Wheelchairs and wilderness can coexist

  • Erik Schultz


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.

Every able-bodied 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 places.

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 alpine lake.

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 25-year drought.

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.

A one-mile 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 wilderness.

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.

Americans respond 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.

Erik Schultz lives in Hailey, Idaho, where he directs the ABS Foundation, a nonprofit that supports wildlands conservation and outdoor opportunities for the disabled.

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