Life can change dramatically, in the blink of an eye.
Seven years ago, I went backcountry skiing in the Hoover
Wilderness near Yosemite. I missed a turn on a steep icy slope and
fell into a rocky gully. In that ugly tumble, I crushed my spinal
cord. Suddenly, I was a paraplegic.
person has probably wondered: What would I do if I lost the use of
my legs? How would I get on with my life? In my case, the
transition was anything but smooth. Along with the physical
setbacks, I suffered bouts of depression. My marriage
disintegrated. One thing remained unchanged, however, and that was
my love for the outdoors.
Americans share a long
tradition of seeking solitude, peace — and redemption —
in the wilderness. The spring following my accident, friends
practically forced me to take a float trip down the Green River in
Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. I was skeptical beforehand,
but I emerged from the river trip overjoyed to discover I could
still camp out under the stars and enjoy the tranquility of wild
Wilderness helped me heal both physically and
mentally; it helped me get my life back together. In turn, I have
tried to help others with disabilities realize their own
capabilities by facing the challenges of wilderness. This past
summer, I witnessed recently disabled Iraq war veterans find inner
peace on the banks of Idaho’s Salmon River. I have watched
disabled people sleep away from the noise of civilization for the
first time, and wake up with broad smiles to the sunrise over an
These experiences are incredibly empowering,
even life-changing. And they translate directly to a person’s
everyday life. Somehow, after time in the wilderness with its
challenges and rewards, the obstacles to maneuvering in a city,
working at a job, and living one’s day-to-day life
don’t seem as daunting.
One obstacle remains,
however, and that is gaining access to wild places. Here in Idaho,
my congressman, Mike Simpson, R, has included authorization and
funding for two modest primitive-access wheelchair trails as part
of his bill to protect over 300,000 acres of wilderness in the
Boulder-White Cloud Mountains. That’s along with additional
benefits for motorized recreationists, ranchers and struggling
rural communities (HCN, 11/22/04: A wilderness bill with a little
something for everyone).
Simpson’s bill is the
product of over six years of negotiations aimed at finding a
balanced management plan for this magnificent landscape. It’s
not without controversy, but I believe it is an acceptable
compromise. It’s been a quarter of a century since any new
wilderness was designated in Idaho. As a wilderness advocate, I
think Simpson’s bill is the best chance we have to break that
The Boulder-White Clouds bill stands out
for another reason: It marks the first time ever that accessible
trails have been included in wilderness legislation before
Congress. The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act reconciled
itself with the Wilderness Act of 1964 by saying that people who
use wheelchairs for everyday indoor mobility are allowed to use
them in a wilderness area. The managing agencies are neither
obligated to make any special accommodations for us, nor prohibited
from doing so. The main impediments to creating accessible
wilderness trails have been either a lack of money or a lack of
political pressure. Simpson’s legislation provides both.
It creates two accessible trails, each approximately one
mile long. One of them will be inside the wilderness, along the
East Fork of the Salmon River; the other will lie just outside the
proposed boundary and lead to Phyllis Lake, a high alpine jewel.
The lake trail would be open to snowmobiles in the winter, but
serve as de facto wilderness in the summer, open only to
wheelchairs and other non-motorized uses.
trail may not seem like much, but to a wheelchair user, it’s
a substantial distance. When you cast for trout from the shores of
emerald-green Phyllis Lake, looking up to the snow-streaked walls
of its glacial cirque, you might as well be 20 miles deep in the
These modest trails will allow many
wheelchair users to roll along alone and unassisted, giving them
the experience of the solitude and independence that only
wilderness can provide.
Including accessible trails in
wilderness legislation is in harmony with both the disability and
wilderness laws. And it drives a big stake into the tired argument
of wilderness opponents: that wilderness designation discriminates
against the disabled and the elderly.
to themes of independence, equality and inclusiveness. With any
luck, our modest efforts here in Idaho will broaden public support
for wilderness designation elsewhere, and have national
implications for improved access to our nation’s wildlands.