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The National Park Service responds.

The National Park Service would like to clarify several inaccuracies in Wilderness Apartheid, (April/May 1992). The article expresses the view that the federal government's land management agencies, which are charged with administering the provisions of the Wilderness Act of 1964, are using that legislation to deny access for people with disabilities to federal wilderness sites. The four land management agencies are the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management in the Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture.

* The article states, "disabled individuals are prohibited from using wilderness areas because they cannot gain access," and "even if a person with physical disabilities can legally enter a wilderness area, he cannot move about in a wheelchair."

The fact is that thousands of people with disabilities successfully use our wilderness areas each year, and that includes wheelchair users.

* The article implied that "all" federal agencies restrict access of people with disabilities to wilderness areas.

In truth, the National Park Service changed its regulations in 1987 to allow both motorized and manual wheelchair access to all wilderness areas in the National Park System. We were able to do this by using legal precedents to define a "wheelchair" as a device that can be used in an indoor area by a mobility impaired person for locomotion. In essence, we view a person using a wheelchair as a pedestrian. The National Park Service would also like to point out that our definition was put into the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

* Mr. Burcat states, "the ADA and Rehabilitation Act may operate to reduce the discrimination currently practiced by the federal government regarding use of wilderness areas by individuals with disabilities."

In actuality, disability legislation reaffirms the delicate balance necessary between access and preservation, and recognizes the efforts of land management agencies to achieve that balance by not requiring them to do anything that would fundamentally alter the nature of the wilderness experience. Accessibility legislation further reaffirms the growing ethic that there are inherent values to individuals, and to society as a whole, in the maintenance and preservation of wilderness areas.

* Finally, the piece notes, "individuals with disabilities and wilderness preservationists are on a collision course."

The issues of accessibility and natural or cultural resource preservation need not be in conflict. This is not a matter of one goal or legal mandate taking precedence over another. This is a matter of finding effective ways to balance the intent of both laws and to provide the highest level of access with the lowest level of impact on the environment.

There are ways, already in place, for providing people with disabilities with access to wilderness areas. However, these methods do not require modifying the wilderness experience. People with disabilities can now use sturdier wheelchairs that won't fold up as a result of uneven terrain. They can also travel into the wilderness using kayaks, canoes and horses. We're trying to develop ways for people to enjoy the wilderness without changing it. Our approach to access has been overwhelmingly supported by the disability community with whom we regularly consult on such issues.

The National Park Service began a program for improving access to park and recreation areas more than 10 years ago. Today, we are recognized as the national leader in providing people with disabilities access to park and recreation areas. Through our program, we have developed an extensive technical assistance and training effort for everyone to use, including visitors who have disabilities.

We are working with the disability community to improve accessibility for people with disabilities to all National Park System sites, including wilderness areas. A majority of people with disabilities does not believe that the restrictions of the Wildernesss Act diminish its ability to enjoy the wilderness.

For those who wish to contact the National Park Service for comment, write or call:

National Park Service P.O. Box 37127 Washington, D.C. 20013-7127 (202) 343-3676, (202) 343-3679 (TTY)

The Author Replies

I have had the opportunity to review the National Park Service's response to Wilderness Apartheid.

My editorial originally appeared in the February/March 1991 issue of the National Wilderness Institute Resource. All of the facts were checked prior to that time with the federal employees at three separate Wilderness Areas managed by the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service, and with both current and former officials of the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. I also spoke with representatives of several advocacy groups for disabled individuals. I stand by each and every fact and opinion based on fact contained in my editorial. Joel R. Burcat, Esq. author of Wilderness Apartheid National Wilderness Institute 25766 Georgetown Station Washington, D.C. 20007
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Title Annotation:includes author response; reply to Joel R. Burcat, Exceptional Parent, vol. 22, April-May 1992
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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