Let there be no mistake: Rebecca and Ryan Means don’t hate roads. “We enjoy driving around on them,” Ryan says. “But what we’re saying is we have plenty. Maybe as a country we should think about not laying any more down.”
Rebecca, 40, and Ryan, 41, are conservation biologists from Florida, and they’re on a mission to document the most remote spot in each of the 50 states, measured by its distance from a road. Once they pinpoint the spots using GIS mapping technology, they visit each one by human power and record what they find: Are there non-native species? Evidence of human activity? Trash?
When I heard about their project, I imagined Rebecca and Ryan bushwhacking through thick forest for days. But what their observations reveal most is the aggressive encroachment of human development on wild places. Of the 22 remote spots they’ve visited so far, the average distance from a road has been only 5.9 miles, and the average distance from a trail 0.5 miles. Ninety-six percent of the remote spots are on public land or conservation easements. Manmade noise from airplanes or motors was recorded at 82 percent of the sites, and cell phone service was available at 59 percent.
As they’re only now getting to the Western states, those statistics will likely change. But though the West generally has more undeveloped land than other regions, America’s most remote locales aren’t all here. Florida, with its reputation for being overrun by golf courses and retirees, boasts a spot on an island 17 miles from a road – nearly as remote as the spot 18 miles removed in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness. And believe it or not, Louisiana may claim the most remote location in the lower 48, some 30 miles from the nearest road, and again on an island.
While Ryan and Rebecca measure remoteness in quantifiable terms – calculations that can be repeated in the future to see how things change – they’ve come to realize the feeling of being removed is largely qualitative.
“One of the most frequent comments we get … is that the remote spot doesn’t feel the most remote,” Rebecca says. “For example, in New Jersey, people think about the pine barrens as the wild area, and actually the most remote spot was a barrier island from which you could see the skyline of Atlantic City.”
Ryan and Rebecca’s 4-year-old daughter Skyla joins them on each trip, bringing a child’s joy of discovery but also adding to the challenge. Ryan carries the gear and food – his pack was 70 pounds on their recent trip in Montana – while Rebecca carries Skyla. Finding the right spot is difficult too: Maps aren’t always up to date, and satellite imagery frequently reveals private logging or mining roads that force them to recalculate.
And then there’s the issue of publicity. People both online and in person have pleaded with the Means not to reveal their state’s most remote spot for fear of spoiling it. So far, the Means haven’t released anything more than vague locations, but they eventually plan to make their research fully public.
Most of the spots are on public land “owned by the American people,” Ryan explains. “We have no desire to keep (them) from the American people.” Plus, adds Rebecca, many are choked by trees and lacking vistas, not on a mountaintop or beneath a waterfall. “I don’t think there’s going to be a mass exodus to these places.”
Rebecca and Ryan may come across as anti-road warriors. And while they do believe that roads are responsible for a host of ecological ills, from the spread of invasive species to the interruption of habitat, the goal of “Project Remote” isn’t necessarily to halt development. Rather, it's to encourage people to get outside and to call attention to how quickly the U.S. is losing its wild places.
“The landscape of our country seems to change more and more rapidly,” Ryan says. “I don’t think we as a society are doing a good enough job measuring and monitoring that change and figuring out the impact.”Follow their progress and learn more at www.remotefootprints.org.
Krista Langlois is an editorial intern at High Country News. Follow her @KristaLanglois2.