Wilderness Accessibility for People with Disabilities: A Report to the President and the Congress of the United States on Section 507(a) of the Americans with Disabilities Act

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The views contained in this report do not necessarily represent those of the Administration as this document has not been subjected to the A-19 Executive Branch review process.


DESCRIPTION OF THE NATIONAL COUNCIL ON DISABILITY

The National Council on Disability is an independent federal agency composed of 15 members appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The National Council initially was established in 1978 as an advisory board within the Department of Education (Public Law 95-602). The Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1984 (Public Law 98-221) transformed the National Council into an independent agency. The current statutory mandate of the National Council assigns it the following duties:

  • Establishing general policies for reviewing the operation of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR);
  • Providing advice to the Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) on policies and conduct;
  • Providing ongoing advice to the President, the Congress, the RSA Commissioner, the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), and the Director of NIDRR on programs authorized in the Rehabilitation Act;
  • Reviewing and evaluating on a continuous basis the effectiveness of all policies, programs, and activities concerning individuals with disabilities conducted or assisted by federal departments or agencies, and all statutes pertaining to federal programs, and assessing the extent to which they provide incentives to community-based services, promote full integration, and contribute to the independence and dignity of individuals with disabilities;
  • Making recommendations of ways to improve research, service, administration, and the collection, dissemination, and implementation of research findings affecting persons with disabilities;
  • Reviewing and approving standards for Independent Living programs;
  • Submitting an annual report with appropriate recommendations to the Congress and the President regarding the status of research affecting persons with disabilities and the activities of RSA and NIDRR;
  • Reviewing and approving standards for Projects with Industry programs;
  • Providing to the Congress, on a continuous basis, advice, recommendations and any additional information that the Council or the Congress considers appropriate;
  • Providing guidance for the President's Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities; and
  • Issuing an annual report to the President and the Congress on the progress that has been made in implementing the recommendations contained in the National Council's January 30, 1986, report, Toward Independence.

While many government agencies deal with issues and programs affecting people with disabilities, the National Council is the only federal agency charged with addressing, analyzing, and making recommendations on issues of public policy that affect people with disabilities regardless of age, disability type, perceived employment potential, economic need, specific functional ability, status as a veteran, or other individual circumstance. The National Council recognizes its unique opportunity to facilitate independent living, community integration, and employment opportunities for people with disabilities by assuring an informed and coordinated approach to addressing the concerns of persons with disabilities and eliminating barriers to their active participation in community and family life.


NATIONAL COUNCIL ON DISABILITY

Members

Sandra Swift Parrino, Chairperson, New York
Kent Waldrep, Jr., Vice Chairperson, Texas
Linda W. Allison, Texas
Ellis B. Bodron, Mississippi
Larry Brown, Jr., Maryland
Mary Ann Mobley Collins, California
Anthony H. Flack, Connecticut
John A. Gannon, Ohio and Washington, D.C.
John Leopold, Maryland
Robert S. Muller, Michigan
George H. Oberle, PED, Oklahoma
Mary Matthews Raether, Virginia
Anne Crellin Seggerman, Connecticut
Michael B. Unhjem, North Dakota
Helen Wilshire Walsh, Connecticut

Staff

Ethel D. Briggs, Executive Director
Harold W. Snider, PhD, Deputy Director
Billie Jean Hill, Program Specialist
Mark S. Quigley, Public Affairs Specialist
Katherine D. Seelman, PhD, Research Specialist
Brenda Bratton, Staff Assistant
Stacey S. Brown, Staff Assistant Janice Mack, Administrative Officer

Consultant

Gregory J. Lais (www.wildernessinquiry.org)


LETTER OF TRANSMITTAL

December 1, 1992

The President
The White House
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President:

On behalf of the members and staff of the National Council on Disability, I am pleased to provide you with a copy ofWilderness Accessibility for People with Disabilities, prepared in accordance with Section 507 (a) of the Americans With Disabilities Act (P.L. 101-336).

Although no monies were appropriated to conduct this study, the National Council was able to produce this preliminary report on the subject. This report is intended to summarize existing federal policies and regulations and identify important issues relevant to wilderness accessibility for people with disabilities.

The National Council will continue to address public policy issues and to ensure that discrimination in all aspects of American society that inhibit the attainment of independence and dignity for people with disabilities is eliminated.

Sincerely,

 

Sandra Swift Parrino
Chairperson


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The National Council expresses its gratitude to Gregory J. Lais, executive director of Wilderness Inquiry, Inc., Minneapolis, Minnesota, for conducting this study, Wilderness Accessibility for People with Disabilities: A Report to the President and the Congress of the United States on Section 507 (a) of the Americans With Disabilities Act. In addition, we wish to recognize Leo McAvoy, PhD, and Laura Fredrickson of Wilderness Inquiry for their assistance.


Section 507 of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990:

FEDERAL WILDERNESS AREAS

(a) Study.--The National Council on Disability shall conduct a study and report on the effect that wilderness designations and wilderness land management practices have on the ability of individuals with disabilities to use and enjoy the National Wilderness Reservation System as established under the Wilderness Act (16 U.S.C. 1131 et seq.).

