29 January 2024
European roadless mountains: saving our last paradises
Roads: the epitome of human-driven nature’s destruction
We are experiencing the most critical era of human-induced biodiversity loss, and it is not by chance that it happens simultaneously with the most explosive road sprawl in human history. Road construction is a synonym for land artificialization and economic development. New roads are constructed to facilitate human and goods transport, also giving access to intact lands for exploitation to meet humanity’s growing needs for food, material, and energy. This land anthropogenization process of modifying natural habitats to cover human needs comes with a high cost for nature and all its ecosystem services. New roads in formerly inaccessible lands and intact natural ecosystems trigger the so-called “contagious development” interlinked to habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation, pollution, hydrological disruption, soil erosion, overexploitation of natural resources, acceleration of invasive species spread, carbon sink loss, local climate change, and loss of wildlife. In other words, road penetration in the wilderness transfers human footprint deep into the wild and causes biodiversity loss. It can be considered as the epitome of human-driven nature’s destruction.
The first roadless legislation in Europe
The Greek government recently introduced the first roadless legislation in Europe called “Untrodden Mountains”. On the first of November 2021, the Greek Prime Minister announced it at the United Nations Summit COP26. So far, it has provisionally offered strict legal protection in nine mountains, banning roads and infrastructures to maintain biodiversity, ecosystem services, and landscape values, and aspires to strictly protect 55 pristine mountains under the target 15.4 of Sustainable Development Goals. How was this science-policy interface achieved? Scientists have worked hard at the University of Ioannina for four years to deliver the roadless map of Greece. A close collaboration was established between the Ministry of Environment & Climate Change and the Lab’s people. Scientific outputs were made openly available through the Lab’s website and regularly communicated to the government. A success story: one of the rare cases of a national policy guided by scientific evidence.
The roadless map of Greece: mountains at the spotlight
A roadless core area is “any land patch with a size over 1 km2 that lies at least 1 km from the nearest road” (dirt roads included). Such roadless core areas and their buffer zone of 1km around them form the roadless areas. Our results showed that the total roadless land of Greece corresponds to 6.1% of the country’s land surface. The country has 389 roadless areas (256 on the mainland and 133 in the islands), besides 62 fully roadless islands and 3.456 roadless islets (area < 1 km2). Almost all roadless areas (98%) lie in the mountainous zone, having an average elevation of about 1000m, and a two-fold steeper terrain than the rest of the country.
Are roadless mountains wilderness?
Extended roadless mountains have a strong wilderness character that increases with their size. But what is extended? The minimum size threshold for defining wilderness areas in Europe is between 5 km2 and 30 km2. Although 302 roadless sites in Greece are over 10 km2, we advocate the 55 largest mountainous roadless as wilderness areas, extending beyond 30 km2 up to 380 km2. They are exceptionally beautiful landscapes, without being yet degraded by our modern civilization penetration, non-disturbed, almost fully covered by forests and other habitats of high naturalness, satisfying hence all the wilderness criteria. Such ecosystems are usually associated with high ecological integrity, allowing natural processes and thriving wildlife. In the case of Greece, all roadless mountains are resilient to change: no land artificialization has occurred, and their forests were much more resistant to fires. Are these magnificent ecosystems protected? Not really. The Natura 2000 network covers 67% of their extent, but it is doubtful if it will succeed in saving them from further mountainous road sprawl and the fast expansion of the renewable energy industry in the mountains, threatening half of them. Shouldn’t to something to preserve the last wild paradises of our European home?
Roadless mountains working group – the role of NEMOR
The Network for European Mountain Research (NEMOR) is a scientific network of 34 institutions from 15 European countries under the scope to promote research and achieve sustainable development in European mountains. NEMOR has already notified the executive vice-president of the European Commission Mr. F. Timmermans on the need for the European mountainous landscape conservation through a roadless policy (July 2022). Today, NEMOR is going to establish a new working group on the topic of roadless mountains, promoting international collaboration and research on this hot topic, and enhancing similar long-standing efforts of other organizations (e.g. Society For Conservation Biology-European Section, Wild Europe, European Wilderness Society). Many questions arise and need to be addressed. How much wilderness is left in Europe? What is the role of mountains in preserving European wilderness? Do roadless mountains host old-growth and ancient woods? Do they contribute to global and European biodiversity conservation goals? How do they benefit Europeans? What are the merits of preserving mountainous landscapes with minimal human infrastructure? What are the attitudes and opinions of the local communities on preserving such landscapes? We do not have the luxury to do science without implementation and vice-versa. Roadless mountains should be in the spotlight of future research and international networking. We do not have much time ahead to preserve our last paradises.
Kassara, Ch., Petridou, M., Tzortzakaki, O., Papantoniou, E., Galani, A., Psaralexi, M., Gkotsis, D., Papaioannou, H., Kati, V. “The roadless map of Greece”, Mendeley Data, v2. http://doi.org/10.17632/s6zh89fb5c.2
Kati, V., Kassara, Ch., Psaralexi, M., Tzortzakaki, O., Petridou, M., Galani, A., Hoffmann, M.T. 2020. Conservation policy under a roadless perspective: minimizing fragmentation in Greece. Biological Conservation, 252, 108828. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2020.108828
Kati, V., Selva, N., Sjögren-Gulve, P. 2022. Greek roadless policy: A model for Europe. Science 375 984. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abo2014
Kati, V., Petridou, M., Tzortzakaki, O., Papantoniou, E., Galani, A., Psaralexi, M., Gotsis, D., Papaioannou, H., Kassara, C. 2023. How much wilderness is left? A roadless approach under the Global and the European Biodiversity Strategy focusing on Greece. Biological Conservation 281, 110015. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2023.110015
BCL 2024. Roadless. Biodiversity Conservation Lab. Available at: https://bc.lab.uoi.gr/en/research/projects/roadless/