Wheelchair Decoy

Wheelchair Decoy
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Accustomed to Republicans rolling back environmental regulations, I was pleasantly surprised at a GOP congressional proposal to remove a ban on wheelchair use in federally designated wilderness. It was refreshing to encounter some compassion for the disabled as well as an appreciation of wilderness’ therapeutic impact on wheelchair-dependent individuals.

I should have known better. The first sign that something was wrong was to discover that the law (i.e. Americans with Disabilities Act) already authorizes wheelchair access into ordinarily mechanized-free federally designated wilderness areas.

Closer scrutiny of the GOP bill sheds light on the motivations behind the superfluous initiative to grant wheelchairs –even motorized ones—their wilderness access exception. Cited as candidates for the ban removal in addition to wheelchairs were bicycles, game carts, strollers, and wheelbarrows. It certainly was not a prescription for perpetuation of pristine wilderness areas’ trademark tranquility.

What becomes apparent is that the reference to wheelchairs in the bill is a diversionary tactic to distract from an attempt to open up the wilderness to a deluge of commercial vehicular traffic. It is a move contrary to the spirit as well as the letter of the 1964 Wilderness Act. That law sets aside some 110 million acres of unspoiled public lands to be preserved in their natural state for posterity. Emphasis is on access by foot so as not to shatter the land’s hypnotic solitude. There are no permanent structures or roads other than possibly short trails to accommodate wheelchair users. Visitors are obligated to leave the terrain as they found it—undisturbed for future generations. Mechanized travel is generally prohibited except for wheelchairs and emergency vehicles. To business-minded Republican lawmakers, undeveloped land is a commodity not to be squandered. The existential experience from interaction with pristine wilderness appears to be lost on them as they try to whittle away at restrictions on commercial activity. They bridle at a policy geared more to quality than quantity, to aesthetics rather than entrepreneurship. It is not enough that there are millions of acres of undeveloped federal lands open to commercial outfitters. Users of motorized bikes and off-road vehicles have plenty of leeway for exploration of the nation’s back country without encroaching on specially protected wilderness.

The therapeutic value of exposure to the sanctity of a pristine landscape cannot be underestimated, given the formidable demands of modern day living. That certainly holds true for visitors confined to wheelchairs. Mental health professionals cite unspoiled wilderness’ frequent calming effect on the disabled from the transmission of a reassuring sense of natural order.

It is bad enough to attempt the conceptual sabotage of pure wilderness set aside for perpetuity. Using wheelchair-dependent individuals as decoys to advance the subversion just makes it all that more unconscionable.

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