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Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

Removing Roads

July 29, 2008

By David Havlick

“Basically, I’m a road killer.”

When I heard that job description, I knew I ought to meet Mike Sanders. With degrees in both physics and geology, Sanders has been working as a hit man—taking out roads—for Redwood National Park since 1995. When it comes to road removal, it is tough to find anyone who moves more dirt than Mike Sanders.

Sanders works as part of a team of geologists, hydrologists, engineers, and heavy equipment operators who for more than two decades have established Redwood National Park as the premier living laboratory for large-scale road obliteration and habitat restoration.

For much of history, science and roads met only in the context of how we could apply knowledge of engineering, chemistry, and geology toward building better, longer-lasting, smoother, cheaper, and safer roads. In many places, road construction continues to be the primary focus of science upon roads. In recent decades, however, ecologists, conservation biologists, and others have posed new types of questions. How do roads affect long-term natural processes in landscapes or watersheds? What impacts do roads have upon plant and animal species, populations, communities, or ecosystems? How do roads combine with various uses of roads – such as logging, hunting, or driving a motor vehicle answers – in ways that lead to new and different consequences? The answers to these questions have spurred a number of land managers to apply science and engineering to programs of road removal.

By many accounts, Redwood National Park is the most severely degraded of any unit in the scenic U.S. national park system. Despite this reputation, what I saw still took me aback when I finally made it to Northern California to see the park firsthand. Even the park’s South Operations Center, where Sanders and the road removal team work, is marked by a massive charred redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) stump that towers some forty feet above the park offices in broken testimony of what once was.

Congress designated Redwood National Park in 1968 in an effort to save some of the last stands of ancient forest. The trees here grow like no others in the world. At more than 100 meters, they stand as the world¹s tallest living things and some live for more than 2,000 years.

With the first round of national park protection at Redwood Creek, timber corporations in the area realized that more set-asides were on the way. For the next ten years, Georgia-Pacific, Arcata Redwood, and other companies cut with abandon to get to as many of the valuable large old redwoods as possible before the federal government put them off-limits to the saw. By the time Congress acted again, doubling the size of Redwood National Park in 1978, loggers had managed to cut all but 36 of the 200 square kilometers added to the park. All told, the expanded park protected some prize stands of old trees but also included more than 480 kilometers of logging roads and more than 4,800 kilometers of roadlike “skid trails” where heavy machinery had dragged the large trees from their stumps to the logging trucks.

The park itself came at a purchase price that approached US$2 billion. Using an initial allocation of US$33 million for restoration and road removal that came with the 1978 park designation, Redwood Park officials have now worked to treat nearly 300 kilometers of road. It is a task that could easily engage Mike Sanders and his colleagues for the rest of their working lives.

From Hand Labor to Bulldozers

When the National Park Service first took over management of the lower Redwood Creek basin, they took care with their restoration efforts to avoid the heavy impacts wrought upon the land by the mechanized logging industry. Crews of people pulled culvert pipes out of stream crossings by hand, hauled wheelbarrows full of eroded soil away from streamsides, and meticulously constructed wooden check dams to trap sediments and reduce erosion.

Within just a few years, however, park officials realized the hand labor was not enough. Flooding streams blew out check dams, and the roaded lands continued to drop soils into the creeks where Pacific salmon spawning areas were choking with sediment. The increased erosion also began to expose the roots of some of the redwoods, leading to fears that the ancient trees were protected only on paper and would soon drown, topple, or wash away.

Road restoration work began to focus on stream crossings, and crews brought in backhoes and small bulldozers to pull fill material back from active water channels. In places, crews added an “outslope” to the roadbeds, which retained part of the road prism but created a more natural contour for water to sheet across road surfaces. Using a few machines and focusing attention where roads crossed streams, park crews could treat several dozen kilometers of road in a summer season. This, too, proved inadequate as roads continued to collapse and create debris torrents even on slopes without any stream crossings.

