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Wilderness fight ended up helping the disabled

Sometimes, Congress manages to do something good in spite of itself.

Reps. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, and Bruce Vento, D-Minn., took bows last week for (unintentionally) making a lot of disabled people happy through legislation they pounded out seven years ago.Of course, their main focus at the time didn't appear to be helping the disabled. But that was the unintended consequence of efforts then to tweak each other over wilderness legislation.

It started back in 1990 when Congress was considering the Americans With Disabilities Act to require better access to public facilities for the disabled and handicapped.

Most people remember that law for requiring more ramps to doors and more handicapped-only parking. But Hansen saw it also as an opportunity to drive home a point he had long argued about wilderness.

He contended that wilderness protection blocks access to scenic areas for most common Americans by preventing roads, cars and other mechanized access. He said it makes wilderness a playground for the rich - the only people he says can afford weeks to hike it or explore it on horseback.

Hansen saw a chance to use the Americans With Disabilities Act to highlight such arguments by contending that a strict reading of the Wilderness Act allows no mechanized vehicles - which would even prohibit wheelchairs.

So he started pushing an amendment to that bill to protect wheelchairs in wilderness.

Of course, he talked then - as he still does - about acquaintances in wheelchairs who love the wilds and want access to them, including a man who lost his legs in Vietnam but who loves to fish in the Uinta Mountains wilderness.

But opponents such as Vento - who chaired a subcommittee (now headed by Hansen) that oversees public lands - saw it as a poorly camouflaged slap at environmentalists and maybe a move to raise other restrictions on wilderness.

So Vento-Hansen fights ensued over whether wheelchairs really are prohibited from wilderness, whether they should be, whether the proposal would lift other restrictions and whether each side was using the issue to seek advantages for wilderness battles.

Congress ended up passing a tightly drawn compromise that Hansen and Vento worked out to ensure access by wheelchairs in wilderness.

Fast forward seven years now to last week. In a Longworth Office Building ceremony, Hansen and Vento smiled together, called each other friends and shook hands as they were honored by a variety of groups for the disabled.

The groups said the old amendment has helped thousands of disabled people enjoy wild areas.

It came as public lands agencies such as the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management were signing an agreement with Wilderness Inquiry Inc. - a Minnesota-based company that takes the disabled on wilderness trips for a fee.

That agreement allows the land agencies to use the company as an adviser on issues about how to further improve access for the disabled, which advocacy groups say is becoming more popular.

Vento and Hansen admitted they fought each other hard over the amendment - and were a bit surprised by the success it has since enjoyed.

After such words during a brief truce, they again started tweaking each other. Hansen used the ceremony to call for allowing more flights over wilderness areas, including over the Grand Canyon, to allow the disabled to better see them. Of course, environmentalists hate that idea.

And Vento said companies such as Wilderness Inquiry show that wilderness is accessible to all - so moves by Hansen and others to open up more of the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area in Minnesota to allow some mechanized portages of canoes aren't needed.

So the wilderness-related fights resumed. But maybe somehow, some way, some day they will lead to future compromises that also have the unintended consequence of doing more good.