(b) Submission of Report.--Not later than 1 year after the enactment of this Act, the National Council on Disability shall submit the report required under subsection (a) to Congress.

(c) Specific Wilderness Access--

(1) In General--Congress reaffirms that nothing in the Wilderness Act is to be construed as prohibiting the use of a wheelchair in a wilderness area by an individual whose disability requires use of a wheelchair, and consistent with the Wilderness Act no agency is required to provide any form of special treatment or accommodation, or to construct any facilities or modify any conditions of lands within a wilderness area to facilitate such use.

(2) Definition--For the purposes of paragraph (1), the term wheelchair means a device designed solely for use by a mobility-impaired person for locomotion, that is suitable for use in an indoor pedestrian area.


TABLE OF CONTENTS

Executive Summary

Introduction

Background

Assumptions and Definitions

Scope of Study

Limitations of Study

Methodology

Findings

1. Current policies of NWPS managing agencies

National Park Service
U.S. Forest Service
Bureau of Land Management
Fish and Wildlife Service
Survey results of field managers of NWPS units

2. Current NWPS use levels by persons with disabilities

3. Enjoyment of the NWPS by persons with disabilities

How do persons with disabilities visit the NWPS?
Effect of restrictions on mechanized use

4. Suggestions for increasing enjoyment of the NWPS

Conclusions

Recommendations

Acknowledgments

References

Appendices

Appendix 1. Surveys, Cover Letters, and Attachments Distributed to

A) Outfitters and Organizations
B) Persons with Disabilities
C) NWPS Managers

Appendix 2. Tabulations of the Responses from Surveys Distributed to

A) Outfitters and Organizations
B) Persons with Disabilities
C) NWPS Managers

Appendix 3. Outfitters, Organizations, and Wildnerness Advocates Contacted for Participation in the Study

Appendix 4. National Council Member and Staff Biographies


EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

On the surface, the concurrent goals of equal accessibility and preservation of wilderness areas seem to be antithetical. However, at a closer look, we do not believe that is actually the case. It is not, in our estimation, a question of one goal or legal mandate taking precedence over another or superseding another. It is a question of finding effective ways to balance the intent of both and finding ways to provide the highest level access with the lowest level impact on the environment.

Statement of Mr. David C. Park, Chief, Special Programs and Populations Branch, National Park Service, to the National Council on Disability on August 7, 1991.

Introduction

The primary goal of this document is to satisfy the requirement of Section 507(a) of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.

The National Council on Disability shall conduct a study and report on the effect that wilderness designations and wilderness land management practices have on the ability of individuals with disabilities to use and enjoy the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) as established under the Wilderness Act (16 U.S.C. 1131 et seq.)

The National Council on Disability (NCD) contracted with Wilderness Inquiry, Inc., of Minneapolis, Minnesota, to help conduct this study.

Background

In 1964 Congress passed the Wilderness Act and established the National Wilderness Preservation System. The NWPS is made up of lands managed by federal agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and, more recently, the Bureau of Land Management. The NWPS is not an independent lands system.

Over the years since its passage, some people have claimed that the Wilderness Act discriminates against the rights of persons with disabilities because it prohibits the use of motorized vehicles, mechanized transport, and other activities within federally designated wilderness areas--the NWPS.

In 1990 Congress passed the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA specifically addresses the issue of wilderness access in Section 507(c):

(1) In General--Congress reaffirms that nothing in the Wilderness Act is to be construed as prohibiting the use of a wheelchair in a wilderness area by an individual whose disability requires use of a wheelchair, and consistent with the Wilderness Act no agency is required to provide any form of special treatment or accommodation, or to construct any facilities or modify any conditions of lands within a wilderness area to facilitate such use.

(2) Definition--For the purposes of paragraph (1), the term wheelchair means a device designed solely for use by a mobility-impaired person for locomotion, that is suitable for use in an indoor pedestrian area.

Scope of study

This study is intended to accomplish the following objectives:

1. Review and summarize existing federal policies and regulations relevant to the issue of wilderness access by persons with disabilities.

2. Survey federal unit managers of the NWPS to determine current levels of use by persons with disabilities, identify important issues, and solicit suggestions for ways that persons with disabilities can better utilize the NWPS.

3. Survey programs and outfitters that have provided services to persons with disabilities in units of the NWPS to obtain recommendations and suggestions for improved access.

4. Identify and survey users of the NWPS who have disabilities to document use, obtain measures of the enjoyment of the NWPS by persons with disabilities, and solicit suggestions on ways to improve the level of enjoyment of the NWPS by persons with disabilities.

Limitations and methodology

This study should be considered exploratory in nature. We believe that it fairly and factually represents the issues considered; however, as with any study, it is important to note its limitations in order to establish its validity. Readers are urged to review the sections on limitations and methodology before drawing conclusions on the contents of this report.

Federal management policies and practices

The four federal agencies responsible for wilderness management have different policies and management practices regarding persons with disabilities.

