Wheelchairs in the wilderness

For me, wilderness areas are silent sanctuaries of nature. Amid the sounds of the earth and its creatures, the sounds of humans and our mechanisms fade with each turn in the trail.

I cannot walk into wilderness areas any more. I got hurt backcountry skiing in wilderness seven years ago and am now a paraplegic wilderness advocate. I still ski, only now on a cross-country sit-ski - as I did last winter across Yellowstone National Park. Where a trail allows, I will explore in my wheelchair. Being disabled hasn't changed my desire to experience wilderness; indeed, my desire has only intensified.

Wilderness is sometimes incorrectly perceived as a place not open to persons with disabilities, a myth perpetuated by opponents of wilderness preservation. For decades, special interest groups whose real goals are logging, drilling, and mechanizing our roadless public lands have dredged up tired rhetoric claiming that preserving wilderness discriminates against the disabled and elderly. For me, building roads into pristine country only means I have to go that much farther to get away.

My right to visit wilderness sanctuaries under my own power was assured by a little-known provision of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). As that law turned 15 years old this year, we all should celebrate how it has profoundly improved public access, employment opportunities, and the overall quality of life for tens of millions of people with disabilities.

The ADA provision affirmed that Congress did not bar mobility-impaired people dependent on wheelchairs when it otherwise prohibited motors and any "other form of mechanical transport" from wilderness areas in the landmark 1964 Wilderness Act. The agencies that look after America's wilderness treasures are not required to make accommodation for wheelchairs on their trails, but neither are they prohibited from doing so.

Now, in Idaho, the ADA and the Wilderness Act may find themselves on the same trail. Republican Congressman Mike Simpson has included provisions for two modest primitive-access wheelchair trails as part of his legislation to protect 300,000 acres of incomparable wilderness in the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains, along with additional benefits for motorized recreational users and struggling rural communities.

One section of trail will provide approximately one mile of primitive access within the proposed wilderness. The other one-mile trail lies just outside the proposed wilderness boundary and reaches Phyllis Lake. It will remain open to snowmobiles in the winter and to wheelchairs and other nonmotorized uses the rest of the year.

Mobility-impaired individuals can access wilderness in other ways - most commonly rafting, canoeing, or kayaking. On land, you might be able to ride a horse, or perhaps dogsled or sit-ski under the right snow conditions. Most of these means assume you are fortunate enough to possess a high degree of upper-body strength, balance, and advanced mobility techniques. Many disabled users cannot currently access wilderness areas without significant help from friends or adaptive recreation volunteers.

The two trails Representative Simpson proposes will be compacted, not paved. At approximately 36 inches wide, leveled, and cleared of impassable obstacles like big rocks, they will be rough, natural trails no different from some stretches of wilderness trail I used to hike. While being only a small slice of the wilderness, it is an adequate distance for most disabled visitors.

Perhaps most important, these trails will allow a wheelchair user to roll along a gently graded trail alone and unassisted, experiencing the solitude of wilderness. I dream of the day I can roll up a wilderness trail along the East Fork of the Salmon River and cast a fly for wild trout, with no else around.

Giving an independent wilderness experience to elderly and disabled users is utterly in the spirit of the Wilderness Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. That is why Idaho's leading wilderness organization, the Idaho Conservation League, and national wilderness groups like the Wilderness Society and Campaign for America's Wilderness share my enthusiasm for these primitive-access trails as they urge Congress to preserve the Boulder-White Clouds.

Erik Schultz is director of the ABS Foundation, which advocates for wildlands conversation and disabled recreation.

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