Outdoor Americans With Disabilities Act: Building More Roads or Keeping Open Roads Open?

Thanks to Nick Smith for this one.  Interesting headline in the Salt Lake Tribune.

“Plans to build more roads on public lands will help disabled Americans, Mike Lee says. Disabled hikers disagree.”

Can we imagine that some disabled Americans prefer roads and others prefer trails?  Are there people who can honestly say that no disabled Americans will be helped by more roads?  Of course, headlines are silly but…

Many TSW-ites are more familiar with all this than I, but I will state one thing I’ve found in my years of federal lands work- it’s different, and more difficult,  for federal decisions to stop allowing something, than to turn down a request to start something new.   One reason is that there are people who are using or doing it who support the activity.  The other is that the environmental effects are known.   Therefore,  “building lots of new roads” is substantially different from “keeping existing roads open.” So let’s start there,  because there seem to be two conversations going on in this piece.

First is Mike Lee’s bill.

Here’s what his office says about it in the one-pager.

Senator Lee introduced the Outdoor Americans with Disabilities Act to ensure that public land is accessible to all Americans, not just the able-bodied. This legislation defines “disability-accessible land” as one square mile with at least 2.5 miles of authorized roads accessible to motorized vehicles. It directs federal land management agencies to coordinate with state, local, and Tribal governments to determine which roads offer access to diverse recreation opportunities and prioritize access to those roads. The bill also requires that local stakeholders be involved in decisions regarding road closures in their communities.
Bill Specifics
• Defines disability-accessible land as one square mile of public land with at least 2.5 miles of authorized roads accessible to motorized vehicles or offroad vehicles
• Requires the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture, acting through the Chief of the Forest Service, to prioritize updating travel management plans and motor vehicle use of the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service
• When developing motor vehicle use maps, the Secretary concerned must:
Account for the length of roads in each square mile of public land under their management
Prioritize roads that provide access to diverse recreation opportunities
Coordinate with federal agencies, state, county, and local governments, and Tribal governments to determine which roads offer the best access to disability-accessible land
Have the authority to revise routes on public land in response to changes in local conditions
• The Secretary concerned may not close roads that would disqualify land from disability accessible status unless the road was for temporary emergency access or it is a threat to the
health and safety of visitors
• The Secretary concerned will provide notice of any proposed road closures, allow for a public comment period, and conduct a public hearing regarding the closure
• For any roads closed, the Secretary concerned will nominate and establish a new road
• Road closures and new roads will be categorically exempt from NEPA
• Nothing in this Act establishes new roads or trails or prohibits the Secretary concerned from establishing new roads or trails on public land for motorized and off-road vehicles

I could be wrong, and I ‘m sure folks will tell me if I am, but it doesn’t sound like building new roads, but keeping access to existing ones.

Utah Sen. Mike Lee is spearheading legislation he says will allow more people to access America’s natural wonders — by building more roads atop them.

While Lee contends the Outdoor Americans with Disabilities Act will make outdoor access more equitable, some disability advocates told The Salt Lake Tribune that the effort felt disingenuous and played into stereotypes they are trying to dispel.

Syren Nagakyrie, founder and director of the nonprofit Disabled Hikers, called the bill “a blatant attempt to scapegoat disability as an excuse to build more roads.”

“People who already oppose disability inclusion and accessibility already blame disabled people, saying that what we want is to ‘pave over the wilderness,’” they said. “That is absolutely not what we want in any way, shape or form. This bill really is just leaning into that.”

I’m always interested in the groups reporters choose to interview.  Disabled Hikers seems like a great group, there’s an NY Times story about them here, and they produce guides to trails for disabled folks.  Still,  Nagakyrie seems to be saying  that the bill is bad because third parties will think bad things about disabled people because of it. That is, people who already oppose disability inclusion and accessibility.  So.. some disabled people should not have what they want.. motorized access.. because some other people who already think bad things will think more bad things about disabled people.   It seems to be that’s a restriction on disabled peoples’ agency.   Why can’t (disabled) hikers hike and OHVers ride? Doesn’t inclusion mean… well.. inclusion?

The BLM released a new travel management plan for the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges Travel Management Area in late September. The update closed 317.2 miles of routes in the 300,000-acre area that were previously open to off-highway and passenger vehicles. The plan left 800 miles of routes open to motorized use.

Lee’s legislation would have the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service develop and update travel management plans to prioritize accessibility. Roads on public lands should, according to the bill, allow access for hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, off-roading and other recreational activities to “ensure the public land is disability-accessible land.”

The legislation defines “disability-accessible land” as land with at least 2.5 miles of roads accessible to motorized or off-road vehicles per square mile.

