Archive for April, 2016

In recent years, it has been court ordered that new structures and trails built on federally protected land must accommodate the Americans with Disabilities Act. The idea of this certain comes from the well meaning idea that people with disabilities have a right to access all the places that individuals without disabilities can access. In principle I understand this idea, but in practicality and ecologically, this ends up being that well known road to hell, paved with best intentions.

ADA structures and trails are considerably larger and more expensive to build. But to use this logic alone would be a contradiction of my principles that environmental regulation should be implemented without regard for economic costs, since it involves the greater good for both human and non-human life. However, there is a point to be made, that by enlarging these structures, we are bankrupting the agencies and non-profits tasked with their building and upkeep. This is a very real problem, when you consider that the National Parks Service already has a multi-billion dollar maintenance backlog. So, you have to consider that, with agency charged with the stewardship of natural places, there is now an opportunity cost between doing the good work they were originally tasked with, i.e. ensuring we continue to have natural wonders worth appreciating, and providing for the onerous stipulations of the ADA requirements.


More than just dollars and cents, there is also the issue of its impracticality. For trail spec, ADA requires that treads be hardened with a specific type of well compacted gravel (not available easily in wilderness areas, where the wilderness act requires no motors be used) and that the grade not exceed (if I remember correctly) 3% (a task near impossible on rocky outcrops, or in the beaver inhabited north woods).


Furthermore, the ecological footprint of ADA structures and trails is much greater than those built for sustainability. Wilderness trails have gone through much evaluation as to how to use available materials to minimize erosion and to concentrate traffic through sensitive areas. ADA trails are much wider and require materials that are just plain unavailable in backcountry sites. The require, also, a greater degree of site disturbance, both because of the logistics of getting materials to the site, and because of the higher engineering standards. If we made every new trail construction project to meet ADA requirements, it’s unlikely many would make it through the NEPA process, and truthfully they shouldn’t.


There are someplace where people should not go, for the betterment of highly sensitive ecosystems. Take alpine zones for instance. Which have a high occurrence of plants which are endangered and delicate. No foot traffic whatsoever should be allowed on areas where that foot traffic may disturb the last of a species. There are degrees of delicacy however, and some sensitive areas can manage light foot traffic. Take rich northern hardwood forest. There are a great many species that only grow in this limited habitat, because of the high level of resource availability. A small degree of foot traffic minimally disturbs a limited area, but allows the vast majority of the habitat to survive. This habitat, if paved over and altered to accommodate a 3% grade, would not allow for the integrity of unfragmented habitat.


Ecologists have learned more and more how ecosystems function as a whole system… That many organisms require sizable unbroken area to thrive. Studies have elucidated how even foot traffic can disturb the distribution of organisms. Surely, if we build easily accessible paths through sensitive habitat, we are inviting a degree of human disturbance that could alter and limit the capacity of many systems.


That the ADA has been ruled to supersede even the Wilderness Act has been much to the detriment of natural resources and the organizations tasked with the management of those areas. While disabled people should be accommodated where possible, we need to recognize that there are certain things that are inaccessible to certain people. Wild places should be that, wild, and man should only be a visiter to the wilderness. When we pave over it to accommodate recreation, we are saying that we no longer value protecting places from the negative influence of human presence. The loss of wildness in our wild places would truly be a much greater tragedy than the idea that their beauty is not accessible to all. We must acknowledge this, because their beauty is not for us to begin with, but for the sake of its own mysterious function. Ecosystems are unaware of beauty. They exist because of millions of years of evolution, selecting perfectly for the exact conditions necessary for survival. Our presence in such places is unnecessary and accidental, and should remain so, to allow such places to exist that are not influenced by the hand of man.

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