Step off Montana Highway 200 at Rogers Pass, hop on the back of a wolverine, and you would cross pavement just three times before reaching Banff, Alberta.
Two of those roads, U.S. Highway 2 and Going-to-the-Sun Road, cross the otherwise blank spot on an unusual map that’s been floating around the Internet recently. The map, assembled by Reddit user WestCoastBestCoast94, displays virtually all the nation’s roads – and nothing else. The resulting black-and-white representation of the Lower 48 tends to get one common response:
The United States has about 4 million miles of public roads. According to federal highway statistics, 97 percent of the continental U.S. is less than three miles away from a road. Eighty-three percent lies within half a mile. A recent analysis prepared by the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University looked at the unroaded areas of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming – three states with the least population density short of Alaska – and found that 16 percent of their combined territory qualified as essentially roadless. The study included national parks, which do have some roads.
“The first thing you notice is how much impact humans have on the landscape,” said Jamie Robertson, co-owner of Cairn Cartographics map-making company in Missoula. “The next thing that comes to mind is how special the white places are in our particular state. Look at anything on the East Coast, and you never see any blocks of white at all.”
Robertson said the image comes from a layer of digital map files that show only where roads are. Other layers would add the classifications (freeway, gravel road), geography (mountain ranges, rivers) and political boundaries (county lines, national forests).
That produces a sort of digital bias. At this scale, a two-track skid road rendered one pixel wide appears about 10 times its actual size.
“Maps can be a little bit of misinformation,” said Rocky Mountain Map Gallery owner Kevin McCann. “I think people will be somewhat shocked to see the density and amount of roads shown. But you’ve got to keep in mind, there’s no delineation between interstate highway and forest road. Everything has the same weight in this image.”
Nevertheless, the concentration of those old logging roads tends to be the first thing many people notice about the Montana portion of the map. Lincoln and Mineral counties in particular jump out as places that soaked up the ink. What appears to be part of the western state border is actually the blank expanse of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, with only the Lost Horse Creek Road scrawled in the void.
Dale Bosworth knows many of those roads well. The Missoula resident served six years as chief of the U.S. Forest Service, capping a career spent mostly in the Region 1 area covering Montana.
“A lot of those are jammer roads and old logging roads,” Bosworth said. “Some of them are grown in or gated, but they’re still there. Back in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s, loggers built a road every 400 or 500 feet across the hillside. Before helicopter logging and skyline logging, that’s as far as they could drag them in those days.”
Bosworth said most of those roads were never intended to be permanent, but weren’t ever removed, either.
“I feel like it’s probably a surprise to a lot of people in a wide-open state like Montana just how many roads there are,” he said. “Being an old forester, it makes me feel the magnitude of the job the Forest Service has in restoration. That black won’t be gone by itself. It needs to be restored so it’s not creating sediment and erosion. It’s a huge job, and it will cost a lot of money.”
There’s also the question of which roads to keep. Forest Service travel plans can pit hikers and horse riders against ATV riders and dirt-bikers over the recreation value of a road built for an industrial logging sale half a century ago.
Marcel Huijser studies road ecology for the Western Transportation Institute. He’s spent years researching how animals relate to roads, especially along the U.S. Highway 93 corridor in the Flathead Indian Reservation where dozens of under- and overpasses have been added to help critters cross.
“While I consider western Montana with its mountains to be ‘more wild’ than the eastern, flat part of Montana, the road density is much higher in western Montana,” Huijser said. “It’s kind of counterintuitive, which I find interesting. Perhaps the ‘wild feeling’ is closely associated with limited sight distance because of topography and trees.”
As a researcher, Huijser added he needs the absence of roads to understand the presence of them. That drew his attention to the gridded farm roads of eastern Montana.
“Those reference areas, roadless areas, are simply essential,” Huijser said. “But there are not many reference areas left, especially not in the prairie ecosystem.”
Ted Hughes comes at the map from a very different angle. The chief registrar for the Missoula Art Museum said it reminded him of the pen-and-ink dreamscapes of local artist Jay Rummell.
“The technical term for it is ‘horror vacui’ – fear of emptiness,” Hughes said. “That’s Jay for sure. He wanted to fill it all up. It’s an all-over approach to making a picture, almost covering every single square inch of a canvas, like Jackson Pollock would do. They’re trying to fill in every square inch except the Bob Marshall complex.”
Hughes said it’s difficult for an artist to get such a cohesive result with simple lines.
“I’m always impressed by this sort of line quality,” he said. “It looks like someone was creating a play of light and dark up there in the northwest corner. It’s hard to pull that off without it looking cluttered and busy and weird."
"It’s a very abstract study in line,” Hughes continued. “There are all these different line qualities – expressive line, machinelike line. It’s really beautiful.”