Here’s a bad idea. The state wants to widen Interstate-90 over Snoqualmie Pass. While they’re at it, they’re considering building a series of passageways for animals—maybe as many as 14—that would help wildlife move safely across the expanded freeway. It will cost $113 million.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important to design our cities and roads to accommodate the natural systems around us. Indeed, I think we have a moral responsibility to do so. But I’m rather unconvinced that a) this project will do much to help the state’s wildlife; and b) it’s the best use for wildlife of $113 million.

I admit that the basic idea is simple and appealing. By building overpasses with native plantings and widening existing underpasses, we can help animals move safely from north to south across the interstate. It’s worked in Florida and Banff National Park in Canada. In fact, it already works in places where I-90 is elevated as it traverses the Cascade Mountains. So far, green groups seem to love the idea. So why do I think the project is so stupid?

    1. I don’t want the freeway widened. Already, people are living in Roslyn and Cle Elum (and even farther east) are commuting to jobs in the Puget Sound region. A new resort in the area, Suncadia, is leading the next wave of development there. Widening the freeway will make it easier for people to live in the hinterlands, on the sunny side of the mountains, and drive 70 miles to work. This has at least two serious consequences: 1) It will mean more carbon emissions and hence more global warming, which may have profound consequences for the region’s wildlife, especially salmon; and 2) By encouraging development in the eastern Cascade foothills, it will actually substantially reduce wildlife habitat. (Don’t underestimate the significance of this last point: Cle Elum is primed to become a bedroom community, the resultant low-density sprawl could put a serious dent in critical wildlife habitat. Freeway-widening like this can be the Trojan Horse that will turn Seattle into LA-north.)
    2. The money could be better spent elsewhere. The Ellsworth Creek Watershed in coastal southwest Washington preserved 5,000 acres of lowland old-growth forest and salmon streams, along with cut-over forest. It cost $20 million (about $4,000/acre) and was heralded as one of the region’s biggest conservation achievements of the decade. There’s terrific potential for restoration there, including reforestation, which will soak up carbon out of the atmosphere rather than add more to it. It also shelters the species that need it most, such as salmon and spotted owls. For the price of the I-90 passages, we could replicate the Ellsworth success nearly 6 times! (In fairness, the money for the passages comes from federal highway funding and likely wouldn’t be available to alternative forms of conservation. That’s a failure of the federal funding constraints that should be changed. Conservationists should lobby for more flexible mitigation money for freeway expansion, not solely for passages.)
    3. The passages will not help the most critically endangered species. Passage advocates trumpet the corridors’ usefulness to black bear, elk, mule deer, and a few others. But it’s hard to see what all the excitement is about. Washington has probably the largest black bear population of any state in the nation, except Alaska. Deer are, if anything, overpopulating Washington. Even elk fare well in the Evergreen State: there are ten herds, with thousands of animals dispersed widely around the state. Not that we shouldn’t protect these species—we  should—but it seems more important that we focus on struggling keystone species like salmon. Or maybe on species that are vanishing from the state, such as the Selkirk caribou herd or sage-grouse.

    The sad fact is, wildlife habitat in the central Cascades is severed by I-90 almost as effectively as the Columbia River segregates Oregon from Washington. It would be nice if our high-speed freeways didn’t have an impact on wildlife. But they do. And there’s no fix for the fundamental problem that doesn’t cost so much money that it would be better spent—for wildlife—elsewhere.

    In my more cynical moments, I fear that this project is an example of the worst kind of greenwashing. Road-builders won approval from environmentalists, their usual nemesis, by sugar-coating the freeway project with an expensive patina, the wildlife passages. But the pernicious consequences of freeway-widening—accelerated habitat loss, climate change, lost conservation opportunities—pose a far more serious threat to wildlife.

    Washington is fortunate to have a remarkable share of its montane ecosystems intact. The state is home to millions of acres of wilderness and roadless areas in mountainous areas. On the other hand, we’re desperately short of protected areas in sagebrush country, in Puget Sound lowlands, along coastlines, and in low-elevation forests. It’s annoying that the big wilderness areas of the northern Cascades are divided from those in the Mount Rainier-region, but no species’ survival depends on migrating between those areas. At the same time, many species in other ecosystems in Washington are speeding straight toward extinction. Our conservation priorities ought to lie with them.