Happening Now

Big Win for Transportation & Conservation

February 17, 2023

By: Dr. Christina Aiello, PhD Ecology

(NOTE: Dr. Aiello is the younger sister of our own National Field Coordinator, Joe Aiello)

If you tuned into the May 2022 Heavy Rail Gets Green Webinar, you heard me speak about the importance of transportation-conservation partnerships. Our existing and future infrastructure has taken a toll on ecosystems throughout our country, but new initiatives to maintain and restore connectivity between natural habitats are growing fast. Plans to renew and modernize our transportation infrastructure now regularly entail designs that allow movement of not just humans, but wildlife as well. In Southern California, one such partnership is taking shape around the Brightline West high-speed rail project that would connect Las Vegas to the outskirts of Los Angeles.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) announced an agreement this week between CDFW, the California Department of Transportation, and Brightline West to build three wildlife overpasses that would span the interstate as well as the rail. These overpasses will recreate historic movement corridors that once allowed species like bighorn sheep to move between small, patchy mountains rich in diversity. With the construction of the highway and the heavy flow of traffic, these movements have become rare and wildlife populations suffer reductions in genetic diversity and resiliency as a result. The high-speed rail threatened to make the situation even worse – creating an even greater barrier to animals willing to dash across the roadway on a relatively low-traffic day.

A large coalition of scientists, land managers, outdoor recreationists, and conservation-focused non-profits dreamed of something better. The high-speed rail in our minds should be a project hailed for its ecological benefits – the potential permanent fragmentation of a wilderness full of desert life just did not fit that picture. We wrote letters, held meetings and calls, and shared the science and the data rife with support for a wildlife-friendly approach. With the newly announced plans to build overpasses, improve underpasses, and use fencing to funnel wildlife safely across this busy human transportation corridor – the Brightline West project may prove to be the best thing to happen to this stretch of desert.