The recent news that the State of New York has acquired the 6,200 acre MacIntyre East property, which abuts the High Peaks Wilderness, has reignited the usual debate over classification: Wild Forest or Wilderness?
This debate, which has many layers and levels, often takes place around the notion of access: how can features of the parcel, including mountains, lakes, ponds, rivers and streams, be accessed (presumably for recreation) and, via inference, by whom? Access to Wilderness is by foot or paddle only (and to a limited extent, horses). So what about those for whom access via a typical (read tough) Adirondack trail is difficult or impossible? Many people bring up the elderly as a class for whom a Wilderness designation would severely limit access. Others mention people who have disabilities.
The debate is intensified when a given parcel up for classification has roads in place that would potentially provide for a wider array of access if motorized vehicles were allowed. This is the case with the MacIntyre East parcel which has a dirt road that runs deep into the tract. If the parcel were classified as Wild Forest then the State would have the option to allow motorized access via this road. If it were classified as Wilderness then any motorized use would be prohibited. Classifying MacIntyre East as Wilderness would therefore limit access to people for whom a long walk on a foot trail is not reasonable.
How many people would potentially be limited by the requirements of arduous foot travel? A lot. Last week I participated in a webinar titled “Accessibility in the North Country: Improving Usability for all Visitors,” offered jointly by SUNY Cortland’s Inclusive Recreation Resource Center (IRRC) and the Adirondack North Country Association (ANCA). IRRC Director Lynn Anderson shared some useful statistics: one in five Americans has a disability, over 50% of the population over the age of 65 has a disability and the 65-and-older demographic is growing significantly faster than the total population. That’s tens of millions of Americans. That’s why ANCA, IRRC and the organization I’m coordinating, the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council (ADAC), care about this issue. We all want to see a more inclusive, accessible Adirondack Park. It’s economically important and it’s also the right thing to do. After all, the Park belongs to everyone.
I have a deep interest in a more inclusive Adirondacks, but do I support more accessible Wilderness and a preference for Wild Forest classifications?
Will this position get me in trouble with my colleagues in the diversity world? I don’t think so. Not if my many discussions with people who are over 65 and/or have a disability is any guide. Not one of them supported relaxing wilderness standards or classifying parcels that are clearly justified as Wilderness acquisitions as Wild Forest instead so that they themselves would have more “access.”
Wilderness is an incredibly precious and vital commodity, ever more so in the modern world. As I have written extensively before, people with a view only of the Adirondack region, with its roughly one million acres of Wilderness, fail to see the larger national picture in which Wilderness is a tiny fraction of the total land mass. We’ve radically altered and developed almost everything else. Even in the Adirondacks, non-Wilderness acreage, public and private, outnumbers Wilderness acreage more than four to one.
Essential to the very idea of Wilderness is that we meet it on its terms, not our terms. That fundamental relationship is true regardless of our own personal gifts and qualities. I’m a mediocre rock climber; at fifty-four, having not done a hard climb in fifteen years, I’m not going to go do a multi-pitch route in Avalanche Pass, as my teenaged great niece just did last year. That kind of adventure is fading right along with youth – as it should.
Here’s what bothers me most about those who would cry “discrimination” over a land classification decision where protection of wilderness trumps access: I think they have the wrong locus. Let me offer an analogy from the world of education.
About a decade ago in Madison Wisconsin’s school system there was a big debate over talented and gifted (TAG) classes. There was a typical Madison contingent that cried discrimination because these classes were overwhelmingly white (Madison has a penchant for producing earnest expressions of well-meaning but myopic progressivism). Their solution was to have everyone take the same classes, regardless of ability – that is, lower the opportunities and standards for some in order to accommodate all.
I and others pointed out that the real discrimination was not that these advanced classes existed, but that there was an institutionalized assumption that only white students with good test scores would appreciate the classes and be able to do well. Students do in fact have different levels of ability – and disability – in various subjects and skills but these differences have nothing whatsoever to do with gender, sexual orientation or race – or, for that matter, test scores. Any class at any level should literally and figuratively be a rainbow. If it doesn’t, the problem – and the discrimination – lies in our assumptions, standards and selection criteria. This kind of institutionalized bias is insidious. It does not lend itself to facile solutions like making everything ostensibly the same.
Similarly, the solution to making the Adirondacks more inclusive and accessible lies not in making everything the same. The discrimination we should worry about is not in having Wilderness – which as a precious and vital resource deserves our utmost protection. It is in assuming that people who are old or have a disability cannot and will not appreciate it. It further lies in the false and pejorative conflation of “having a disability” with “being disabled:” whom do we presume cannot fully engage in and appreciate a wilderness experience? Behind that conflation lies a cornucopia of ignorance and bias. Wilderness itself is neutral on the subject – Wilderness’ neutrality on all affairs human is one of its greatest and most important benefits.
The ultimate answer is to stop making false choices and instead strive for everything: Wilderness, accessible forest, inclusive tourist destinations, great transportation options, greater cultural competence. I took notes on the IRRC’s “Top Ten” Tips to Increase Usability during the webinar. Here they are (reproduced from my notes, not the actual list; any errors or omissions are mine):
Top Ten Tips to Increase Usability
- Use Person-first language: person first, disability second. This is a State Law. Don’t use the term “handicapped”
- Use plain language, accessible signage, alternative forms of communication: symbols, pictures, raised lettering, large print, etc.
- Make sure everyone is invited: broad marketing/outreach, have an inclusion point of contact, make websites accessible
- Clear paths of travel for recreational facilities, businesses and tourist attractions: unobstructed, well lit, wide enough, firm and stable, gradual incline
- Make space – make sure there is enough room: bathroom stalls, for example
- Provide alternatives for facilities via the principles of Universal Design: equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort, size and space for approach and use
- Know your business: clearly written, inclusive policies and procedures. Accommodate service animals and personal care attendants
- Bridge the gap between costumer’s needs/abilities and a satisfying recreation experience. Bridging strategies include adaptive equipment, skill modification, rule modification, space modification, having a goal structure, team/group modifications, structured social interaction, allow partial participation
- Support each customer: quiet space, quiet time, additional staff/helpers
- Staff are ambassadors. This may be the most important thing. Awareness and training for increased competence is essential.
These are great ideas and important steps for the Adirondack region to take. Not a one of them is incompatible with our greatest natural asset: Wilderness in all its primeval splendor. For my money the more Wilderness we can protect, the better… for everyone.
Photo: Kuma’s View