Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Bench

When my parents visited this spring, I took them to the Cherry River Fishing Access, because it is near town, pretty, and small. It was important to go someplace small, because neither one was physically able to trek far. My mom has a long-standing disability that makes walking arduous. My stepfather was recovering from pneumonia, and he tired quickly at this high elevation.

My mom mostly sat on a picnic bench near the parking lot, some 50-100 yards away from the ponds frequented by waterbirds. The table is still a pleasant spot, but with tall cattails and grasses in the way, you can't see much of the wildlife from there. Meanwhile, I strolled a little with my stepfather; an urban-souled fellow, he was delighted to see and hear redwinged blackbirds, which he apparently viewed as a novelty.

That's one of many good excuses for keeping these small spots alive: they're physically-accessible to people who can't make it into the backcountry, and perceptually-accessible, too, to enthusiastic beginners with little knowledge or experience of their denizens.

After the visit, however, my mother understandably wished she could have sat closer to the ponds, so she, too, could have had a better view of blackbirds, coots, and ducks. Being of an enterprising character, she wrote a letter to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, who administer the site, suggesting that a bench be placed on the path that runs between the two ponds, right alongside the edge of the southernmost. I wrote to them, too, offering to pay for the bench myself, as it was almost her birthday, and I didn't want the idea to be rejected based on cost.

MTFWP was surprisingly helpful and cooperative about the request. I was pleased to discover how responsive they were to communications from random persons-- answering promptly, giving suggestions serious consideration, and not a form letter in sight. Here's what simultaneously disappointed and pleased me most: I had already entered into a conversation about timing and price, when I got a follow-up email. Its key point:
"We have had a discussion about a bench location, and the opinion is that in the spring and summer time any disturbance between the two ponds is distrupting to nesting birds & waterfowl even by those walking thru on the trail let alone, sitting there."

I was disappointed, of course, because I couldn't make the gesture of buying that bench for my mother. It might have given her some pleasure during her occasional fair-weather visits, and provided a resting place for others who would have enjoyed the comfortable spot for watching birds and other animals.

But I was even more pleased that MTFWP so clearly had its priorities in the right place: with the needs of the wildlife. This is not always obviously the case in interactions with state wildlife agencies. But here they had turned down a free "improvement" to their parcel, one that had initially sounded attractive (or at least innocuous), because of thoughtful consideration of its impacts. I appreciated both their initial receptivity and eventual retraction of the offer. So here's a shout-out to Montana FWP, Region 3 Parks Staff.

That all having been said, though, the bench negotiation emblemizes-- in a small way-- a conflict that has arisen repeatedly in the recreational use of conservation lands. Most of the time, the argument is not over the placement of static objects like benches, but over motorized vehicle access. The problem is: do elderly and disabled persons, unable to hike, bike, or ski, have a just claim to access remote or rough areas by other means, even if those means have profound wildlife impacts? Which is more important, my mother's opportunity to watch ducks equally with able-bodied duck-watchers, or the ducks' opportunity to nest in greater peace? The Department of the Interior , for instance, does have certain civil rights obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But, as so often in government bodies, they also have other, sometimes competing, mandates.

It's probably obvious, from the above story, that I have mixed feelings, as would anyone with a concern for both people and wildlands. All else equal, improved amenities for people who might otherwise lack access to wild landscapes are a worthy goal. But often, all else is not equal. Usually, access comes with a cost. These costs and benefits have to be carefully weighed on a case-by-case basis (as they were by MTFWP) if wise decisions are to be made. There's no sense in improving access to an area whose unique features would be gradually destroyed by that access; the long-term health of the place, in my book, outweighs the desires and convenience of any of its witnesses.

I say this not because there was anything wrong with my mother wanting a bench, but because the argument for handicapped access has been used widely and (in my opinion) often disingenuously by certain lobbying groups. Here's a statement from the president of the Property Rights Foundation of America, angry over New York state's decision to return the Hudson River Recreation Area to a more rustic condition-- and she's chosen to title it "Disabled Apartheid." (New York Dept. of Environmental Conservation's plan for the aforementioned area doesn't really sound so sinister to me.) This particular type of hyperbole has been common locally as well. MTFWP has a page summarizing access controversies.

Though a bench is surely not as disturbing to wildlife as a snowmobile trail or paved road, I am very glad to know that even such minor decisions are attended to with care by my local parks maintenance crew. May we enjoy such specificity always in the management of our lands.

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