Disabled sue for wilderness access

Kayakers in the motor-free St. Regis Canoe Area. Photo by Phil Brown.
Kayakers in the motor-free St. Regis Canoe Area. Photo by Phil Brown.

Six men filed suit in federal court this week to force the state to allow the disabled to fly into wild lakes by floatplane or helicopter.

The plaintiffs contend that banning aircraft from tracts of Forest Preserve classified as Wilderness, Primitive or Canoe violates the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.

Before the adoption of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan in the early 1970s, floatplanes regularly flew in and out of lakes where they are now banned. The plan prohibits nearly all motorized use in Wilderness, Primitive, and Canoe Areas.

The Explorer will run a story on the lawsuit in a future issue. Meanwhile, you can read this account in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise.

The plaintiffs in the suit are military veterans. Some suffered grievous injuries in war that prevent them from hiking or paddling to remote lakes.

It’s hard not to feel sympathy for them, but I spoke today with one disabled person who opposes the lawsuit. He is Michael Washburn, the former executive director of the Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks.

“I don’t believe my rights as a disabled person should extend in a way that deprives others of their rights,” said Washburn, who is legally blind. “The citizens of New York have a right to a wilderness experience without the intrusion of motors.”

He also argues that many disabled people support wilderness regulations. He points to a federal study (pertaining only to federal lands) that found “the majority (76 percent) of the respondents with disabilities do not believe that the restrictions on mechanized use stated by the Wilderness Act diminish their ability to enjoy the wilderness.”

Washburn said organizations such as Adirondack Adaptive Adventures (he sits on its board) can help the disabled access and enjoy wild lands where motors are banned.

Furthermore, he said the Forest Preserve contains dozens of lakes where floatplanes are allowed.

As mentioned, we’ll run a fuller account in the Explorer, with opinions from both sides.

Incidentally, the plaintiffs’ lawyer is Matt Norfolk of Lake Placid, who defended Jim McCulley after he was ticketed for driving a pickup truck on an old woods road in the Sentinel Range Wilderness. Norfolk won that case.

About Phil Brown

Phil Brown edited the Adirondack Explorer from 1999 until his retirement in 2018. He continues to explore the park and to write for the publication and website.

Reader Interactions


  1. TimothyD11 says

    I wouldn’t doubt it if somebody else put them up to this.

    I am all for helping the handicapped find a way to get out into the wilderness but not if it requires altering the wilderness in any way.

    I was REALLY upset when International Paper created a handicapped campground (Dillon Park) near / on Grampus Lake, in a quite pristine area north of Long Lake. It just seemed at least partially an excuse for pro-development people to get their claws into something that didn’t have claws in it yet.

    I just fear that the handicapped are being used by slimey ruthless anti-environment, anti-DEC, anti-wilderness, anti-APA reactionary type people to get what THEY want, without any real regard for the handicapped.

    There ARE accessible wilderness areas for the handicapped that don’t require being flown in.

    But thanks to the type of people I mentioned above there aren’t very many large motor free lakes in the Adirondacks – and it looks as though they want them ALL.

    Could be way off base here but it’s how I feel.

  2. TimothyD11 says

    Jim #U@#!&$ McCulley and company – that pretty much explains everything.

    Can’t this creep take his snowmobile to the Tug Hill Plateau, OUTSIDE the park, where there is ALL the snow and development he could possibly ask for and leave the BLEEPIN’ ADIRONDACKS ALONE?

  3. Paul says

    “I am all for helping the handicapped find a way to get out into the wilderness but not if it requires altering the wilderness in any way.”


    How do you feel about all the trails and bridges and other “alterations” in wilderness areas that facilitate the non-disabled?

    A float plane doesn’t leave a gaping scar in the ground like some of the canoe carries I have seen in the Adirondacks.

  4. Harvey44 says

    This is an unbelievably sticky issue.

    The whole concept of Wilderness probably violates the Americans With Disabilities Act.

    And the use of trails and bridges probably violates the concept of Wilderness.

    There is no simple answer. A line will have to be drawn somewhere. Will access only be afforded to those handicapped who can afford to hire a float plane? That could be construed as discriminatory. Are float planes different from other motorized transport?

    Whatever the answer, someone will be unhappy.

  5. Amazed says


    Are you for real?!? You were upset because an paper company put up a site for handicapped folks on INDUSTRIAL TIMBERLAND THAT THEY OWNED?!? Although it is managed well, it was hardly a pristine area.

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  1. […] November/December issue of the Explorer will contain an article and a debate on a lawsuit filed against the state by five military veterans who contend that the state’s ban on floatplanes in Wilderness Areas […]

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