Three of these agencies--the National Park Service, the Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management allow the use of wheelchairs within the NWPS. The Fish and Wildlife Service currently does not have any policies regarding this issue; however, the agency has stated its intention to adopt policies similar to those of the other land managing agencies within Department of Interior.

Forest Service policy does not allow the use of electric (motorized) wheelchairs in the NWPS. This policy appears to be in conflict with the definition of a wheelchair in Section 507 (c)(2) of the ADA, which states:

...the term wheelchair means a device designed solely for use by a mobility-impaired person for locomotion, that is suitable for use in an indoor pedestrian area.

This definition is assumed to include all wheelchairs, whether motorized or not, provided that they are suitable for use in an indoor pedestrian area.

Most NWPS managers (74 percent) do not make special provisions for wilderness area use by persons with disabilities. This appears to be consistent with Section 507(c)(1) of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which reads:

...consistent with the Wilderness Act no agency is required to provide any form of special treatment or accommodation, or to construct any facilities or modify any conditions of lands within a wilderness area to facilitate such use.

However, beyond the question of wheelchair use, there is a lack of specific guidelines on use of the NWPS by persons with disabilities, including issues such as trail width and toilets at established sites.

Finally, there appears to be some confusion among NWPS field managers about policies regarding use by persons with disabilities and considerable differences in opinion about how best to serve persons with disabilities in the NWPS.

Use levels of the NWPS by persons with disabilities

In response to the NCD survey, managers of NWPS units estimated that a total of 16,767 people with disabilities use the NWPS each year. Unfortunately, it is impossible to verify the accuracy of these estimates or to extrapolate from the data collected to other NWPS units that did not respond to the survey or to the question. Therefore, no meaningful estimates about use of the NWPS by persons with disabilities can be given. A number of NWPS units that are used relatively frequently by persons with disabilities have been identified by wilderness managers, outfitters, and users with disabilities.

Ability of persons with disabilities to enjoy the NWPS

A significant majority of persons with disabilities surveyed very much enjoy the NWPS and 76 percent do not believe that the restrictions on mechanized use stated by the Wilderness Act diminish their ability to enjoy the wilderness. People with disabilities appear to visit the NWPS in the same ways and for the same reasons that people without disabilities do.

Recommendations

1. All federal agencies that manage the NWPS should adopt policies consistent with those stated in Section 507(c) of the Americans With Disabilities Act as soon as possible.

2. Federal agencies should bring existing facilities outside of the NWPS up to code for use by persons with disabilities as soon as possible. This upgrade includes trailheads, parking facilities, restrooms, and telecommunications devices for the deaf (TDDs) in ranger stations.

3. NWPS managing agencies should develop guidelines for special permits and modifications regarding use by persons with disabilities that are consistent with the Wilderness Act. Agencies should be encouraged to facilitate NWPS use by persons with disabilities when such use is consistent with the Wilderness Act. Agencies are encouraged to work with persons with disabilities, outfitters, and other programs that use the NWPS to develop these guidelines.

4. NWPS unit managers should receive training to increase general awareness of disability issues and specific awareness of the policies and practices regarding use of the NWPS by persons with disabilities.

5. Each agency should develop better information about what is available to persons with disabilities who want to use the NWPS. This information should be made readily available to the public.


INTRODUCTION

The primary goal of this document is to satisfy the following requirement of Section 507(a) of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990:

The National Council on Disability shall conduct a study and report on the effect that wilderness designations and wilderness land management practices have on the ability of individuals with disabilities to use and enjoy the NWPS as established under the Wilderness Act (16 U.S.C. 1131 et seq.).

The National Council on Disability (NCD) contracted with Wilderness Inquiry, Inc., of Minneapolis, Minnesota, to help conduct the study requested. A 501(c)(3) organization, Wilderness Inquiry provides activities that integrate people with and without disabilities into outdoor experiences, including many that take place within the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS).

Founded in 1978, part of Wilderness Inquiry's mission is to "advance the study of the recreational and educational needs of people with disabilities, with particular emphasis on accessibility to wilderness areas."


BACKGROUND

In 1964 Congress passed the Wilderness Act and established the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS). The NWPS is not an independent lands system; rather, it is made up of lands managed by four federal agencies: the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management.

Congress has sole authority to designate wilderness areas, but the four federal agencies must manage these lands within the parameters specified by the Wilderness Act. As stated in Section 2(a), the purpose of the Wilderness Act is

...to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to ...secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness....

Over the years since its passage, some people have claimed that the Wilderness Act discriminates against the rights of persons with disabilities because it prohibits the use of motorized vehicles, mechanized transport, and other activities within federally designated wilderness areas. Section 4(c) of the Wilderness Act states

Except as specifically provided for in this Act...there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.

The Wilderness Act was written before the rights of people with disabilities were part of the national debate. Not surprisingly, there is no mention of people with disabilities in the Act. Over time, as people with disabilities began to use the wilderness, the question was raised whether a wheelchair is a mechanical device and therefore prohibited from the NWPS. The four federal agencies responsible for managing the NWPS have responded differently to this question.

