Defining Remote

Before we could kick off Project Remote and investigate the remotest locations in every state, we had to develop a suitable definition of remoteness.  Being remote evokes feelings in human beings.  How remote a person feels varies with a person’s experience, perspective, and comfort zone.  The feeling of remoteness is a qualitative, biased metric.  For Project Remote, we needed a quantitative, non-biased, definition that we could apply evenly for all states.

Thoughts of roadless Alaska came to mind and our amazing, wild trek through the Brooks Range of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  We hired a bush plane to drop us off in a nameless valley.  At 50 miles from the nearest village or road, our chests pounded with excitement and healthy fear.   We agreed to meet up 9 days and 35 miles later at a flat spot where he could land on

the tundra marked by a heap of moose antlers.  He looked at us awfully cock-eyed when we told him we had no satellite phone.  He asked, “well, why not?”  We told him that we were deliberately here to remove ourselves from civilization and contact with it.  Watching our pilot fly away, we realized we were as far from towns and roads, and therefore, humans as we could possibly imagine.

In considering the remotest location in a given state, what we really asking is–where is the farthest place from civilization (i.e. humans and their structures)?

To define remoteness, it is extremely important to have a quantitative definition  that also is repeatable from one observer to the next.  We cannot quantify the precise location of every human at any given time.  However,  humans tend to congregate in cities, villages, or settlements permeated and connected by a vast network of roads.  Roads and towns have been mapped and we can use Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to remotely identify their location.

Since roads and towns are a known quantity, we decided that maximum remoteness within a state will be that point that is farthest from a road or town.  Using GIS, we can calculate the exact location within a state that is the farthest distance from a roads/towns.  Most importantly, Remote Spot calculations can easily be replicated and repeated in the future to measure changes in remoteness.  A Remote Spot is embedded within a buffer of roadless area called a Remote Area Polygon.  The area of remote land inside the polygon also can be calculated and compared between states.

While researching the literature on remoteness, we found a timely and informative paper published in Science entitled “Roadless Space of the Conterminous United States,” by Watts et al. (2007).  Click here for the abstract.

The authors provide informative discussion on the U.S. road system, its impacts to ecology, and introduce a new metric called “Roadless Volume” (RV) put forward to monitor the balance between ecological costs and societal benefits of having millions of roads slicing up the landscape.  Watts et al (2007) also define remoteness in terms of distance to roads (DTR).  We contacted the lead author, Ray Watts, who shared ideas and data.  We use their calculations to verify our own findings and identify shifts in remoteness.

Based on the above thinking, we developed a simple and quantitative definition of remoteness to use while calculating state Remote Spots.  The remotest location within a state is the point that is the farthest straight-line distance from a road or city/town.  It is a point on the landscape that is marked by a set of geographical coordinates (latitude and longitude).  We refer to these areas as state Remote Spots. 

Upon close examination of the Remote Spots, we have found that each state presents challenges to our definition of remoteness.

What if a calculated Remote Spot ends up on an island?  Should Remote Spots be on islands, or should they be considered on the mainland only?  After some thought and debate (and a phenomenal trip to Florida’s Mainland Remote Spot), we concluded that a Remote Spot could be on an island.  If the maximum distance from a road lands on an island, then that tells a story.  Islands are just as developable and inhabitable as the mainland.  There are bridges to islands all over the country, and many more inhabited islands are reachable by boat.

What about a remote human settlement or village that is off the road system?  For example, in Alaska there are dozens of fly-in only villages located all over the state embedded within the otherwise remote backcountry.  We believe that settlements or villages diminish the remoteness of a landscape.  Settlements have been mapped and can be incorporated into GIS calculations.  So we have added isolated settlements or villages as a criterion for calculating remote spots.

Many public lands are laced with extensive systems of heavily used hiking trails dotted with leantos or other structures in designated camping areas.   If it were our idea to solely get away from all humans or any human influence on the landscape, then we must include hiking trails as a criterion affecting remoteness.  But even though we highly value the ability to get away from all humans now and again, it was even more important that we get away from motor vehicles or roaring fossil-fueled civilization.

We really needed to ask ourselves–“Why are we even going remote, anyway?”  For adventure?  Yes.  But it wasn’t enough for us to expend all the time, money, and effort traveling state by state for just adventure.  As biologists and conservationists, we hunger to make a difference.  We decided to use Project Remote as a platform to educate people and promote the conservation of remote and roadless areas.