Finally, in the early 1990s, park personnel turned to the same equipment that had created the roads in the first place. Using large excavators and bulldozers, Redwood crews took out entire road systems by pulling fill material back into the old road prism, restoring the original contours and slopes of the land, and scouring old road crossings down to the original cobbles, stumps, and soils of the natural stream channels.

Restoring Contours

Ecologically, the goals of the roadwork focus upon providing some immediate relief to the park’s fish-bearing streams. By returning the roads to the contours of their original slopes, park scientists expect soils to stay in place more securely, thereby reducing the likelihood of road-triggered landslides. With road prisms filled in, subsurface flow and hydrologic function can also return to approximate conditions prior to road construction.

Though the Redwood restoration effort is only partially completed, Redwood National Park crews have already removed more than 800,000 cubic meters equivalent of 100,000 dump truck loads former roadways. The park plans to treat an additional 15 kilometers of road each year topographic features, filling roadcuts, and reseeding soils. By 2005, Redwood officials expect they will have restored 10 percent of the degraded area.

False Impressions

The work at Redwood National Park is notable not just for its restoration lessons and its history but also for its magnitude in space and time. The scale of the work is staggering. When Mike Sanders brought me to some of the main-stem logging roads that had been removed, he jokingly strolled into the distance to provide “a geologist for scale.” Time and again I watched in amazement as he disappeared to a small speck amid the swath of recontoured road and looming stumps. In places, the obliterated road looked far worse than the original had, since in the decades following road construction, alder trees and shrubs had colonized the disturbed areas and covered the scars of heavy industry. But overgrown untreated roads have collapsed throughout the park in recent years, dispelling the false impression that aesthetics contribute much to a road¹s stability.

For example, one former road now looks like an old power line cut, cluttered with alder debris and a cleared swath running through the forest, but the undulations of hill and swale now match the surrounding landscape perfectly. In five years, red alder (Alnus rubra) will fill in the clearing; in thirty years, they will stand as a sizable second-growth forest as they do throughout much of the park; and in a century, the Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) and redwoods may start to take over once again. Visiting such a scene, we can only stand and imagine 300 years from now when redwoods might once again poke through the canopy of alders and restake their claim on the park.

Cost and Priorities

The cost of road removal also speaks to the size of the projects at Redwood National Park. In 1999, Sanders planned and supervised a 2.5-kilometer obliteration along Redwood Creek that cost US$750,000. In about a month’s work, heavy machinery on the project moved more than 150,000 cubic meters of soil.

In addition to the costs, the road obliteration program at Redwood, like most other places, comes with its share of controversies and headaches. Local residents of nearby Orick and other northern California towns originally resented the park designations and the seemingly associated decline of the area’s timber industry. But feelings have softened somewhat with time and the steady trickle of tourist dollars that arrive each summer season. Furthermore, the handful of road obliteration jobs that involve heavy machinery typically are contracted out to local operators, in some cases the very same men who constructed the roads thirty or forty years ago.

Some critics have questioned the National Park Service’s strategies to treat the road system. When a heavy rain in December of 1996 fell on already saturated soils, it triggered a number of debris torrents and landslides throughout the park (the rain was rated a modest “11-year event” for its probability for recurrence). The episode helped bring in US$11 million in emergency funding, a badly needed supplement to the road obliteration program’s paltry US$180,000 base funding from annual appropriations, but it also generated concerns about how park officials were setting priorities for road obliteration. Should they treat more miles of road to a lesser degree, thereby trying to reduce the chances of major blowouts? Or should they move systematically through the park to try to restore more fully the watersheds that hold the greatest potential for productive fisheries, even at the possible expense of other areas?

