A family’s mission to document the most isolated spot in each state

 

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.

Ryan, Rebecca and Skyla Means

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.”

Montana's most remote spot, in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
Follow their progress and learn more at www.remotefootprints.org.

Krista Langlois is an editorial intern at High Country News. Follow her @KristaLanglois2.

High Country News Classifieds
  • TECHNICAL ADVISOR TO THE GOOD NEIGHBOR AGREEMENT
    Northern Plains Resource Council seeks an independent contractor to implement the Good Neighbor Agreement (GNA) between local communities and the Sibanye-Stillwater Mining Company in Montana....
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening in its Salt Lake City office for a staff attorney. SUWA's...
  • DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST
    Idaho Walk Bike Alliance seeks a lover of bicycling, walking, and all modes of active transportation who willingly puts the car in the garage and...
  • COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Friends of Inyo - the Communications Director is a full-time permanent position that reports to the Executive Director and utilizes communication strategies and production skills...
  • INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS EDITOR
    High Country News seeks an editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk. This individual will lead a team of passionate journalists...
  • HIKING TO THE EDGE:
    Confronting Cancer in Rocky Mountain National Park. Poetry and photos on survival thinking. E-book and paperback available at Amazon.com.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • IPLC RIGHTS AND EQUITY PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FUTURE WEST
    Future West seeks an executive director to lead this dynamic organization into the future. Based in Bozeman, MT this well-respected nonprofit provides communities in the...
  • PART-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mitchell Museum of the American Indian Location: Evanston, IL Salary Range: $45,000 @ 24 hours per week. send resume: [email protected] www.mitchellmuseum.org
  • COMMUNICATIONS LEAD
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR
    Since 1989, The Nature Conservancy in Alaska has been doing work you can believe in protecting the lands and waters that all life depends on....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.