In using Project Remote as a conservation and education platform, we decided that roads and towns are vectors of motorized, fossil-fuel burning vehicles and industries–the real culprits that diminish the remoteness of our country and are most damaging to the environment.  We did not wish to bring any negative attention to the existence of hiking trails on the landscape.  Remote Footprints strongly supports foot-based or otherwise human-powered travel everywhere and anywhere.  Furthermore, roads have myriad negative impacts on the ecology of the land, whereas hiking trails are far less impacting to the environment.

 

 

We have encountered many more challenges to our quantitative definition of remoteness along the way.  Cabins are scattered across the wilderness, particularly in the American West and in Alaska.  Overnight shelters along the Appalachian Trail are used frequently by hikers.  Lighthouses have become an issue for states that border the ocean.  Oil platforms along the Gulf Coast also present and issue.  Hike-in public lands visitor centers on islands or in remote areas challenge our thinking.  Hike-in ranger stations are scattered about some of our public lands.

When we encounter these types of man-made or inhabited structures while Going Remote state by state, our wilderness experience (i.e. feeling of remoteness) is impacted, but we stay the course and adhere to our quantitative definition…Almost every time we arrive at a state Remote Spot, we encounter some human-related structure that sparks animated deliberation about whether we have developed a suitable definition of remoteness…In the end, it all has us thinking–“Can we really be remote any more within our extensively developed, populated nation?”

On day 4 of our Brooks Range trek,  being as remote as we could possibly imagine–we saw a hunter’s rifle scope’s lens guard laying on pristine ground.  Seeing that was like a knife in the chest of our wilderness experience.  But, at least it was dropped by a foot-based hunter who had a miniscule impact on the landscape–about as much as we were having as wilderness seeking backpackers.

In the grand scheme, we are saddened that it may no longer be possible to get truly remote from ALL things human any more, but we hope to increase nationwide discourse on the importance of saving what roadless areas remain for the benefit of both wildlife and wilderness seeking humans.

Just how remote can a person actually get in our vast country today?   Well, as you can see, it is not exactly a simple question with simple answers.  But we expect to have an answer by the end of Project Remote…What do you think?  Click here to join the conversation.

 

4 Responses to Defining Remote

  1. HH says:

    This is AWESOME buddy!
    When does a trail become a road (it’s a form of development too)? When a motorized vehicle or anything but non-mechanized self-propelled method of travel (what of bikes or canoes) can or does pass over it? How about boats which can and do just drive right up to islands, or for that matter up streams, thereby quickly and technologically closing that remote distance and hence it’s remote value (and RV)? I think you’ll (we’ll) need to examine both terrestrial and island remote sites for a given land unit (states in the present context) to actually sort out these issues.
    Count me in, but watch yer topknot! LOVE you guys! HH

  2. Remote Footprints says:

    Hank, your comments are exceptional and educational. We have thought about many of these things at one time or another…especially while overnighting on the TN Remote Spot with other humans at Siler’s Bald Shelter, App. Trail. Here we were supposed to be in THE remotest location of an entire state, and there was a “house” and people and a trail. Not just any trail, either. THE trail. The Appalachian Trail.

    But after all our attempts to create a powerful and complicated Remote Spot definition, we finally realized that humans have the potential to go anywhere and be anywhere. A person could helicopter or parachute into just about anywhere on land. A motorboat could reach anywhere on navigable waters. But these ideas were variables, not permanent structures. So we decided to make a simpler and quantitative definition of “remote,” based on current known geographical data (“permanent human structures”) that could be analyzed in ArcGIS and then have the method repeated in the future to measure any shrink or expansion of remoteness…

    We did labor over whether hiking trails or AT shelters should skew the remote spot calculations. We decided that there were simply too many hiking trails and that since people were traveling on foot, and intermittently, then trails should not affect remoteness calculations.

    You are so right about taking it state by state. We have already found that each state presents its own story of remoteness and accessibility, even after we apply the exact same definition of remoteness that we developed. For instance: the Gulf of Mexico is loaded with monster oil platforms just off the coastline of many of the Gulf state island remote spots…What the heck do we do about that? Imagine camping on a lonely island tip with a huge rig lighting up the night sky. Anyone have any thoughts about that? Much love back to the Timm Family–Ryan

  3. Mik Dale says:

    Hi there

    I’m exploring this same issue of remoteness in a different context. I’m interested in classifying energy resources by their distance from population centres. As such, I have a question, ‘should the distances be weighted by population?’ Is a point 500 miles from a city (pop > 100,000) more or less remote than a point 500 miles from a village (pop < 1000)?

    I'd be interested in the tools that you used to identify these points.

    Cheers,

    Mik

  4. Casey Parker says:

    Very impressive. Looking forward to seeing y’all again and hopefully join on one of these trips one day. Hope all is well.