Wheelchairs and wilderness can coexist


Sometimes, life can change dramatically in the blink of an eye.

The biggest change in my life came seven years ago, when I was 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, and suddenly, I became 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? My transition was anything but smooth. Besides the physical setbacks, I suffered bouts of depression, and my marriage disintegrated. One thing remained unchanged, however, and that was my love for the outdoors.

As Americans, we 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 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 wilderness.

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 newly 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 transformative. They translate directly to a person’s everyday life. Somehow, after coping with the challenges and rewards of wilderness, the obstacles to maneuvering in a city, working at a job, and plain everyday living don’t seem as daunting.

There is still the need to gain access to wild places. Here in Idaho, my congressman, Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, 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.

Simpson’s bill is not without controversy. But it is the product of over six years of negotiations designed to come up with a balanced management prescription for this magnificent area. As a wilderness advocate, I believe it is an acceptable compromise, and the best chance we will ever have to break the 25-year drought of new wilderness designation in Idaho.

Simpson’s legislation also marks the first time ever that accessible trails have been included in a wilderness bill pending 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 the creation of accessible wilderness trails have been either lack of money or of political pressure. Simpson’s legislation provides both.

Under his bill, one section of trail would provide approximately one mile of primitive access within the proposed wilderness, along the East Fork of the Salmon River. The other one-mile trail lies just outside the proposed wilderness boundary and reaches Phyllis Lake, a high alpine jewel. It would remain open to snowmobiles in the winter and to wheelchairs and other non-motorized uses the rest of the year, as de facto summer wilderness.

One mile may not seem like much of a trail, but to a wheelchair user, it is 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 cirque, you might as well be 20 miles deep in the wilderness.

Perhaps most important, these modest trails will allow many wheelchair users to roll along alone and unassisted, experiencing the solitude and independence that only wilderness can provide. Providing an independent taste of the wilderness is in harmony with both the disability and wilderness laws, and this will not compromise the land.

Including accessible trails in wilderness legislation also drives a big stake into the tired argument of wilderness opponents that 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 and have national implications for improved access to our public wildlands.

Erik Schultz is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Hailey, Idaho, where he directs the ABS Foundation, a nonprofit that supports wildlands conservation and outdoor opportunities for the disabled.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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