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Published: Sunday, 3/6/2011 - Updated: 5 years ago

Keep it natural

JOHN Muir, the naturalist and Sierra Club founder who is the father of the National Park Service, said it best: "Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves."

The peace that comes from a walk in the woods is one of life's great pleasures. Expansion of the nation's hiking and biking trails draws more people every year to enjoy scenic vistas and beautiful byways. New Justice Department rules that took effect this month should expand opportunities to more people with disabilities as well.

Yet some trail advocates worry that the rules could change the nature of a walk in the woods. Wheelchair users would be guaranteed access just about anywhere pedestrians can travel. But the real concerns are with broadly defined "power-driven mobility devices."

Trail managers are afraid they won't be able to continue banning dirt bikes, all-terrain vehicles, golf carts, or even pickup trucks from trails. Their fears don't seem supported by a fair reading of the new rules.

The regulations are rooted in the principle that the uniqueness of each trail should be preserved. Existing, primitive, long-distance trails are unaffected by the regulations. Exceptions are permitted where the cultural, historic, religious, or natural features would be harmed, and where the terrain would make accessibility impractical.

Trail managers are empowered to develop their own policies, recognizing the individuality of the paths, as long as they comply with federal regulations. For example, they could determine that a trail is too narrow to accommodate a vehicle such as a golf cart, or that a trail is unsafe for vehicles that can attain a certain speed.

Some trail advocates also warn that individuals who do not have disabilities might try to take advantage of the wording of the regulations to use banned devices. This seems a bit like worrying that because a person with a visual impairment may visit a restaurant with a seeing-eye dog, all pet owners will assume they can bring Sparky along too.

Some motorized wheelchairs already are allowed on trails, with no detriment to safety. Trail advocates have an opportunity, in developing their own policies, to preserve these natural wonders while opening them to people who have yet to enjoy a trip through the woods.

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