In 1990 Congress passed the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA gives civil rights protection to individuals with disabilities similar to those provided to individuals on the basis of race, sex, national origin, and religion. Among other issues, the ADA addresses specific wilderness access in Section 507(c):

(1) In General--Congress reaffirms that nothing in the Wilderness Act is to be construed as prohibiting the use of a wheelchair in a wilderness area by an individual whose disability requires use of a wheelchair, and consistent with the Wilderness Act no agency is required to provide any form of special treatment or accommodation, or to construct any facilities or modify any conditions of lands within a wilderness area to facilitate such use.

(2) Definition--For the purposes of paragraph (1), the term wheelchair means a device designed solely for use by a mobility-impaired person for locomotion, that is suitable for use in an indoor pedestrian area.

The primary purpose of this study is to review the management practices of the four federal agencies that manage the NWPS and to determine whether people with disabilities are able to use and enjoy the NWPS.


ASSUMPTIONS AND DEFINITIONS

The following key concepts must be considered and defined:

Wilderness designations. This term refers to the 546 units (94,972,412 federal acres as of June 5, 1991) that have been included by Congress as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. This term does not include many wild lands commonly thought of as "wilderness," such as Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone, although it has many natural characteristics similar to units of the NWPS, is not part of the NWPS. This term also does not include state-designated wilderness areas, such as Maine's Allagash Wilderness Waterway. The Allagash Wilderness Waterway is managed by Maine's Department of Conservation.

Wilderness land management practices. This term refers to the management practices and policies of the four federal agencies that manage the units of the NWPS: the United States Forest Service (USFS), the National Park Service (NPS), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Each of these agencies is responsible for managing the NWPS units under its jurisdiction according to the practices set forth in the Wilderness Act of 1964.

Individuals with disabilities. The ADA defines individuals with disabilities as those who

(a) have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual;

(b) have a record of such impairment; or

(c) can be regarded as having such an impairment.

For the purpose of this study, this definition has been qualified to focus on individuals whose disability is likely to have a more significant impact on their ability to use and enjoy the NWPS. Wilderness designations are generally considered to have a greater effect on persons with mobility and sensory impairments than on persons with cognitive disabilities. Although 10 percent of study respondents do have cognitive disabilities, persons with mobility and sensory impairments received priority in participant selection for this study (see methodology section on sampling methods).

Use and enjoyment. This term is interpreted to refer to the physical ability of persons with disabilities to visit units of the NWPS and their ability to get pleasure from these visits as persons without disabilities do.


SCOPE OF STUDY

The study is intended to accomplish the following objectives:

1. Review and summarize existing federal policies and regulations relevant to the issue of wilderness access by persons with disabilities.

2. Survey the federal unit managers of the NWPS to determine current levels of use by persons with disabilities, identify important issues, and solicit suggestions for ways that persons with disabilities can better utilize the NWPS.

3. Survey programs and outfitters that have provided services to persons with disabilities in units of the NWPS to obtain recommendations and suggestions for improved access.

4. Identify and survey a minimum of 75 users of the NWPS who have disabilities to obtain measures of their enjoyment of the NWPS and solicit suggestions on ways to improve the level of enjoyment of the NWPS by persons with disabilities.


LIMITATIONS OF STUDY

We believe that this report fairly and factually represents the issues considered. However, as with any study, it is important to note its limitations in order to establish its validity. Several limitations must be considered when interpreting this report.

1. The study is exploratory in nature. Many of the questions were designed to obtain qualitative information so that important issues could be identified.

2. People with disabilities surveyed represent a nonprobability judgment sample. Persons with disabilities who have visited the NWPS are considered the most appropriate individuals to evaluate their ability to use and enjoy the NWPS. Finding people who fit this criterion was a challenge and required the use of a nonprobability sampling method (see section on methodology). The limited scope and resources dedicated to this study precluded using a large, random sampling method. While we believe that the persons with disabilities surveyed are the most appropriate for the purposes of this study, no claim can be made that they are a representative sample of all persons with disabilities in this country. Our priorities in selecting the sample included the following criteria:

  1. That the person have a disability as recognized by the ADA. We further qualified this criterion to select people who have disabilities that are most likely to affect their ability to use and enjoy the NWPS. In this context we gave priority to people who use wheelchairs, those who have other significant mobility impairments, and those with significant sensory impairments.
  2. That the person had visited a unit of the NWPS. People who are active in the outdoors but who had not visited an actual unit of the NWPS were not included.
  3. That the persons were as representative of a national sample as possible. We made a significant effort to survey individuals who live throughout the United States.
  4. That the persons were referred by a variety of sources. Most of those who participated in the survey were referred by outfitters and programs that serve people with disabilities on outdoor adventures.

In interpreting study findings it is important to remember that the persons with disabilities surveyed had already visited the NWPS. Although this may suggest that these people are more likely to take risks and accept physical challenges, we cannot make a precise determination about how these people may differ from the general public or, more specifically, from persons with disabilities who have not visited the NWPS.

