Public Lands Access and Ableism

I like wilderness.  I like camping and hiking and fishing and transcending myself through nature.  I like preservation through creation of parklands, monuments, national forests and support regulation of activities that are permissible on public lands.

I’m generally in favor of preserving these beautiful natural spaces so they may be enjoyed by future generations.  That is, unless you think preservation means that we have to remove historic and existing access in service of achieving pre-settlement “wilderness.”  I will fight tooth and nail against that.

Because every time you do that, you cut off many elderly, those with physical disabilities and anyone else who can’t pack in camping gear over miles of trail from large sections of lands that are being preserved in their name.  I don’t understand how there have not yet been lawsuits and legal precedents that establish protection of existing access to outdoor areas held in public trust.

When I was a child, we camped and hiked and fished in Utah’s wild areas for what seemed like the whole summer.  There are countless little lakes in the Uinta Mountains (glaciation does cool stuff with drainage patterns) that make for wonderful isolated retreats.  While some areas are accessible by regularly maintained paved and gravel/dirt roads, there is a much greater wilderness that you can reach using much older roads made by loggers before these areas were protected.  When I was a kid, you could meander your way right up to a myriad of tiny hollows and camp rough, far away from the noise and aggravation of the trailer/camper set at established campgrounds.  What’s more, we were able to go there with my grandfather, who was definitely not able to hike several miles toting gear.

Mountain Lake

Now when you try to visit these same places, the roads are blocked miles away with boulders and marked as trail-heads, ostensibly to keep motorists of all types from using existing pathways and “preserve” wilderness areas.  What that means in practice is that trucks, jeeps and SUVs are blocked from access, while anyone who can afford an ATV just swerves around the barrier, trampling down the areas outside the historic road.  I see it all over the place; it doesn’t stop all motorists and especially doesn’t stop the inconsiderate assholes that I see driving their ATVs wherever they want, usually too fast on roads (kicking up mountains of dust and exacerbating washboarding).

Basically the conservation strategy of closing off wilderness by destroying historical access reeks of privilege.  It doesn’t affect those that can afford recreational vehicles or horses or those who are physically able to pack in.  It does, however, effectively cut my mother off from beautiful solitude because her multiple knee surgeries render her unable to get there anymore.  This is wrong.  It’s wrong legally (since these are public property) and it’s wrong ethically because what is the purpose of preserving spaces for us if only the very privileged can get there any more?

I’m not asking for these roads to be maintained nor am I asking for their expansion.  I would however, like to think that any family with a beat up old pickup truck can enjoy the same joy at being on top of the world as the family that can afford means of transportation that can bypass barriers.  These places belong to all of us.  I want to see a handicapped person sue for equal access, because I fear without it, we will never get back what we are losing.

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