Plans to build more roads on public lands will help disabled Americans, Mike Lee says. Disabled hikers disagree.

Lee introduced the Outdoor Americans with Disabilities Act in the U.S. Senate last week.

Utah Sen. Mike Lee is spearheading legislation he says will allow more people to access America’s natural wonders — by building more roads atop them.

While Lee contends the Outdoor Americans with Disabilities Act will make outdoor access more equitable, some disability advocates told The Salt Lake Tribune that the effort felt disingenuous and played into stereotypes they are trying to dispel.

Syren Nagakyrie, founder and director of the nonprofit Disabled Hikers, called the bill “a blatant attempt to scapegoat disability as an excuse to build more roads.”

“People who already oppose disability inclusion and accessibility already blame disabled people, saying that what we want is to ‘pave over the wilderness,’” they said. “That is absolutely not what we want in any way, shape or form. This bill really is just leaning into that.”

Lee introduced the legislation in the U.S. Senate last week, saying, “our federal lands are a treasure belonging to all Americans, funded by their taxpayer dollars.”

“Ensuring these lands are accessible to everyone is not just a matter of convenience,” he continued, “but essential for allowing all citizens to explore the natural wonders our great country offers.”

Lawsuits as Biden’s BLM closed roads in Utah

Since the Bureau of Land Management announced road closures near Moab last year, environmentalists have celebrated, off-roading enthusiasts have sued and elected officials have accused the agency of federal overreach.

The BLM released a new travel management plan for the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges Travel Management Area in late September. The update closed 317.2 miles of routes in the 300,000-acre area that were previously open to off-highway and passenger vehicles. The plan left 800 miles of routes open to motorized use.

Lee’s legislation would have the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service develop and update travel management plans to prioritize accessibility. Roads on public lands should, according to the bill, allow access for hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, off-roading and other recreational activities to “ensure the public land is disability-accessible land.”

The legislation defines “disability-accessible land” as land with at least 2.5 miles of roads accessible to motorized or off-road vehicles per square mile.

Lee’s bill also specifies that the agencies should not close roads to motorized vehicles on public land to the extent that people with disabilities cannot access it.

In its plan for Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges, the BLM said that it closed roads to protect wildlife, preserve sensitive watersheds and safeguard cultural sites. The agency also cited conflicts between motorized and non-motorized recreators, like off-road vehicle users and river-runners.

“Federal land managers are required to analyze the impacts of their decisions on dirt, but they have no requirement to ensure that their decisions don’t hurt disabled Americans,” said Ben Burr, executive director of the recreation advocacy group BlueRibbon Coalition.

“Every time decisions are announced to close more of our backcountry roads, I hear from our disabled Americans that they feel discriminated against and ignored,” he added.

The State of Utah and off-roading advocates challenged the BLM’s road closures near Moab soon after they were announced. Redge Johnson, executive director of the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, said the BLM’s plan was an example of “egregious overreach.”

The state argued that the BLM’s plan violates “R.S. 2477,” a 19th-century law authorizing the construction of county roads on public lands. Motorized recreation groups BlueRibbon Coalition and Colorado Offroad Trail Defenders said the BLM ignored public comments about proposed road closures when developing their final plan.

The Legislature also considered the issue of road closures on federal land. On the last day of the 2024 session, state representatives passed HB471: Public Lands Possession Amendments, which says that the state and its counties can “disregard any attempted closure of a road without due process.”

Gov. Spencer Cox signed the bill, which was sponsored by his gubernatorial rival Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, into law in March.

Greater access

Nagakyrie said there are better ways to increase accessibility on public lands that don’t require road-building, like increasing access to motorized wheelchairs.

Staunton State Park and Great Sand Dunes National Park, both in Colorado, offer them for disabled visitors to experience those landscapes.

“From a public lands perspective, forcing the BLM and Forest Service to add thousands of miles of roads across otherwise pristine land is a terrible idea,” said Aaron Weiss, deputy director of conservation nonprofit Center for Western Priorities, “and does not actually do anything to increase accessibility.”

“This bill seems like a stunt,” he continued.

In an email, a spokesperson for Sen. Lee pointed to support for the bill from the off-roading group The Trail Hero, which “specializes in providing motorized access to the outdoors for people with special needs, veterans, and others who require mobility assistance.”

“These user groups are not asking to forge new trails,” said the group’s founder Rich Klein. “They just want to keep existing routes and trails open so that they can get the same therapeutic experience from nature that able-bodied citizens have access to.”

Lee’s bill has been assigned to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, of which Lee is a member.