3. Some respondents in all categories misunderstood some of the questions, including the following:

  1. Several people with disabilities and some of the outfitters misunderstood what the NWPS is. The most frequent misunderstanding was to consider other wild lands as part of the NWPS when they are not. Defacto wilderness outside the NWPS was not included in any of the tabulations; however, it is possible that comments from some study subjects may refer to areas outside of the NWPS. We consider this possible influence small and of minimal importance.
  2. Some of the wilderness unit managers in the study did not distinguish between questions about agency policies and what they personally thought was physically possible. For example, when asked whether their NWPS unit permitted the use of wheelchairs, some responded no, but went on to comment that while wheelchairs are legally allowed, the terrain does not accommodate them. The intent of this question was to determine agency policy, not a manager's perception of what is physically possible. Therefore, this question is not a precise indicator of how well the managers understand agency policy and should not be interpreted as such. However, in comparing the comments with responses, it is clear that some confusion about agency policy does exist among wilderness managers.

4. Another limitation concerns the experience of the NWPS unit managers who responded. The titles of the 304 respondents ranged from recreation planner to wildlife biologist, and their experience on the job ranged from more than 20 years to only 1 month. Although we may assume that a recreation planner with more than 20 years' experience is more knowledgeable about agency policies and practices than one with 1 month, we have no way to verify this. Consequently, we have ignored the question of credentials and experience in reviewing the data.

5. Finally, as with any human endeavor, there is the possibility of entry errors. Some editing was done by the researchers while they recorded and summarized qualitative comments. In every case an effort was made to portray accurately the true meaning of the statement. In some instances words have been added for clarification. In such cases, brackets [] have been placed around the added words. After extensive checking we believe any other entry errors do not materially affect the results of this study.


METHODOLOGY

Information for this survey was gathered through two primary means. First, personnel from the four federal agencies responsible for managing the NWPS were asked to send pertinent information regarding their wilderness management practices and policies toward people with disabilities. Second, surveys were developed and distributed to

  • Outfitters and programs serving people with disabilities in the NWPS.
  • Field managers from the four federal agencies that manage NWPS units.
  • Persons with disabilities who have used the NWPS.

Copies of the surveys and cover letters used are found in Appendix 1. Tabulations of the responses from each survey are found in Appendix 2. Each of the information gathering methods is described in more detail below.

Review of existing policies and regulations

The national wilderness managers of the four federal agencies were asked to provide the policies and procedures in place regarding use of the NWPS by persons with disabilities. The managers included Wesley Henry from the National Park Service, Ann Fege from the U.S. Forest Service, Keith Corrigall from the Bureau of Land Management, and David Heffernan from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In addition to these wilderness managers, we contacted David C. Park, Chief of the Special Programs and Populations Branch of the National Park Service, and Joe Meade, National Access Program Manager for Recreation, Cultural Resources, and Wilderness Management for the U.S. Forest Service. All of these people were very helpful in promptly providing the information we needed to summarize and review the policies, regulations, and management practices regarding use of the NWPS by persons with disabilities.

Survey of unit managers of the NWPS

The managers mentioned above all helped to develop a survey to distribute to NWPS unit managers. Significant assistance was also provided by Alan Watson and Liz Close of the U.S. Forest Service, and by Kay Ellis of the National Park Service. The sample included the managers of all 546 units of the NWPS; however, the total number of possible responses is different than 546 for the following reasons:

1. Some units of the NWPS are managed jointly by different agencies. For example, the Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho is managed jointly by the USFS and the BLM.

2. Some units are managed by multiple managers within the same agency. For example, the Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness spans six different national forests managed by the USFS, each of which has a person who is responsible for managing its portion of the Frank Church Wilderness. Consequently, up to seven responses from two different agencies are possible for that wilderness.

3. Some managers are responsible for more than one unit. For example, Prescott National Forest (USFS) in Arizona is responsible for seven different units of the NWPS-- Apache Creek, Castle Creek, Cedar Bench, Granite Mountain, Juniper Mesa, Pine Mountain, and Woodchute. Consequently, one response may encompass seven or more units of the NWPS.

We originally intended to isolate responses by individual units of the NWPS. This was possible for some units, but in many cases was not possible because it could not be determined whether a respondent was answering in the context of one segment, or in the name of the entire NWPS unit. Also, if a manager was responsible for more than one unit, it usually could not be determined whether he or she was answering in response to all of the units or only part of them.

This section of the report is a compilation of the views and opinions of the people who manage units of the NWPS.

Surveys were distributed to NWPS unit managers in several ways. Wilderness Inquiry sent surveys directly to BLM and FWS unit managers. The NPS and the USFS distributed their surveys internally. NPS managers responded directly to Wilderness Inquiry. USFS responses were collected by Liz Close, USFS, and forwarded to Wilderness Inquiry. Response rates for the surveys are indicated below.

 
 
 
 
 
      Federal Agency Responses to Surveys
 
 
 
 
 
              Number     Number       Percent of
 
 
  Agency      sent       returned     response
 
 
 
 
 
  USFS        365          210           58
 
 
  NPS          42           39           93
 
 
  BLM          17           13           76
 
 
  FWS          55           42           76
 
 
  TOTAL       479          304           63
 
 
 
 
 

Survey of programs and outfitters serving persons with disabilities

Programs and outfitters that provide services to persons with disabilities in units of the NWPS also were contacted. Although our list of service providers is not exhaustive, we are confident that it represents an appropriate level of the programs and outfitters that provide these services. A total of 22 outfitters, organizations, and wilderness advocates were contacted, and 15 responded to the survey. Of the 15 that responded, 11 conduct activities in the NWPS involving persons with disabilities. The names and addresses of the organizations contacted are included in Appendix 3.

