The Impact of New Highways upon Wilderness Areas


  • Albert H. Jackman



Amundsen Gulf, N.W.T., Baffin Bay-Davis Strait, Hudson Strait, Nunavut/Québec, Lancaster Sound, Nunavut, M'Clure Strait


Opinions with respect to whether it is in the public interest to construct roads into wilderness areas of Alaska and the Canadian territories are varied. ... Much time has been devoted to impact studies of new or improved highways on urban and rural areas, and much energy has been devoted to studies of the impact of new or improved highways on commercial, residential or recreational developments. ... In Alaska and the Canadian Territories today the stage of development of the countryside at the time of highway construction compares in many ways to that of eastern North America in the early 1800s. ... Concern for the environment through which a highway passed was undreamed of in the early 1800s, and even 150 years later few actually worry about highway impact. ... All authorities agree that changes in the visible landscape do begin with the construction of a highway through a wilderness area of the Arctic or Subarctic. A preponderance of opinion favours the view that the benefits to be derived from new highways do outweigh the undesirable side effects, and plans for future highway construction in Alaska, the Yukon, and Northwest Territories tend to indicate this to be the official view as well. The background of conflicting opinions, claims, and counter-claims which have been building to the present intensity for several years prompted this study. ... During the spring and summer of 1972 approximately 8,000 miles of Alaskan and Yukon Territorial highways were travelled in an effort to gain first-hand knowledge of present conditions along the corridors of highways which had been built through wilderness areas during the past thirty years .... Although the investigation of these Canadian and Alaskan highways was in the nature of a reconnaissance and any conclusions must certainly be validated by further study, it would appear that the construction of a new highway through a wilderness area starts an irreversible series of more or less predictable events. First come the surveyors and the contractors who plan and build the highway. Then there are the hunters and fishermen who want to get in and get theirs before they and others "spoil" the country. On the heels of the sportsmen come guides, outfitters, small enterprises which provide gasoline, tire repairs, groceries, and possibly food and lodging. These small businesses may expand and improve the quality of their services, or others with more capital and experience may provide competition which forces the first comers out of business. ... we must recognize that highways will be built through wilderness areas, and that they can be built in such a way that the changes in the wilderness environment will be acceptable. The greatest environmental problems are created by those who will use the highways for purposes of access and exploitation of a heretofore inaccessible wilderness. It is essential that there be a comprehensive land use plan which would allocate appropriate areas for all activities and allocate the locations for all installations, services and recreational areas in such a way that incompatible activities would not be in too close proximity. Thus by anticipation of conflict and the use of land allocations or zoning it would appear that optimum land utilization can be achieved and the wilderness character of the area preserved.