Accessibility and preservation in the National Parks Service
Towards the end of summer 2020, I was melting under the intense Phoenix heat and feeling like a caged animal after quarantining for months during the COVID-19 pandemic. I, like many others around the country, was looking for a socially distanced outdoor vacation.
The national parks in Southern Utah, Zion, to be specific, seemed like the perfect escape.
As a non-disabled person, it was easy enough to find camping arrangements and make plans to hike around the park. But I couldn’t help but think how impossible this same trip would be for my friends and family with disabilities.
For those in the disability community, accessibility remains an issue.
Historically, short, paved, highly-trafficked trails are the only accessible options at many national parks.
Many in the accessibility department of the National Parks Service (NPS) have been working to change this, including Quinn Brett. In July, Brett was hired for a three-tiered position at the NPS, focusing on wilderness accessibility, rock climbing, advocacy, and preservation of public lands.
“She brings such passion and understanding to it, especially in the emerging technology applications,” Bob Radcliffe, Division Chief of Conservation and Outdoor Recreation and one of Brett’s three bosses, said. “She has such credibility with not only the outdoor community, and the outdoor industry, but also with the disabled community.”
Brett grew up in Minnesota’s frigid northern winters but was introduced to national parks from a young age.
“My dad’s family tradition–him growing up–he would visit national parks,” Brett said. “So he carried that through with my brother and I. We drove from Minneapolis to the Badlands [South Dakota]. And then, as we got older, we just got further and further west. By the time I graduated high school, I had visited all of the national parks west of the Mississippi.”
It was on those trips out west that Brett first encountered rock climbers.
“You know as you get to be a teenager, you’re pushing the limits a little bit,” Brett said. “So you’re hiking, and you’re scrambling, and then I just saw rock climbers. And I was like, ‘I wanna do that, Dad!’”
As an adult, Brett moved to Colorado. She became a speed climber, traveling the world to ascend various mountains.
She also competed as a triathlete and held a prestigious position as a professional technical rescuer at Rocky Mountain National Park, a position rarely occupied by a woman.
That all changed in 2017 when she was climbing the Boot Flake on The Nose on El Capitan with climbing partner Josie McKee. She fell over 100 feet and suffered a T11 spinal cord injury.
“It’s wild to think I had this injury, and I was struggling with ‘Where’s my job going to be?’” she said. “Now, this lovely human [Radcliffe] created this job for me that includes my joys and passions.”
A NEW JOB
Bob Radcliffe had been thinking about issues of wilderness accessibility long before he met Brett. In the 70s and 80s, he worked for Outward Bound and was part of adventure programming for people with disabilities.
“So early on, I really had an awareness and worked with people who had disabilities in the outdoors,” Radcliffe said. “I really spent my whole life working in outdoor recreation, and always with an eye towards enhancing access for persons with disabilities.”
Their first interaction was a chance meeting at an American Alpine Club dinner. Brett was the speaker that night at the club’s annual dinner.
“I was really impressed with how she articulated herself,” Radcliffe said, “about her life now after her accident and her personal struggles.”
The two connected back then about Brett’s future working with the NPS.
“She wasn’t quite ready [at that time],” Radcliffe recalls, “but we kept in touch. And we talked back and forth. She was interested in continuing work in what she was passionate about, which was wilderness, wilderness management, and climbing management.”
In 2020, Radcliffe collaborated with his colleagues in the Wilderness and Accessibility programs and cobbled together an entirely new position. As he describes it, the job is someone who explores opportunities for making the outdoors accessible for all, deals with emerging technologies, and helps with policy work.
“Quinn has kind of drove straight in on it,” he said. “She’s organizing webinars. She’s working with our climbing managers on climbing policy. She’s working on wilderness and accessibility projects. A lot of it is winning hearts and minds [within the parks service], training and helping people understand what the art of the possible is.”
Brett has also begun working with parks to figure out which trails have the highest potential for minor modifications to make them more accessible.
In his mind, Brett is genuinely the best person to fill these three roles. “I was looking for somebody like Quinn for years, really,” he said. “First and foremost, she was a parks service ranger, and that gives her credibility. And then she knows about our preservation mandates and our sustainability, management desires, and so she can walk that line.”
Brett came on board in July 2020, so the start has been a little bit slow with the pandemic, she said. She technically works in Washington D.C., but commutes virtually from her home in Estes Park, Colo., in the backyard of the Rocky Mountain National Park.
Even though she’s only been on board for a few short months at this point, Brett has a long list of dreams she hopes to accomplish to make national parks more accessible.