In addition to answering survey questions, outfitters and organizations were asked to provide the names and addresses of persons with disabilities who have used the NWPS. A total of 208 people were identified through this effort.

Survey of users of the NWPS who have disabilities

Surveys, including a cover letter from the National Council on Disability and a map showing most of the units of the NWPS, were sent to the 208 persons identified by the outfitters and organizations. A total of 89 people responded--a 43 percent response rate. Of these responses, 3 were not included because the respondent did not have a disability, 5 because the respondent had not used or attempted to use the NWPS, and 1 because the response did not contain enough information to make it meaningful. A total of 80 completed surveys from persons with disabilities who have visited the NWPS remained.

The following demographic characteristics of these 80 respondents:

 
 
 
 
 
Type of disability                      Percent of respondents
 
 
 
 
 
Cognitive impairment                             10
 
 
Sensory impairment                                9
 
 
Mobility impairment, non-wheelchair user         31
 
 
Mobility impairment, wheelchair user             50
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
State of Residence
 
 
 
 
 
Alaska           6
 
 
California       2
 
 
Colorado         5
 
 
Florida          4
 
 
Georgia          1
 
 
Idaho            5
 
 
Illinois         4
 
 
Indiana          7
 
 
Maine            1
 
 
Michigan         2
 
 
Minnesota       22
 
 
Montana          1
 
 
New Jersey       2
 
 
New Mexico       1
 
 
New York         2
 
 
North Dakota     1
 
 
Ohio             2
 
 
Rhode Island     1
 
 
Tennessee        1
 
 
Texas            2
 
 
Vermont          1
 
 
Washington       1
 
 
Wisconsin        5
 
 
Unknown          1
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Gender                  Percent of respondents
 
 
 
 
 
Male                            55
 
 
Female                          43
 
 
Not indicated                    2
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Age                     Percent of respondents
 
 
 
 
 
18-29                           24
 
 
30-39                           35
 
 
40-49                           28
 
 
50-59                            6
 
 
60-69                            3
 
 
70-79                            3
 
 
Not Indicated                    1
 
 
 
 
 

Analysis methods

The study used both quantitative and qualitative methods of analysis. Quantitative analysis is limited to tabulation of categorical responses and is presented as frequencies of response. A significant amount of qualitative data was collected. When appropriate, these data have been grouped and categorized according to the type of response.


FINDINGS

1. Current policies of NWPS managing agencies

The following is an agency-by-agency summary of policies and management practices regarding wilderness access by disabled persons. Three of the agencies responsible for NWPS management are part of the U.S. Department of Interior; one agency, the Forest Service, is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

National Park Service (USDI)
Total NWPS units: 42
Total NWPS acres: 39,075,415

The National Park Service (NPS) established a Special Programs and Populations Branch on January 2, 1980, to oversee use of NPS lands and facilities by persons with disabilities. Although the primary emphasis of this branch has been to ensure accessibility compliance in historic structures, battlefields, and so on, it is also charged with overseeing accessibility compliance within the NPS units of the NWPS.

NPS policies on use of wheelchairs in the NWPS. In Management Policies Regarding Accessibility for Disabled Persons(January 1990), under the section on Wilderness Preservation and Management (chapter 6, page 8), the NPS states,

As a general rule, public use of motorized equipment or any form of mechanical transport will be prohibited in wilderness.... Mobility impaired persons may use wheelchairs (as defined in 36 CFR 1.4) in wilderness.

The NPS goes on to define a manual wheelchair as "a device that is propelled by human power, designed for and used by a mobility impaired person." A motorized wheelchair is defined as "a self-propelled wheelchair device, designed solely for and used by a mobility impaired person for locomotion that is capable of and suitable for use in indoor pedestrian areas." [emphasis added]

The NPS does allow the use of manual and motorized wheelchairs in the NWPS. An important criterion in determining whether a manual or motorized wheelchair is allowed in the NWPS is that it must be suitable for indoor use. If a device is not suitable for indoor use it is considered a motor vehicle and excluded from use in the NWPS.

A key concept here is that the NPS treats people who use wheelchairs as pedestrians, not as operators of motor vehicles. As stated in 36 CFR 1.2 (3)(e), "The regulations in this chapter are intended to treat a mobility-impaired person using a manual or motorized wheelchair as a pedestrian, and are not intended to restrict the activities of such a person beyond the degree that the activities of a pedestrian are restricted by the same regulations." All-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and other devices that would not be allowed in elevators, public buildings, and private homes are not allowed in the NWPS. Various entities have recognized that persons using motorized wheelchairs should be afforded the same rights and duties as pedestrians in general, including the right to use a sidewalk, elevator, and indoor facilities.

