More roads and increasing development: taking a toll on America's wildlife and natural habitats

Some states praised for protecting biodiversity, others seeking to weaken environmental laws

provided by Defenders of Wildlife

new report released on Earth Day suggests that the nation's natural environment and wildlife habitats are at significant risk from both development patterns and the roads that make the development possible. There are ways, however, to lessen and even avoid the impacts. The study praises projects in several states – including Montana, Florida and California – that reduce the negative impacts of transportation on natural habitats and promote better environmental stewardship.

    The report, Second Nature: Improving Transportation Without Putting Nature Second is the result of a partnership between two national nonprofit groups, Defenders of Wildlife and the Surface Transportation Policy Project. It names transportation as an important factor in the loss of species at a time when conservation biologists are predicting that one-third of the world's plant and animal species will be lost in the next 50 years.

    The report says that roads and highways directly affect wildlife habitat, ecosystems, endangered species and water quality thorough land consumption, habitat fragmentation, and replacement of natural cover with impervious surfaces. America is crisscrossed by 4 million miles of roadways, covering 19,000 square miles with asphalt, an area more than twice the size of Massachusetts. An estimated one million animals are killed every day on America's roads, including endangered species such as the Florida panther.

    The report suggests that conflicts over the environmental impacts of traditional transportation projects can be avoided in many cases.  The report points to several states that have struck a “win-win” on transportation and environmental protection, utilizing better governmental cooperation, more comprehensive up front planning, more detailed use of technologies to map natural habitats and greater stakeholder involvement in early on in the planning of transportation projects.  It also presents policy recommendations for reauthorization of the nation's $300 billion-plus federal transportation law, known as TEA-21, this year in the US Congress.

    “Transportation and wildlife conservation are both national priorities, and what we're seeing is that we don't have to sacrifice biodiversity for the sake of getting from point A to point B,” said Patricia White, Transportation Associate for Defenders of Wildlife and coauthor of Second Nature. “The key is cooperation, common sense and commitment.”

    “We can have a world class transportation system and protect our biological diversity at the same time,” said Anne Canby, President of STPP.  “Some have suggested weakening our environmental laws to advance transportation projects. These examples prove that's not necessary.” 

    Successfully balancing habitat conservation with mobility needs, according to the report, starts with identifying and mapping critical habitats. Such mapping helps to minimize environmental damage. When expensive mitigation efforts are required, the report says, they can have even greater positive impact by being combined with, and channeled into, ongoing conservation efforts. And where existing roads cross migration routes, states are building passageways to allow wildlife to move safely from one side to the other.

    “We found that by anticipating the environmental impacts of a project and working with affected communities we were able to develop better projects and move them through the process more quickly,” said Jeff Morales, Director of the California Department of Transportation.  California's Tri Agency Partnership encourages early and continuous participation of affected government agencies, public interest groups, and the public, throughout the transportation project planning and approval process.

    “Our vision is to improve transportation decision making in a way that protects our natural and human environmental resources,” said C. Leroy Irwin, Manager of Florida Department of Transportation's Environmental Management Office.  Florida's Efficient Transportation Decision Making Process overlays maps of strategic habitats with transportation plans at the earliest stage of planning. 

    The report also notes that America's public lands, which provide critical habitat for threatened and endangered species, in addition to scenic vistas and recreational opportunities for millions of Americans, are investing in transportation alternatives – such as clean-fuel shuttles and bicycle trails – thus reducing the demand for new and wider roadways.

    The report also makes environmental stewardship policy recommendations for the reauthorization of the federal transportation bill, known as “TEA-21,” now pending in the US Congress, including:

  • Create incentives for states to integrate conservation planning into transportation planning, and to develop cooperative agreements with affected agencies
  • Provide funding for scenario-planning technology to improve communities' ability to assess the environmental impacts of transportation and development options
  • Create a federal revolving fund from which state DOTs can make interest-free withdrawals to acquire strategically identified mitigation lands in advance of project impacts
  • Provide alternative transportation on public lands and maintain roads in a manner consistent with surrounding resources
  • Discontinue use of nonnative plants in roadside plantings, and provide resources for education of practitioners on native vegetation and statewide inventories of vegetation in roadways

    More detailed descriptions of the state-level case studies are attached. The report is available on-line at and

    STPP is a national not for profit coalition of more than 600 organizations working to ensure that transportation policy and investments strengthen the economy, promote social equity, and make communities more livable.

    Defenders of Wildlife is a leading nonprofit conservation organization recognized as one of the nation's most progressive advocates for wildlife and its habitat, with nearly 430,000 members and supporters across the nation. Defenders is dedicated to preserving wildlife and emphasizing appreciation and protection for all species in their ecological role within the natural environment.