Nobody lives there, it’s too crowded

If you look north a few miles east of Shoshoni driving to Casper you can spot the remnants of the old US Highway 20/26 as close as 100 yards from the present road.

Though the new highway has been in place for decades, the bridges, and much of the road base along the old road remain, albeit heavily damaged, as the native prairie grasses reclaim what is their own.

I have a friend who sometimes rides her bike on that road. I haven’t been on it for years, but since she and her husband own a business in Lysite, I’m guessing she’s found a route to the office from Shoshoni.

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A hundred years from now, there will still be evidence of the old road, but most of it will return to its original, pristine state.

The ability of nature to restore what once was after man abandons a road, factory or some political faction shuts off human access to an area is fascinating.

The History Channel aired a brief series from 2009 to 2010 called, “Life After People,” and elaborated on this idea. Much of what they produced was fanciful predictions of the future, but you don’t have to delve into science fiction to see how rapidly nature can restore itself.

Let’s look at three very different areas of the planet, areas that are very dangerous in their own right, but that share a commonality when it comes to natural restoration.

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Detroit, Chernobyl, and the 38th Parallel as it separates North from South Korea are all prime examples of abandoned areas coming back to life.

Whether the mean streets of Motor City, the radioactive carnage of the Ukraine east of the infamous nuclear accident, or the menacing, gesturing of two warring Asian nations are the most dangerous places to live is up for debate. I’ve survived the streets of Detroit a couple of times, but don’t want my badge to go postal with excessive rads wandering around the Ukrainian countryside and would prefer not to be in the midst of an artillery barrage between the two Korean armies.

Detroit is a hollowed-out, wasteland of what was once the premier industrial city in the world. Large areas of the city that were home to General Motors and Ford factories are now abandoned. The retreat from D-Town began in the 1970s and despite the best efforts of the city, the state of Michigan, and massive amounts of federal aid, no one is going back. At least no one walking on two legs is going back.

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The surrounding neighborhoods that held the families of the workers in these automobile production facilities are decaying as well. A few tree-lined, “All-American” style suburbs are home to squatters, and a favorite place to cook meth, but most of the houses are slowly caving in with each passing Great Lakes winter.

The factories are now home to huge populations of birds, both indigenous and introduced. Coyotes, fox, raccoons, and wolves (the smaller eastern species) are routinely spotted hunting rodents and increasingly large herds of whitetail deer. They’ve even spotted moose walking the streets of the old residential areas.

When the corporations laid off the workers and closed the plants, the people moved away. Wildlife quickly filled the niche. It’s not just mammals and birds that have returned. Aerial maps of what was just recently concrete, asphalt, and steel are disappearing under a canopy of oak, maple, and willow trees, with paw paws, persimmons, and a wide variety of berries covering the various depths of the newly returned forest.

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Yes, there are a few brave souls that wander into the area in late summer and pick blackberries, strawberries, and wild raspberries. The beauty of natural Michigan has returned to the streets of Motor City.

It’s not quite that easy when it comes to a land ravaged by excessive radiation. No, you won’t find five-legged deer, two-headed snakes, or salamanders the size of city buses roaming the Ukrainian countryside. Save that for late night 1950s era science fiction films.

What has happened in the 1,000 square mile area of the CEZ “Chernobyl Exclusion Zone” is a rapid return of moose, red deer, roe deer, wild boar, and of course, Russian wolves.

When the core melted into the earth at the Chernobyl nuclear site in 1986, the evacuation of humans in such a large area created a refuge. There haven’t been many studies to test the radiation levels in these large mammals, but insects, fish, and birds in the zone do show higher levels of radiation than similar creatures living nearby.

Dr. Jim Smith, a professor, and researcher at the University of Portsmouth in England did a comprehensive study of the CEZ just two years ago and came up with this summary.  

“This doesn’t mean radiation is good for wildlife, just that the effects of human habitation, including hunting, farming, and forestry, are a lot worse,”

The moose don’t glow in the dark, and the wolves, large cats, and raptors haven’t developed superhero eyesight as a result of the radiation, but they’ve found a place to live in a growingly overcrowded world.

When it comes to overcrowding, you won’t find many areas more packed with people than the 80,000,000 living in North and South Korea. The south has 52,000,000 stacked in an area of 38,000 square miles, the north is “roomier” with 28,000,000 living on 46,000 square miles. To put that in perspective, Wyoming is 3,000 square miles larger than the two Koreas combined at 97,000 square miles, and you think it’s too crowded when you spot another guy a half-mile down the river when you’re fishing.

One section of the 94,000 square miles of the Korean Peninsula has no humans at all. The DMZ, the Demilitarized Zone created in 1953 to end the Korean War, is 160 miles long, and two miles wide. It separates the two hostile sister nations with the widest, physical border on earth.

A surprising thing quickly began to occur in those 320 square miles of abandoned Korean real estate. You guessed it. Just as the native birds and animals returned to Detroit and Chernobyl, they found a home between the bristling artillery, tanks, and tens of thousands of soldiers just a few yards to the north and south of them.

Asian black bears, leopards, deer, and a bewildering variety of birds returned as the native trees, grasses and shrubs reclaimed an area that had been heavily farmed for at least 5,000 years.

What took man 50 centuries, took nature just half of one to return.

In the wider scope, the entire planet will heal itself once we stop repairing highways, pouring concrete over grasslands, and clear-cutting forests.

It’s a sobering reminder of how little effect we have on the physical appearance of the planet.

Only a few places will be noticeable 10,000 years from now if we suddenly disappeared. The pyramids would still stand, covered in sand, and small sections of China’s Great Wall would remain visible.

The only unchanged visage will be the four faces on Mt. Rushmore, which should retain their image for at least 100,000 years.

Abe, Teddy, Tom, and George might be the only reminders we ever existed at all.

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