This concept of indoor pedestrian use is used in Section 507 (c)(2) of the ADA in reference to the use of wheelchairs in the NWPS:

For the purposes of paragraph (1), the term "wheelchair" means a device designed solely for use by a mobility impaired persons for locomotion, that is suitable for use in an indoor pedestrian area.

NPS policies on alteration of terrain and facilities. In Policies on Accessibility to Specific National Park Functions, the NPS comments on accessibility for disabled persons in park facilities:

In accordance with the mandates of the Architectural Barriers Acts of 1968 and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as amended in 1978, it is the policy of the National Park Service to provide the highest level of accessibility in all visitor and management buildings and facilities as is possible and feasible, consistent with the nature of the area and facility. The degree of accessibility provided will be proportionately related to the degree of man-made modifications made to the area or facility and to the significance of the facility.

This policy divides park areas into three types: developed areas, undeveloped areas, and threshold areas. The comments relevant to the NWPS pertain to the section on undeveloped areas:

The undeveloped areas, such as the part of the park that is outside the immediate influence of buildings, roads, and cars, will not normally be modified nor will special facilities be provided for the sole purpose of providing access to disabled people.

Although this statement does not specifically address the NWPS, it is interpreted to mean that the NPS does not seek to make alterations in trails, footbridges, established campsites, and other accommodations within the wilderness units it manages. In a statement to the National Council on Disability on August 7, 1991, David C. Park, chief of the Special Programs and Populations Branch of the NPS, said,

We believe this policy is consistent with the effective management of the resources we control and is consistent with our attempt to balance access with conservation. We also believe it is consistent with the intent of, and regulations for, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. One major section of all Federal regulations for Section 504 states that agencies are not required to take any actions that would result in a "fundamental alteration in the nature of a program or activity." It is our belief that altering wilderness areas for the sake of providing access would definitely change the fundamental nature of that activity. In our discussions with people who are disabled and the agencies and organizations that represent them, we have found overwhelming agreement with this position.

This position is consistent with Section 507(c)(1) of the ADA, which reads,

Congress reaffirms that nothing in the Wilderness Act is to be construed as prohibiting the use of a wheelchair in a wilderness area by an individual whose disability requires use of a wheelchair, and consistent with the Wilderness Act no agency is required to provide any form of special treatment or accommodation, or to construct any facilities or modify any conditions of lands within a wilderness area in order to facilitate such use.

Park also commented in his statement of August 7, 1991,

On the surface, the concurrent goals of equal accessibility and preservation of wilderness areas seem to be antithetical. However, at a closer look, we do not believe that is actually the case. It is not, in our estimation, a question of one goal or legal mandate taking precedence over another or superseding another. It is a question of finding effective ways to balance the intent of both and finding ways to provide the highest level access with the lowest level impact on the environment.

More information about NPS policies regarding persons with disabilities in the NWPS can be obtained by contacting

David Park
Chief, Special Programs and Populations Branch
National Park Service
P.O. Box 37127
Washington, DC 20013-7127
(202) 343-3674
(202) 343-3679 (TDD)
(202) 523-0162 (FAX)

U.S. Forest Service (USDA)
Total NWPS units: 365
Total NWPS acres: 33,609,661

Although the NPS manages more total acreage of the NWPS (much of it in Alaska), the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) manages the great majority of units of the NWPS (365 out of 546 total NWPS units). As an agency, the USFS is more decentralized than the NPS, an important point when considering its management practices and how they are implemented.

Even before the ADA was signed, the chief of the Forest Service had established an agency goal of "becoming the leading provider of accessible outdoor recreation opportunities in America." Toward that end, the Forest Service established a new program in 1990, "Access: America's Great Outdoors," to formulate and implement agency policy and direction regarding access for all components of outdoor recreation, including wilderness. One of the functions of the program is to help establish clear direction for the USFS on the issue of access.

USFS policy seeks to maximize wilderness values while providing opportunities for persons with disabilities to enjoy wilderness on its own terms. As stated in the "Accessibility of Wilderness to Persons With Disabilities" draft policy statement prepared October 12, 1990, by Ann S. Fege, National Leader for Wilderness Management,

Wilderness values must dominate over all other considerations in wilderness resource management. There are many opportunities for persons with sight, mobility, hearing, and developmental disabilities to obtain wilderness experiences on the same terms as the rest of the recreating public....

...There is no correlation between the physical, sensory, or cognitive abilities of an individual and the need for solitude, beauty, challenge, risk, discovery or adventure.

...Our attention should be focused on providing opportunities to enhance the understanding, enjoyment, and use of wilderness by all the public, including persons with disabilities.

...We can enhance [use of the NWPS] for hearing, mobility, sight, and developmentally impaired persons through interpretive services and greater attention to providing recreation access information in usable forms. ([] added for clarification)

...Access can frequently be expanded with very little effort. Involving persons with disabilities and/or persons with appropriate technical expertise to help identify opportunities could greatly increase access to wilderness experiences to meet varied skills and interests of persons with disabilities.

