New report highlights best practices for sustainable rural infrastructure

Low-volume rural roads provide critical services, but require extensive planning to prevent detrimental effects on air, water and wildlife


June 22, 2021
For Immediate Release

Contact: Heidi Swanson, (202) 833-8773 ext. 211, gro.asenull@idieh


Interstate highway systems and networks of dense urban roads typically receive top billing on maps, in infrastructure legislation and in travelers’ daily commuting routes. However, more than 80% of all US roads are considered low-volume roads – defined as those that carry fewer than 1000 vehicles per day. According to a new report published by the Ecological Society of America, “The Ecology of Rural Roads: Effects, Management and Research,” this less-traveled road network can have an outsized impact on surrounding ecosystems, altering the local hydrology, affecting wildlife populations and shuttling invasive species into new areas.


Chesapeake Bay Foundation Clagett Farm uses conservation practices that have been implemented in partnership with U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, on Feb. 21, 2018. Their conservation plan addresses soil health, drainage and farm road design. The soil here has been analyzed using a new handheld device that use electrons to determine the chemical makeup of soil samples. This farm, surrounding residential and military lands are part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Public domain photo courtesy of Lance Cheung / USDA.


“Rural roads provide important transportation connections for rural populations but,while apparently innocuous, can lead to drastic changes in whole landscapes, including the plants and animals that live in them,” said Alisa W. Coffin, a research ecologist at the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service Southeast Watershed Research Laboratory in Tifton, GA.


Road networks in rural areas of Colorado, US, in 2005 (a) and 2014 (b), and Rondônia, Brazil, in 1987 (c) and 2017 (d). Colorado road development patterns are indicative of gas and petroleum extraction, while Rondônia configurations show typical “fish bone” patterns of colonization and agricultural expansion. Imagery courtesy of Google Earth: USDA, Farm Service Administration, National Agriculture Imagery Program; Landsat / Copernicus.


Proper planning and maintenance of rural roads improves farmers’ ability to get products to market, creating more reliable conditions for agricultural trade and for other social and economic opportunities. Maintaining and improving rural infrastructure is important not only for surrounding rural communities, but also for the broader public that depends on the goods and services that these communities produce. However, roads may also introduce heavy metals and road salt into waterways, alter flooding regimes and even change the rate at which nearby trees release water into the atmosphere. Animal deaths from vehicle collisions on rural roads can dramatically alter wildlife populations. When transportation planners fail to account for these cumulative impacts, it compromises the clean water and healthy ecosystems that support the wildlife and people that live nearby.


Gravel road near a family farm outside Humbolt, Iowa. Public domain photo courtesy of USDA / Preston Keres.


Road ecology is a relatively new discipline, and Coffin and her colleagues hope their paper can increase awareness of the importance of low-volume rural road networks. The report also describes best management practices and policy applications.

“Transportation authorities are increasingly looking to the science of road ecology for solutions on how to improve our transportation systems while also mitigating for their negative ecological effects,” said Coffin. “The science shows that new roads bring additional negative effects and that mitigation improves ecological outcomes.”

The report is No. 23 in Issues in Ecology, a series of reports published by the Ecological Society of America that use commonly understood language to present the consensus of a panel of scientific experts on issues related to the environment. Previous reports in the series are available at


Coffin, Alisa, et al. 2021. “The Ecology of Rural Roads: Effects, Management, and Research.” Issues in Ecology 23.

Author contact:
Alisa W. Coffin (vog.adsunull@niffoc.asila)


  • Alisa W. Coffin, Southeast Watershed Research Laboratory, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Tifton, GA
  • Douglas S. Ouren, Emeritus, Fort Collins Science Center, US Geological Survey, Fort Collins, CO, USA
  • Neil D. Bettez, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Millbrook, NY
  • Luís Borda-de-Água, CIBIO/InBio, Centro de Investigação em Biodiversidade e Recursos Genéticos, Laboratório Associado, Universidade do Porto, Campus Agrário de Vairão, Vairão, Portugal; CIBIO/InBio, Centro de Investigação em Biodiversidade e Recursos Genéticos, Laboratório Associado, Instituto Superior de Agronomia, Universidade de Lisboa, Tapada da Ajuda, Lisbon, Portugal
  • Amy E. Daniels, Independent Consultant, Rua Mondlane, Luanda, Angola
  • Clara Grilo, CESAM – Centre for Environmental and Marine Studies, Faculdade de Ciências da Universidade de Lisboa, Lisboa, Portugal
  • Jochen A.G. Jaeger, Concordia University Montreal, Department of Geography, Planning and Environment, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
  • Laetitia M. Navarro, German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research, Leipzig, Germany
  • Haiganoush K. Preisler, (Retired), Pacific Southwest Research Station, USDA Forest Service, Albany, CA
  • Emily S.J. Rauschert, Department of Biological, Geological and Environmental Sciences, Cleveland State University, Cleveland, OH



The Ecological Society of America, founded in 1915, is the world’s largest community of professional ecologists and a trusted source of ecological knowledge, committed to advancing the understanding of life on Earth. The 9,000 member Society publishes five journals and a membership bulletin and broadly shares ecological information through policy, media outreach, and education initiatives. The Society’s Annual Meeting attracts 4,000 attendees and features the most recent advances in ecological science. Visit the ESA website at

ESA is offering complimentary registration at the 106th Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America for press and institutional public information officers (see credential policy). The all-virtual meeting will feature live plenaries, panels and Q&A sessions from August 2–6, 2021. To apply for press registration, please contact ESA Public Information Manager Heidi Swanson at gro.asenull@idieh.

Issues in Ecology is an official publication of ESA, using commonly understood language to report the consensus of a panel of scientific experts on issues related to the environment. Issues in Ecology aims to build public understanding of the importance of the products and services provided by the environment to society. The text for every Issues in Ecology is reviewed for technical content by external expert reviewers.