Lee’s bill also specifies that the agencies should not close roads to motorized vehicles on public land to the extent that people with disabilities cannot access it.

In its plan for Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges, the BLM said that it closed roads to protect wildlife, preserve sensitive watersheds and safeguard cultural sites. The agency also cited conflicts between motorized and non-motorized recreators, like off-road vehicle users and river-runners.

“Federal land managers are required to analyze the impacts of their decisions on dirt, but they have no requirement to ensure that their decisions don’t hurt disabled Americans,” said Ben Burr, executive director of the recreation advocacy group BlueRibbon Coalition.

“Every time decisions are announced to close more of our backcountry roads, I hear from our disabled Americans that they feel discriminated against and ignored,” he added.

But again it seems like the bill is not so much about building but about keeping open.

Nagakyrie said there are better ways to increase accessibility on public lands that don’t require road-building, like increasing access to motorized wheelchairs.

But who decides what is “better”? Do other disabled people get a vote?

Staunton State Park and Great Sand Dunes National Park, both in Colorado, offer them for disabled visitors to experience those landscapes.

“From a public lands perspective, forcing the BLM and Forest Service to add thousands of miles of roads across otherwise pristine land is a terrible idea,” said Aaron Weiss, deputy director of conservation nonprofit Center for Western Priorities, “and does not actually do anything to increase accessibility.”

“This bill seems like a stunt,” he continued.

Again, it doesn’t seem to be about adding roads. It may well not go anywhere. Still, it seems to me that if the FS and BLM are closing roads, keeping them open would increase accessbility compared to closing them.

In an email, a spokesperson for Sen. Lee pointed to support for the bill from the off-roading group The Trail Hero, which “specializes in providing motorized access to the outdoors for people with special needs, veterans, and others who require mobility assistance.”

“These user groups are not asking to forge new trails,” said the group’s founder Rich Klein. “They just want to keep existing routes and trails open so that they can get the same therapeutic experience from nature that able-bodied citizens have access to.”

If I’d done the reporting, I would have tried to figure out exactly what in the bill was about making new trails versus not closing ones people already use. Otherwise folks like Klein and Weiss seem to be talking about different bills.


12 thoughts on “Outdoor Americans With Disabilities Act: Building More Roads or Keeping Open Roads Open?”

  1. Fundamentally, this bill is about having some kind of affirmative statutory protections for motorized recreation, which under current FS and BLM travel management regulations takes a back seat to literally everything else. The BLM especially has interpreted its travel management regulations to only allow roads to stay open if they cannot possibly negatively effect a single animal species or even mildly inconvenience another higher status recreation user group. The point of this bill is to establish that motorized recreation is a valid use of public lands that provides positive benefits (one being providing the sole means that people with mobility disabilities can experience remote backcountry areas).

    The primary goal of setting minimum road density targets is to ensure that existing roads are kept open, preventing the agencies from creating new roadless areas through travel management in order to manufacture wilderness characteristics and manage them as de facto wilderness. While the bill does have language that sounds like it could force agencies to build new roads, how that provision would actually be used is to force agencies to reopen old roads that have been closed in the past and are no longer considered part of the road system. Motorized groups can go to the agencies and point out that a particular area is below the minimum road density, but there are old roads still on the landscape that would bring it back up to the required access level, and nominate those roads for restoration and reopening.

    Of course the anti-access groups that have been the driving force behind mass road closures and other such “re-wilding” and wilderness manufacturing efforts will scream bloody murder about this, but the fact is their side has been the only voice the agencies have listened to on travel management for decades, and it’s time to even the playing field by instituting real statutory protections for motorized access before it disappears completely. Environmental groups love to complain about how wilderness is always disappearing, but that’s a lie. In reality, areas managed as wilderness on public lands are constantly increasing, while it’s areas with motorized access that are always decreasing and are in danger of being completely eliminated in many places.

    And where motorized access is eliminated, people who are incapable of hiking long distances will largely never be able to go there again. Talk of motorized wheelchairs and what not is mainly a distraction, as no motorized wheel chair (which are basically just a poor attempt at reinventing ATVs without the stigma) will ever provide the level of access that a Jeep or UTV does. Nobody is going to take a tracked wheelchair out a 20 mile long closed rock crawling trail full of boulders the size of a car.

    I have no idea if this bill has any chance of passing (maybe if Republicans sweep Congress in November), but at the very least it’s a good tool to use to force environmentalists to face their ableist biases and blatant discrimination against people with disabilities.

  2. Does sound like an argument among “spinners.” If it really is license to build more roads, whatever the pretense, this old-timer finds that a bit ironic. Remember when former Chief Mike Dombeck’s concern was inability to maintain the 380,000 miles of roads on national forest and hence he proposed the Travel Management Rule to evaluate roads and remove unnecessary roads from maintenance? In the good old days, roads were also financed by the timber program. Not sure where financing from new roads would come from? Anyway, looking forward to more clarity!