Current USFS policy regarding the use of wheelchairs in the NWPS reads as follows:

Mechanical apparatus that is medically necessary for the basic mobility of any individual is considered to be part of that person and not subject to restrictions on mechanical use. (Forest Service Manual, 2326.03 no. 4)

This policy on wheelchair use does not allow the use of motorized wheelchairs within NWPS units managed by the USFS. As noted in the policy statement by Ann Fege:

Some have advocated the use of electric wheelchairs in order to allow wheelchair-mobile persons lacking upper body strength to enter wilderness and make our policies consistent with the National Park Service. This change is not being proposed at this time.

Fege goes on to comment on trails management regarding access:

Trails management handbook direction limits trail width in wilderness areas to 24". Standard wheelchairs require a minimum width of 32" tread width to navigate. Consequently, although wheelchair use is allowed in Forest Service wilderness areas, tread width restrictions prevent access except in the most unusual of circumstances. We [the USFS] are exploring the idea of allowing tread widths in excess of 24 inches where the impact to the natural environment is minimal and there is an opportunity for wheelchair users to achieve a quality wilderness experience.

According to Joe Meade, USFS National Access Program Manager, the Forest Service wants to leave some latitude for local managers to make decisions on a case-by-case basis, depending on environmental conditions. The Forest Service can issue special permits to authorize otherwise prohibited activities. A memo from Meade, dated August 9, 1991, illustrates the point:

Our policy is not to hinder a person with a disability from using a non-motorized mechanical device different than just a wheelchair in order to access the wilderness. Units have the authority and indeed are encouraged to prudently issue permits to individuals who need such an exception. The person may need to offer proof of the disability, such as a note from a medical authority or some other method of verification...i.e. a person with a chronic back disability which does not permit them to carry weight on their back may be issued a permit to use a wheeled primitive cart... remember, wheelchairs are not the only devices serving the disabled. We draw the line with motorized devices....

Meade further noted:

The Forest Service recognizes its strict adherence to the 1964 Wilderness Act prohibits use of electric wheelchairs. However, millions of acres of near wilderness experiences are available for this use. If Congress feels this should be evaluated in order to comply with the ADA, the Forest Service is very willing to do so.

The USFS and the NPS have been working cooperatively on the issue of access for a number of years. They have produced a publication, Universal Design Guide for Accessible Outdoor Recreation, to be released in 1993. The guide provides comprehensive standards and guidelines for accessible outdoor recreation facilities, programs, and services--including those in wilderness areas--and is intended for planners and designers. For more information about the design guide or about Forest Service policies regarding use of the NWPS by persons with disabilities, contact

Joe Meade
USFS-USDA Recreation Staff
14th and Independence Ave., SW
P.O. Box 96090
Washington, DC 20090-6090
(202) 205-1129
(202) 205-1739 (Text Telephone)
(202) 205-1145 (FAX)

Bureau of Land Management (USDI)
Total NWPS units: 66
Total NWPS acres: 1,610,995

In a letter to Representative John Rhodes of the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, dated October 13, 1989, BLM Director Cy Jamison wrote,

As a policy exception, the BLM does not prohibit the use of wheelchairs by persons with mobility impairments in the wilderness.

The BLM is in the process of clarifying its policies toward use of the NWPS by persons with disabilities. In an information bulletin to all BLM state directors dated August 10, 1990, Keith Corrigall, chief, Branch of Wilderness Resources, stated that the BLM's clarifications regarding wheelchair use in wilderness areas will be available in the revision of the 43 CFR 8560 regulations and Manual 8560.

In a memo dated October 25, 1991, Michael J. Penfold, assistant director, Land and Renewable Resources, outlined the BLM's accessibility initiative; "Access Means Freedom." This initiative makes a number of recommendations, such as establishing training groups, developing a field guide, and producing an awareness video. It also recommends establishing a fully coordinated BLM policy to incorporate accessibility and reduce conflicts in and among resource programs, and to define a policy similar to that of the National Park Service, stating that the BLM will maximize the effort to make all areas and operations accessible.

For more information about BLM policies regarding use of the NWPS by persons with disabilities, contact

Keith Corrigall
Chief, Branch of Wilderness Resources
Bureau of Land Management
Room 3360, Main Interior Building
1849 C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20240
(202) 208-6064
(202) 208-4819 (FAX)

Fish and Wildlife Service (USDI)
Total NWPS units: 75
Total NWPS acres: 20,676,341

According to wilderness manager Dave Heffernan, the FWS does not currently have any policies regarding persons with disabilities in the NWPS. However, the FWS intends to adopt policies similar to those of the other land managing agencies within the Department of Interior.

For more information about Fish and Wildlife Service policies regarding use of the NWPS by persons with disabilities, contact

Dave Heffernan
Division of Refuges
U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Department of the Interior
Mail Stop 670-ARLSQ
18th and C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20240
(703) 358-2043
(703) 358-2248 (FAX)

Survey results of field managers of NWPS units. Federal managers of individual NWPS units were surveyed to determine their familiarity with the policies of their agencies and with the general issues involved in providing opportunities for persons with disabilities. The table below provides a breakdown of the response frequencies from each agency.