Edward Abbey's landmark 1968 narrative Desert Solitaire passionately decried the swarming "industrial tourists" that were trampling upon and, perhaps unwittingly, destroying the U.S. national forests as he knew them.
The wizened Forest Service employee vehemently, and correctly, asserted that the "preservation" of these protected areas was no more than mere public relations sloganeering. The government, including administrators of the Forest Service, seemed to be doing very little to resist the advancing tide of paved roads, tourist hordes and the "bloody tyrant" — the automobile.
While this prophecy seems to be curmudgeonly in retrospect (paved roads and "scenic vistas" accessible by car have long been a mainstay of national forests), Abbey certainly recognized — and did his damned best — to throw a proverbial Molotov cocktail at the ever-advancing tide of industrialism.
Unfortunately, as a study headed by University of Wisconsin professor Volker C. Radeloff confirms, even the "protected areas" of the national forests are facing an increasing amount of threats from human encroachment. More specifically, the dramatic rise of housing growth over the previous six decades near (within 50 kilometers, or 31 miles) these forests has damaged their internal ecosystems and effectively decreased their size.
Simply put: Housing developments can't just creep to the edge of an imaginary line drawn by the federal government without tarnishing what's inside those boundaries.
This new research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and funded by the Forest Service, estimated housing growth in and near protected areas since 1940 and projected future growth up to 2030. Researchers derived all housing data from the 2000 census and used them to forecast housing growth up to 2030 using county-level projections.
Between 1940 and 2000, houses built near national forests (a subset of these protected areas) grew from 9 million to approximately 35 million (a 280 percent increase). Most startling, the number of houses within a kilometer of a national forest grew from 484,000 units in 1940 to more than 1.8 million in 2000. This exponential growth outpaces the national average (a 209 percent increase) during this period, and it doesn't seem to be slowing down in the near future. According to researchers, 16 million new housing units will be constructed near protected areas between 2000 and this year.
This type of development simply isn't sustainable if these protected areas are to thrive. Obviously, as the research suggests, "rural sprawl poses a major conservation threat." These housing developments cut off internal ecosystems of forests from other natural surroundings, "fragment the habitat, decrease the water quality, foster the spread of invasive species and decrease biodiversity."
While the government's recent efforts toward setting aside more protected areas is undoubtedly a positive development, taking pieces of land and preserving them isn't enough — the land around these areas must be carefully maintained in order for the natural ecosystem to survive intact. "Housing growth is not a natural disaster; it is a social process to which every citizen contributes," the research team concluded. "Future housing patterns will be determined by society — by policies, land-use plans, zoning ordinance and consumer choices."
The idealized vision of a weekend/seasonal cabin may be better off portrayed as a weekend tent (but unfortunately, that re-envisioning doesn't seem likely). Perhaps a sustained media effort in the same vein of previous decades' "recycling" and "going green" campaigns could be helpful (even if we don't necessarily put those notions into practice. Most people now consider these principles to be an ideal).
At the very least, there's one thing you can do that might even make Edward Abbey proud (well, maybe on a good day): Pack a tent, park your car far away, and simply enjoy wandering in the wilderness.
It's healthy for you, we promise.
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