May 2002
411 - 422

Forest fragmentation of the conterminous United States: Assessing forest intactness through road density and spatial characteristics


Over the past few centuries, widespread disturbance of native forests of the conterminous United States has dramatically altered the composition, structure, extent, and spatial pattern of forestlands (Curtis 1956, Whitney 1994). These forests have been either permanently replaced by other land uses or degraded to varying degrees by unsustainable forestry practices, forest fragmentation, exotic species introduction, or alteration of natural disturbance regimes.

Habitat fragmentation is generally defined as the process of subdividing a continuous habitat type into smaller patches, which results in the loss of original habitat, reduction in patch size, and increasing isolation of patches (Andrén 1994). Habitat fragmentation is considered to be one of the single most important factors leading to loss of native species (especially in forested landscapes) and one of the primary causes of the present extinction crisis (Wilcox and Murphy 1985). Although it is true that natural disturbances such as fire and disease fragment native forests, human activities are by far the most extensive agents of forest fragmentation (Burgess and Sharpe 1981). For example, during a 20-year period in the Klamath–Siskiyou ecoregion, fire was responsible for 6% of forest loss, while clear-cut logging was responsible for 94% (Staus et al. 2001). Depending on the severity of the fragmentation process and sensitivity of the ecosystems affected, native plants, animals, and many natural ecosystem processes (e.g., nutrient cycling, pollination, predator–prey interactions, and natural disturbance regimes) are compromised or fundamentally altered. For many species, migration between suitable habitat patches becomes more difficult, leading to smaller population sizes, decreased gene flow, and possible local extinctions (Wilcove 1987, Vermeulen 1993).


Heilman, Jr. G.E., J.R. Strittholt, N.C. Slosser, and D.A. DellaSala. 2002. Forest fragmentation of the conterminous United States: Assessing forest intactness through road density and spatial characteristics. Bioscience 52(5): 411-422.

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