People who have traveled in national parks,campgrounds and eco communities throughout the U.S. and Canada will notice that some of the roads in those locations are intentionally unpaved. 

The decision to leave some of the roads unpaved dates back to the early decades 1900’s when the first motorized park maintenance vehicles were being used.  The reason that the administrators who oversee the agencies which are responsible for maintaining parks, campgrounds and eco villages opt to leave some of the roads unpaved is that the concrete which is used as the base layer for roads, the asphalt which forms the surface layer and the paint which is used to delineate lanes all contain numerous chemicals which will eventually leach into the ground over the course of several years.  By contrast, the dirt or gravel which covers the surface of unpaved roads is entirely harmless to the environment.

The Reasons For Not Paving Roads In Wilderness Areas Are Well Intentioned

There are many different kinds of materials  used in road construction today, and while some of the materials which are available are less damaging to the environment than others, as of 2022 none of the materials which are available for use in road construction are 100% environmentally friendly.  National parks, national forests, campgrounds and eco villages are located in areas where people are trying to preserve fragile ecosystems.  Roads which are covered only with gravel or dirt will not leach any potentially damaging chemicals into the ground.

However, sometimes environmental technologies function in ways that may initially seem counterintuitive.  

Image by Svetlana from Pixabay 

When people drive vehicles on unpaved roads, the tires will inevitably kick up dirt and gravel from the road into the undercarriage of the vehicles that are being driven on those roads. 

Over time, the dirt and gravel which is kicked up into the underside of the vehicles which are driven on unpaved roads will start to dent and possibly puncture some of the components which are located on the underside of the vehicles. 

Driving on unpaved roads can damage the doors and the lower half of the body of a car or truck, and occasionally the gravel which is kicked upwards by people who drive on gravel roads will also crack the windows of cars and trucks.  

Once a vehicle is damaged enough times, it becomes more cost effective for the owners to purchase new vehicles rather than to continue to repair the vehicles that they currently own.  

As I researched this article, I found that there have been notably few studies conducted which compare the life span of vehicles which have been driven mostly on paved roads with the life span of vehicles which have been driven frequently on unpaved roads, so we’re going to have to rely on some basic common sense here.  

As of 2022, in the U.S. when vehicles reach the end of their useful life, approximately 75% to 80% of the materials in most modern vehicles are recycled, and approximately 20% to 25% of the materials in most modern vehicles are sent to landfills. 

The automobile industry’s use of recyclable materials has been a very gradual process, so the percentage of materials which cannot be recycled (and hence will subsequently be sent to landfills) will be higher in older vehicles.  Furthermore, not all vehicles are recycled when they reach the end of their useful life.  Many vehicles are abandoned, dumped illegally, stolen or shipped illegally overseas via various smuggling networks.

I could not find comparable statistics regarding vehicle recycling in Canada.  The technologies which are used in vehicle recycling in Canada are identical to the technologies which we use in the U.S., so I’m going to assume that in Canada when vehicles reach the end of their lives, between 75% and 80% of the materials which are in those vehicles can be recycled with existing technologies, and hence between 20% to 25% of the materials are sent to landfills.

An Ecological Advantage

While it may initially seem that only approximately 20% to 25% of the materials from modern vehicles being sent to landfills may not be significantly damaging to the environment, we need to bear in mind that throughout the 2000’s, the average number of vehicles which reach the end of their useful life annually has been 12 to 15 million vehicles. 

When we think about the effects of the 20% to 25% of the materials which were used in 12 to 15 million vehicles that is sent into landfills annually, the effects of the chemicals which will leach into the ground from paving roads in parks, campgrounds and eco communities should appear to be notably less potentially damaging by comparison.   It will likely be several decades before the percentage of the materials within automobiles, motorcycles and trucks are recycled will exceed 90%.

Forest track east of Byreshield Hill
Forest track east of Byreshield Hill by Graham Robson is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

Yes, paving roads in parks, campgrounds and eco villages will undoubtedly result in numerous chemicals gradually leaching into the ground.  

Once the current global pandemic ends, people will resume traveling again, and there will probably be more people traveling into national parks, national forests, state parks, state forests and wilderness areas and wildlife refuges throughout the U.S. and Canada than ever before. 

In addition to tourists, various youth groups and school groups, there will also biologists, archaeologists and geologists who conduct research in the parks, and there will be photographers and artists who work on various arts projects in the parks.  There will also be park employees who will be operating numerous kinds of park maintenance vehicles. 

We need to think about the cumulative thousands of vehicles that people will be driving in each park every month, and that if the roads are paved, those vehicles will likely last longer.  

What Can You Do About This Issue?

Unlike some of the other issues relating to current research and new developments in green technologies that I’ve been writing about in The Afterimage Review column of The Pavlovic Today since 2016, whether it may be potentially advantageous to pave roads in parks rather than leave them as dirt or gravel roads is an issue that has hardly been researched and has not been widely discussed or publicized anywhere. 

black metal fence
Photo by Merilin Kirsika Tedder on

If this is an issue which you feel is important to you then this issue needs to be publicized, it needs to be researched and it needs to be discussed. 

Write about this, blog about this and discuss this with your politicians and with candidates who are running for various offices.  Let them know that either you feel that this is a good idea, or that this is at least an idea which is worth researching.  

There is an additional benefit to paving roads in parklands. Paving roads will create jobs because the agencies which maintain the parks will need to contract with paving companies.  

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...

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