From the opening reception at the Taos Country Club on Wednesday evening (October 5), through two days of engaging panel discussions and seminars at the Sagebrush Inn and Conference Center, to an annual conference tradition that includes last afternoon excursions to the area’s outdoor hotspots for recreation, this year’s New Mexico Outdoor Economics Conference in Taos gave the participants a lot to think about. It was the fifth consecutive year that the conference was held.
“It was outstanding,” said conference organizer Senator Jeff Steinborn, who also represents Senate District 36 of Doña Ana State. “We always conduct a survey. And 80 percent of participants answered yes to the question, ‘Have you learned something that you will use in your job?’
“People were very interested in infrastructure, but conservation was also a high priority – protecting the natural world – and the pressing challenges facing the state,” Steinborn continued. “And there were a lot of political issues around inclusion and justice that everyone wants to know more about.”
Equal access to nature for the disabled, a topic that has been raised in conference panels in recent years, has received much attention in Taos, as have the economic barriers many low-income New Mexicans face in trying to Enjoy outdoor sports like skiing or rafting.
Silver Councilwoman Guadalupe Cano, who uses a wheelchair due to mobility issues, said discussing accessibility itself is an important fundamental step in creating a more unified accessible outdoor recreation infrastructure.
“How many people did you see in wheelchairs at the conference? For the past five years, it’s always been just me and Dustin,” said Berg, executive director of GO Unlimited, an Albuquerque-based nonprofit that enables adaptive outdoor recreational experiences, Cano said. “We say we want a seat at the table, but sometimes we can’t even get to the table.”
In a separate panel, Berg said that outdoor recreation infrastructure must keep up with the rapid pace of development of adaptive sports equipment.
“Some of the things that were big limiting factors aren’t anymore [factors]”, he said. “I imagine many of you are unaware that there is an adaptive, full suspension, 3WD, e-assist mountain bike that we can use to rip down the trails of Taos Ski Valley. And Santa Fe and Red River. As we develop our plans for infrastructure, we need to incorporate these ideas into the overall plan.”
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires new infrastructure and public spaces to be designed in accordance with standards that allow access to buildings, public spaces, sidewalks, and other infrastructure, does not consistently refer to outdoor recreation infrastructure as trailheads and paths applied.
“There are some adaptable or ADA-accessible trails — but that’s not a state requirement,” Carl Colonius, outdoor recreation planner for the state’s Outdoor Recreation Division, told Taos News. “Adaptive mountain bike technology has only been around for five to seven years, especially for mountain bike trails. So when a trail manager is trying to keep ATVs off a non-motorized trail, they designed the gates so you pull a bike up on the back wheel and weave through. They didn’t think of adaptive bikes and wheelchairs.
Colonius added, “Getting these federal land management agencies to rev up quickly is like powering up the Titanic and then making it turn around.”
Like most people who rely on mobility devices like wheelchairs, Berg had an example of a small design flaw that can render an entire recreation area inaccessible to people like him.
“A regular mountain bike’s handlebars are about 29 inches wide, and then your custom mountain bike is 36 to 38 inches wide,” Berg said. “We don’t find the difficulty in the path – where we find that our difficulty is just accessing the path, the entry point. Often there is only one gate, which is also only one centimeter in size [narrow]; and if that gate were an inch wider it would still prevent a four wheeler from getting through.
According to US Senator Martin Heinrich, it is probably up to land management agencies such as the US Forest Service or the US Bureau of Land Management to apply the 1990 federal disability law more closely to their internal policies. Bylaws supporting new planning rules are already on the books.
“I think when [the ADA] originally intended, it was a mechanism to make everything more accessible as things are built or remodeled,” Heinrich told Taos News in Pathway Planning, Land Use Planning. I think that probably has to happen in every agency, so the BLM, for example, takes accessibility into account when planning; and the forest service considers it when they rewrite forest plans.”
In the Carson National Forest Plan, most recently revised this year, one of the stated “desirable recreational conditions” is that “a variety of high-quality developed and dispersed recreational opportunities and activities are available to a diverse group of forest users, including individuals with disabilities.” .”
Desired conditions for infrastructure such as forest campsites, man-made fishing grounds such as reservoirs, viewpoints and toilet facilities, for example, include accessibility for people with disabilities, according to the 300-page forest plan, which only mentions the words disability or disabilities 11 times, mainly in relation on employment.
According to a spokesman for Carson National Forest, there are some forested areas in the Taos area that are designed to be accessible, including the Agua Barrier Free Trail. However, due to closures related to storms and wildfires, at least two sites are not recommended for forest visitors with limited mobility. Eagle Rock Lake, a former gravel pit adjacent to the Red River outside of Questa, was rehabilitated and reopened in 2015 with wheelchair-accessible fishing in mind.
“I think, as we’ve realized during COVID, nature isn’t a nice-to-have,” Heinrich said. “Access to nature is really important for people, for our physical and mental health, and we should ensure that our entire population has access to nature.”