Brett’s Dream’s Include:
- Filling a Sprinter van with mobility devices and traveling around to different national parks, and letting people know when she’d arrive so they could come and check them out. Thereby opening up access to these expensive devices.
- Installing interpretive rangers in mobility devices to lead interpretive ranger tours.
- Mapping out the trails at national parks, so visitors can make informed decisions when they arrive.
The final point is a plan she’s already begun executing.
“So what I’ve been doing is putting a GoPro on my [mobility] devices,” Brett said. “And when I can–one time a week in the summer–going out on the trails and national parks to [use a geographic information system] GIS [to map] them and take pictures of obstacles.”
The goal is to create an online database where people can find information about what trail might work best for them. Right now, what’s labeled accessible are the one-mile paved trails in the busiest parts of the parks, she said.
“I, as a person with a disability, now miss a wilderness experience, or more recreational experience or solitude experience,” she said. “And I don’t get any of those as a person with a disability. You’re kind of funneled into this one little spot.”
But most trails are already wide and flat enough to accommodate modern mobility devices.
THE MOBILITY DEVICE DEBATE
It’s an age-old debate within the National Park System, whether or not to allow motorized devices. It’s a quandary that the NPS has had to address related to many different types of devices, Radcliffe said. To find a way to introduce these devices in a sustainable, fair, and equitable manner. Often this means designating specific trails and sections of the park where you can use devices.
As recently as December 2020, the NPS introduced a final regulation governing the use of e-bikes within the National Park System. This applies to both two-wheel and three-wheel cycles.
After her injury, Brett began using handcycles to continue to explore and express her love of nature–even if it wasn’t the same as before.
“It was a little bit demoralizing,” she said. “Trails I used to run up in 20 minutes, it would take me an hour or more just to use the handcycle to get up it. But once I got the battery, that was life-changing.”
Now Brett uses a Bowhead, which is a motorized, off-road-capable handcycle. The Bowhead can get tricky on rockier trails, like those in the Rocky Mountain National Park, but it does expand her mobility a great deal.
When she did get it out to the specifically built bike trails of Moab, Utah, she was able to experience its full power. “I was like, ‘Oh shit, this thing is fun!” she remembers thinking.
There is a wilderness preservation element to accessibility as well, Brett acknowledges.
“I think that one of the big stigmas of people with disabilities is they think we want paved [trails], or that we need super wide [trails],” she said.
She remembers one trail in particular that counteracts this notion–Long’s Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park.
“That’s my favorite mountain,” she said. “I’ve summited it 50 times. I got on that trail for the first time with my mobility device, and I was like, ‘Holy shit, this whole time, this trail has been perfectly wide enough. Like not really scary to treeline. I need one hiking buddy [to get up].’”
Radcliffe echoed this sentiment. There is a fine line they must walk between making trails accessible and preserving the land’s natural elements.
Harry Kent understands the difficulty of walking that line all too well. A fellow resident of Estes Park, he knew Brett long before her accident. He runs a guide service in the city and has a son born with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA).
When he was very young, Kent used to carry his son Owen on his back—taking him to numerous parks, down various canyons in Utah, and even repelling over a cliff.
“I’m always thinking about him when I’m out,” Kent said. “Not so much climbing on a rock, but when I’m hiking on a trail. Going, ‘Hmm, this is a trail Owen can actually get to, or no, this is a trail Owen likely will never ever be able to get to.”
When Kent does notice those small opportunities for change, he often points them out.
“If I see something that’s pretty obvious that they could do, and they should do in order to make it easier for someone with a disability, you know I just talk to a ranger and say, ‘Hey no biggie, but by the way, you see how narrow that little gate is? I know you’re trying to keep the horses out, but a person with a wheelchair they have to have 32 inches to go through any gate,” Kent said.
He said it’s such a small thing, but the gate’s size can completely exclude someone who uses a wheelchair from accessing an area.
There’s a name for the small suggestions Kent makes on his park visits–universal design. Radcliffe first heard the term from avid outdoorsman Peter Axelson who had a spinal cord injury. It’s a simple enough idea–take a look at something like a trail to see if there are just a few small changes you could make to make it more accessible and inclusive.
So with an entire country’s worth of national parks to conquer, what does Brett hope to accomplish in her position?
One thing is dreaming down barriers for those with disabilities to visit national parks and enjoy them to their fullest. Giving people access to information about trails, even a rating system with their accessibility, and access to the right mobility devices.
Sarah Farrell | Writer | @thesarahfarrell
Sarah Farrell holds a master’s degree in sports journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, and a bachelor’s degree in communication with a minor in sports management from Trinity University. She is a Texas native who has fallen in love with hiking the Arizona wilderness.
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