Wheelchair Accessibility in Wilderness Areas: The Nexus between the ADA and the Wilderness Act

By Bricker, Jennie | Environmental Law, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

Wheelchair Accessibility in Wilderness Areas: The Nexus between the ADA and the Wilderness Act


Bricker, Jennie, Environmental Law


The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) extended the civil rights of access and integration to those with mobility impairments, including wheelchair users. The Wilderness Act of 1964 promised to preserve the wilderness for the American people's "use and enjoyment." This Comment questions whether extending "use and enjoyment" to wheelchair users is required by the ADA or other federal law, and if so, whether compliance would conflict with the preservation doctrine of the Wilderness Act. The author concludes that the two laws are not wholly incompatible and that wilderness areas could be made more accessible without compromising their preservation.

I. INTRODUCTION

The American's with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA),(1) along with its predecessor, the. Rehabilitation Act of 1973,(2) extended civil rights and remedies to persons with physical and mental disabilities. These rights include the right to participate in services, programs, and activities without discrimination based on disability.(3) Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, for example, guarantees Americans with disabilities the right to the same recreational activities enjoyed by able-bodied citizens on public lands, including access to lands designated as wilderness areas under the Wilderness Act of 1964.(4) However, the practicalities of providing access for those with mobility disabilities may not be wholly compatible with the goal of maintaining the "wilderness character" of lands governed by the Wilderness Act.(5) Thus, the ADA specifically exempts wilderness area managers from making modifications necessary to provide wheelchair accessibility,(6) the proposed regulations that address accessibility in outdoor recreation areas would codify the exemption by making accessibility guidelines inapplicable to "primitive" areas.(7) Nevertheless, the spirit if not the letter of the ADA should encourage wilderness managers to enhance the accessibility of the areas; the position taken in this Comment is that they can do so without jeopardizing the intent of the Wilderness Act.

"Access" can have at least two meanings. Wheelchair users, for example, are free to enter wilderness areas, so wilderness areas are, in a sense, "accessible." This type of "theoretical access"--the mere absence of prohibition--may be meaningless if the only trail available to the wheelchair user is too narrow to navigate, or if fallen trees make trail passage impossible. To correct these conditions, wilderness managers would have to act affirmatively and effect "practical access." The difference between these two types of access will be the focal point of much of the discussion in this Comment.(8) However, the discussion of what forms accessibility might take within wilderness areas assumes that practical access is the type at issue, as well as the type envisioned by the ADA. This Comment focuses solely on access for those with mobility impairments, and wheelchair users in particular, because accommodations for those users are most likely to conflict with the land use requirements of the Wilderness Act. Additionally, although this Comment considers the conflict that has arisen in Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area between proponents and opponents of motorboat use, its focus remains primarily on land rather than water travel.

Part II of this Comment provides an overview of current accessibility levels in wilderness areas, present use of the areas by visitors with disabilities, and the modifications that might be necessary to provide practical access. Part III addresses the question of whether, and in what forms, access is required under the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA. Part IV examines whether, and in what forms, access is possible under the Wilderness Act. This Comment concludes with an examination of the new set of accessibility guidelines for outdoor recreation areas, promulgated by the Advisory Committee to the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board. …

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