Federal agencies in charge of endangered species recovery also add a layer of complexity to the road obliteration work. The National Marine Fisheries Service, which is in charge of anadromous salmon and steelhead recovery, generally supports the road removal and its long-term improvement of fisheries habitat. But it still sets limits on the season during which work can occur. Similarly, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is overseeing recovery of the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis) and places certain stipulations about leaving old growth stands intact for breeding and nesting sites. Ironically, some of the areas where loggers cut redwoods three or four decades ago now contain alder forests that can provide owl habitat, causing problems for road obliteration crews planning to tear out the old roads and the aging alders that grow on top of them

When I asked Mike Sanders why he works at the park, puts up with the hassles, and dedicates himself to road obliteration, he spoke first about his interest in “process geomorphology” and his fascination with earth movements and landslides. He recalled the day in graduate school when his current supervisor, Terry Spreiter, came to a brown bag luncheon for geology students and inspired him with her talk about restoration work on the roads at Redwood Park. He spoke of trying to make connections between geology, ecology, and park policy. Decades of work at Redwood have shown not only that large-scale restoration of heavily roaded lands is possible but that it can bring dramatic and positive results.


Whether spurred by necessity or controversy, a range of new ideas and technologies has emerged in recent years to help change the way we look at roads and motorized access on public lands.

In an effort to defray the costs and controversy associated with road construction and road removal, Lolo National Forest road engineers in western Montana have developed “roll-up roads.” These timber sale roads are built with a minimum clearing width and with explicit notice of their temporary status. All topsoil removed for the road is left on site as fill material, which can then be cheaply and easily returned to the roadcut to restore the slope’s original contours after log hauling is finished. Although some conservationists express concern that these temporary roads simply make it easier to justify the significant impacts of timber harvest and road construction, Lolo’s engineers consider the roll-up roads something of a “win-win”: the timber industry gets wood to the mills, and the forest may quickly return to an approximation of its unroaded condition (minus a certain number of trees). Removing existing roads is often controversial because it is perceived as limiting public access. Since roll-up roads were never there in the first place, Lolo officials can defuse that claim.

Other techniques, such as an increasingly accurate global positioning system (GPS) feeding real-time information to geographic information systems (GIS), may help agencies succeed with the formidable task of simply keeping track of all their roads. Using hand-held GPS units, researchers on the ground can now traverse road systems and load their locations automatically into computer databases. By adding map layers that show slope, streams, soil types, or forest cover, land managers can plan strategically for how best to manage.

Of course, many lands remain burdened by basic problems such as ineffective road closures and the continued creation of illegal routes. Until agencies fully fund monitoring programs and enforce existing regulations, new technologies will not provide a silver bullet for the many adverse impacts of roads and motorized access.


In the U.S., public land roads are not the roads we drive home on each day or the interstate highways that speed us across the country. Public land roads crisscross national parks, forests, national wildlife refuges, and other federal lands. These roads cover more than half a million miles alone are laced with enough roads to wrap around the earth more than 18 times at the equator.

By comparison, the U.S. interstate highway system runs through most major cities and every state. At 43,000 miles, it has been called the largest public works program in the history of the world, dwarfing the Panama Canal, Egypt’s pyramids, and the Great Wall of China. Public land roads span nearly 13 times the length of all the interstate highways.

Further Information

Redwood National park:

Wildlands Center for Preventing Roads (CPR) Wildlands CPR’s Road-Ripper’s Guide to Wildland Road Removal gives you an understanding of how roads are built, where and why they fail, and how to technically assess roads and road removal projects. You can download a copy from Wildlands CPR helps facilitate research on the benefits and impacts of road removal. Email:

About the Author

David Havlick is a founder and instructor for the Wild Rockies Field Institute in Missoula, Montana.

About the Article

Adapted from No Place Distant: Roads and Motorized Recreation on America’s Public Lands by David G. Havlick. (Chapter 7, Changing Landscapes: Society, Technology, and Road Removal.) Copyright © 2002 by David G. Havlick. Reprinted by permission of Island Press, Washington, DC and Covelo, California.

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