    • Bosworth, 2005, proposed the Travel Management Rule. Good intentions but faulty implementation. The FS still doesn’t really have consistent interpretation of what the TMR entails!

  3. I think the assumption that the FS and BLM closing roads leads to less access is incorrect. In my experience, most road closures involve closing roads with little observable use that are in poor condition. They may technically provide access, but in reality only to very few people.

    Most forests can maintain about 10% or less of their road system a year, and most years all of this annual maintenance is focused on the most popular roads or project-related roads (think wildfire crisis strategy and hauling). Closing less popular and poorly located roads can result in more funds available to maintain the most used roads that provide access to the most popular and desired locations on public lands. Increased funding for regular maintenance on these main roads means less likelihood of road closures due to major repair needs, increased capacity and safety to handle more traffic and increased road-accessible facilities, signage, and services for all Forest users. Seems backwards having agencies manage for a high quantity of roads rather than focusing on managing for a well-maintained system of roads that provide for strategic access for the majority of public lands visitors.

    • Perhaps that’s how travel management went originally, but not recently. The BLM’s Labyrinth Rims travel plan focused on closing many of the most popular and heavily used roads in the region, including multiple Easter Jeep Safari trails and one of the most famous dirt bike trails in Utah. That’s why people are so upset and the reason for the political backlash. If agencies stuck to closing roads that were truly undeeded no one would care. Instead they focus on closing the most popular trails in the area because those are the ones environmental groups demanded be closed to make way for wilderness expansion.

    • In the past, a “robust” timber program funded all sorts of multiple uses, including road maintenance. We haven’t had a successful roads program, with exceptions, since. Some Forests are spectacular; most need to learn from the “doers”…..

  4. If a road is closed …
    “the Secretary concerned shall— (A) provide for the nomination of new roads on public land to be added to a motor vehicle use plan or travel management plan of the Secretary concerned; and (B) establish an appropriate new road on public land not later than 1 year after the date on which the road is closed under that paragraph.” Maybe that’s ambiguous regarding whether “new” means road construction or road reopening (or both).

    It looks like the primary beneficiaries of this would be the much greater numbers of perfectly abled people who just like to drive, and think like Patrick does. A little disingenuous, which maybe is what some disabled folks are reacting to.

    • That’s a 1 for 1, not an increase in the net roads. I don’t see it as “disingenuous” Are there disabled people who use OHV’s? Yes there are. Would they be disadvantaged by losing roads? Yes they would. I think those are facts. Using facts, including those about less privileged people, in arguing for a position seems quite common.

      • It’s disingenuous to provide provide a rationale that is incomplete or misleading. (I’d like to know more about Senator Lee’s promotion of disability rights, like support for regulations requiring retrofitting buildings.)

        • Most people provide rationales that are incomplete or misleading in order to argue a point. Senator Lee is doing something his constituents want and have asked him to do. That’s the way I think elected officials are supposed to do, whether we agree with his constituents or their priorities or not. I don’t think there’s a “consistency litmus test” that any pol could pass.

      • Yes exactly. Just because I and other able-bodied OHV advocates benefit from keeping roads open in the name of disability access doesn’t mean our concern for disabled OHV users isn’t genuine. For now, I personally have flexibility in the ways I explore public lands that others do not, in that I can chose to either drive or hike. I recognize that may not always be the case. I could experience an illness or injury that leaves me temporarily or permanently unable to hike, and I will eventually get too old to hike long distances if I live long enough. Old age is one “disability” we will all experience eventually, and people can drive vehicles later in life than they are able to hike 10 miles in difficult terrain.

        I’ve even personally experienced the importance of motorized access for people with disabilities as my wife has been having some medical issues that have sapped her strength and left her without enough energy to hike very much lately. Jeeping gives us a way to still get out in the backcountry even when she’s not feeling up to hiking. So yes, while preserving access for people with disabilities may make a more politically palatable argument for keeping 4×4 roads open since they are more sympathetic figures than your average OHV driver, it doesn’t make the argument disingenuous or any less valid.

  5. Well said Patrick, well said! As a “young” Ranger, I fell for Travel Management hook, line and sinker! As implementayions evolved to support the general theme of TMR it became obvious that local actions were being driven by more of a dislike of motorized travel, from some internal actors, than real concerns for resources.

    I learned my lesson; had I ever been confronted by a disabled individual over access, I would have allowed that access! Now, I think the Chevron Deference Decision from the Supreme Court could definitely apply to TMR. I guess we’ll see…..


Leave a Comment

Discover more from The Smokey Wire : National Forest News and Views

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading