Ecosystem News

Bypassing Nelsonville: The fast track to forest fragmentation

By Cassie Diltz, CG Science

After receiving the stimulus funds needed, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) is able to continue work on the Nelsonville Bypass. Yet, the debate between its transportation benefits and its environmental consequences are creating controversy among economists and ecologists.

“If you have a bit of forest and you cut it down, you will lose the forest species in that area and it takes centuries for those species to come back,” said Glenn Matlock, assistant professor in plant biology and forest ecology at Ohio University. “If you pave over it, they will never come back.”

The project is estimated to directly impact 741 acres of forestland, of which 86.1 percent are oak-hickory forests that are more than 100 years old. It is also estimated to affect 7.08 miles of streams, primarily by allowing sediment to runoff into the surrounding waterway. Additionally, highway construction will uncover some mine sites, said Dr. Natalie Kruse, a professor of environmental studies at OU. Kruse will oversee a research project to monitor the impact of unearthing these sites.

The bypass will fragment forest habitats in the Wayne National Forest by clearing over 700 acres for the highway. The proposed highway will cut through the Wayne, fracturing the forest into areas divided by paved roads.

This division, called forest fragmentation, creates dry zones near the forest edges and increases light and air movement. These changes in conditions can affect plants and animals that are more sensitive to light and moisture levels. The main concern with forest fragmentation is the effect it can have on biological diversity, Matlock said.

For example, the Indiana Bat is on the state and federal endangered species list. During winter, the bats reside in caves and abandoned mines, but during warmer months, they roost under the exfoliated bark of hickory, white oak, or other trees. The bats will also roost in tree hollows, which are in many areas of the Wayne forest. The bypass is projected to cause the species to lose 764.5 acres of roosting habitat and 891.4 acres of foraging habitat, according to an Environmental Impact Statement conducted as part of the Wayne National Forest Management Plan.

There are several other species impacted as well, such as the Timber Rattlesnake and the Grizzled Skipper, a small butterfly whose only remaining habitat is in the Wayne National Forest. This butterfly is historically found mostly in Southeastern Ohio, including Hocking, Morgan, Athens, Cuyahoga and Vinton counties. The Ohio Division of Wildlife lists the species as endangered.

“You’re just destroying a whole ecosystem,” said Loraine McCosker, a Sierra Club member with a master’s degree in environmental studies from OU.

Economists, however, argue the benefits that the Nelsonville Bypass could provide. Director of the Athens County Economic Development Council, Todd Shelton, is looking forward to the completion of the project.

“The bypass will open up interstate commerce from West Virginia and Kentucky, and businesses will be able to ship and travel a lot quicker. Also, it will draw individuals down into this neck of the woods,” Shelton said.

According to ODOT, US 33 is one of the eight busiest truck routes in Ohio, extending from the southeast corner of Michigan to Virginia and carrying over 1,700 trucks daily. The project is expected to create 4,848 jobs and decrease bottleneck traffic that can cause automobile accidents and fatalities.

The bypass will be a four-lane highway, approximately 8.5 miles long that will circumvent the city of Nelsonville and transverse the Wayne National Forest. The project has an extended history with an original design in the 1960s and a proposal in 1975. In 2002, an order from the federal government designated the bypass as a priority project, and recent stimulus funding allotted the project $150,000, giving it the jumpstart it needed.

The construction will to be completed in three phases. Phase one focused on drainage, dirt work and constructing interchanges. Phase two, which began in August 2009, consists of constructing 3.16 miles of four-lane earthwork and paving 4.56 miles of four-lane mainline. Finally, phase three, which is also underway, will create 3.87 miles of the new four-lane mainline, 1.63 miles of the new State Route 78 connection to US 33, and 0.52 miles of State Route 691, including the new Hocking River Bridge.

With the environmental consequences in mind, ODOT and the Wayne National Forest have maintained close ties to work through the project and make it a success. ODOT moved trails throughout the forest before the project began. It is also planning to create an extended bridge over the forest, as well as several animal crossings, in order to help protect the Grizzled Skipper.

“Our job is to provide a safe highway, and since the Wayne takes great pride in their acres, there was an enormous and unprecedented amount of cooperation between us,” said Debra Fought, Planning Administrator for ODOT’s District 10.

While ODOT cites the project as a collaborative success, ecologists such as Matlock question whether their efforts were enough. Are the economic gains, while sizable, large enough to offset the permanent ecological losses? Is this another case of Appalachian Ohio making disproportionate sacrifices for the economic gain of the rest of the state? These are important questions to ask, but they are in retrospect. Timber has been cleared and the project is well underway. The only questions now are about the future of species such as the Grizzled Skipper and Indiana Bat.