In 1990 the federal government passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, outlining public building access policy to assist people with disabilities, but the ADA does not apply to federal lands including those managed by the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the National Parks Service.
To help navigate public land policies and procedures an increasing number of individuals with disabilities and their families are turning to non-profit organizations for guidance.
After serving in the military Jim Huber returned home to learn he has a degenerative disease that left him legally blind. Now, with the help of his guide dog, Noel, he takes daily walks through his Salt Lake City neighborhood.
“One of my neighbors, John, is going to take me over to ‘It’s Raining Cats and Dogs’ and she’ll get her nails clipped,” he said while grooming Noel’s fur.
Having always been physically active Huber contracts with a northern Utah organization, Common Ground, to assist him when he wants to rock climb on US Forest land or needs transportation to ride the rapids on a BLM managed river.
"I could do a rafting trip in a large swimming pool if somebody made waves, it would be a similar situation. But you don't have the interaction that you have with other people. A big part of it is the social event, at least for me, being able to stay active with people,” Huber said.
Delsa Bentley uses the Common Ground program to assist her nine-year-old son Jack. They are spending the day at Logan Canyon’s Stokes Nature Center in the Cache National Forest.
“Common Ground helps bridge that gap. They have the ability to get that equipment to people. We borrowed the ski equipment. To me it is what you can do and what you can handle,” Bentley said.
Jack was born with Down syndrome and will meet up with a friend for a nature art project, games and singing.
“They just have a ball. They just have fun canoeing and hiking. They are not so many climbers. They like being chased and hanging out with the crew,” she said.
Huber, Jack and his friend are among an increasing number of individuals with physical or cognitive disabilities using public lands to recreate. Of the 150 million guests who spent time in our national forests last year, eight percent reported having a disability.
It is because of this increase in usage that service providers are busy and in constant need of volunteers.
“I’m Alex Mendelson and I am the recreation manager at the National Ability Center,” Mendelson said.
Contracted outfitters like Common Ground in Logan and the National Ability Center in Park City work with federal land management agencies to access special population recreation permits so groups of individuals with disabilities can gather in places like Zion National Park where fire rings are wheelchair accessible or access river rafts that are rigged to meet the special needs of someone with limited mobility.
"And, for helping people get access to the outdoors independently," Mendelson said. “We kinda joke at the National Ability Center our goal is to work ourselves out of job. When you are at a national park and you see somebody utilizing some type of adaptive equipment it makes you realize what can I do to help them get out here and enjoy what I am enjoying.”
“I will go out of my way to make sure that people are involved,” said Common Ground Program Manager Jodi Flickinger.
She and her crew spend much of their time locating campsites and reviewing public land guidelines to assist individuals who might require a wheelchair accessible picnic table for example, or maybe using a special piece of adaptive equipment to hike or climb.
“The bigger problem is having the knowledge for us and everybody that says, Yes, this is a place you can go to. Yes, these are your accessible areas,’” Flickinger said.
Knowing where motorized wheelchairs are allowed, or being told the ground is uneven and bathrooms are accessible is necessary for Flickinger to plan retreats for clients to spend a week at Glacier National Park or taking the group on a picnic.
“Having that information is more useful than making everything accessible,” she said.
Federal land management agencies follow the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) of 1968 when balancing the intent of disabilities laws with wilderness laws. Matt Blocker oversees recreation and visitors for the Bureau of Land Management Utah State Office. He works with other BLM staff to find ways to accommodate those with disabilities who wish to spend time recreating in the 23 million acres of Utah BLM land.
Adaptive technology advancements, an increased desire by friends and family to include individuals with disabilities while recreating, and a growing appreciation for the physical and mental health benefits of active living have land managers scrambling.
"And we are just seeing more and more people loving these Bureau of Land Management lands, checking on technologies and how people are using public lands,” Blocker said.
Blocker says BLM, forest service and national park planners are constantly working to find a way to provide the highest level of access for those with disabilities with the lowest level of impact to the wilderness.
"We are constantly being flexible. It's faster than we can make policy or guidelines with providing those sort of recreation opportunities to people of all abilities,” Blocker said.
Nancy Brunswick says if there is a will there is a way. She is a regional landscape architect with the forest service and manages projects in 12 National Forests in Utah, Nevada and part of Wyoming and Idaho.
“You would be amazed at where some people have been able to get a wheelchair if they have suitable upper body strength and some help,” Brunswick said. “There are people who have rappelled off of the edges of mountains using their wheelchair and a special bolting system to be able to rappel off the mountain.”
Fewer than 30 percent of forest service facilities are accessible. Brunswick says new site construction and existing site upgrades require accessible bathrooms, raised cooking grills, easier to operate water fountains, and fire building platforms. The BLM receives $150,000 yearly for upgrades and is also working on a national database to help identify and coordinate accessible locations.
There are still barriers to be broken. The organization People For Bikes is pushing for people with disabilities to be allowed to use electronic bikes in non-motorized areas. And, there is the occasional vehicle parked too close to the wheelchair ramp. But agencies, providers, and individual say things are progressing.
The forest service has plans to work with the Utah Conservation Corps and the Disability Inclusive Crew to conduct an inventory of accessible places and services within the forest system. This summer the 2018 Accessibility Survey Crew is completing surveys on trails, parks and open spaces around Salt Lake City to evaluate whether facilities can be made more accessible to individuals with physical disabilities.
Support for Loving Our Lands To Death is made possible in part by the USU Quinney College of Natural Resources, where students and faculty promote the sustainability of ecosystems and the communities that depend on them. Information can be found here.