billion cars pretty rapidly, you know, and, and meanwhile we’re in the middle of this catastrophic mass extinction event and biodiversity crisis, you know, which cars are an enormous contributor to, and again, you know, vehicle miles travel generally are going in the wrong direction. So it’s, yeah, it’s, it’s definitely this kind of, you know, weird back and forth again between, you know, feeling like, yes, there are great smart people working on this issue and there are lots of, you know, good case studies we can point to.
Ben Goldfarb (43m 52s):
But you know, again, that’s sort of the large scale trends are I think, mostly negative.
Jeff Wood (43m 57s):
Yeah. Well, on a positive note, there’s some roads in national parks around the world that are curved and undulating and don’t cause a lot of speeding, which means that animals can be safer. There’s also a lot of wildlife crossings and really cool stuff going on too, that, that helps the salmon and the salamanders and the turtles and everything else. So thanks for bringing those to light. The book is Crossings, How, Road, Ecology is Shaping the Future of our Planet. Where can folks get a copy if they want one? Or actually, where can folks get a copy because they should go get one.
Ben Goldfarb (44m 26s):
Yeah. Not because they want one, because they need one. Yeah. It’s available anywhere that books are sold. I hope, you know, you certainly, your, your local independent bookstore is always a great place to buy and, and request books. And any online retailer also carries it. So, you know, I, I so hope that listeners pick it up and read it and learn from it. And, you know, like you said, Jeff, I mean, I’d like to imagine that it brings these sort of alternative perspectives about the impact of roads on nature to larger conversations about planning and, and mobility, while also demonstrating that, look, we’re all in this together. you know? And that many of the ways that roads and traffic and cars negatively impact human lives, you know, they, they do the same thing to wild animals. you know, the same road noise pollution that chases songbirds out of their habitat, you know, is, is also harming our own existences.
Ben Goldfarb (45m 12s):
And, you know, the same freeways that fragment ecosystems are fragmenting human neighborhoods and communities. And as you say, you know, 40,000 people are, are killed in car crashes every year. Just as you know, more than a million animals are killed every day by cars. So, you know, both humans and wild animals are in it together. And I, I’d like to imagine that listeners will find a lot of the parallels that I mentioned in the book. Interesting.
Jeff Wood (45m 34s):
Well, there’s so much more in the book that we didn’t get to talk about, so you should definitely go pick it up. Park roads, salmon ladders, all kinds of really interesting things. And there are turtles, butterflies, all the things can make you happy. We, we have a segment on one of our shows called Puppies and Butterflies. We talk about happy stuff. There’s lots of that in here, so I appreciate that. Ben, thanks so much for joining us. We really appreciate your time.
Ben Goldfarb (45m 52s):
Thanks a lot, Jeff. Thanks for the great questions,