New park will give disabled access to wilderness

Posted: Friday, October 15, 2004

LONG LAKE, N.Y. After devoting his life to preserving Adirondack wilderness, Tim Barnett can't hike through a fragrant balsam glade or paddle across a misty mountain lake.

Seven years ago, while on sabbatical in Kyrgyzstan helping set up a national park in the Tien Shan Mountains, Barnett was thrown from his horse in a remote wilderness area and was left a quadriplegic.

The 64-year-old Barnett, vice president of the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, now confines his explorations to places accessible only by motorized wheelchair.

There are plenty of parks and campgrounds with wheelchair-accessible restrooms and sidewalks. But when it comes to experiencing the remote interior of wilderness areas far from electricity and pavement, the opportunities are limited.

Now, a paper company is expanding those opportunities by developing a wilderness recreation area specifically designed for disabled people.

International Paper Co. has designated 16,000 acres in the heart of the Adirondacks as John Dillon Park in honor of its recently retired chairman. Last spring, the timber company donated a conservation easement to the state, guaranteeing the land will never be sold for development.

The company will continue harvesting trees on the land and keep existing leases with hunting clubs. It also will allow the state to put in a snowmobile trail, which will link trails on adjacent state land.

Facilities for people with disabilities will be constructed on a 150-acre section of the tract about 100 miles northwest of Albany.

''There is really no other area like this dedicated to this user group,'' International Paper spokesman Bob Stegemann said as he hiked along a pine needle-cushioned trail skirting Grampus Lake, one of four lakes in the heavily forested tract.

''We want to make this a place where people with disabilities can have a truly extraordinary experience in the back country.''

As he spoke, a pair of loons called across glassy water mirroring trees and mountains. Stegemann pointed out an osprey nest atop a towering pine on a rocky point. The cool air smelled of autumn leaves and the raisin spiciness of sun-cured viburnum berries, and the trail was bordered by lush pillows of moist sphagnum and overhung by lacy curtains of fir.

Construction of trails and amenities will begin this fall and take about a year to complete, Stegemann said.

Plans call for a six-foot-wide path, firmly surfaced with crushed native stone, meandering along Grampus Lake and continuing two miles to Handsome Pond. Log lean-tos, the traditional open-front Adirondack camping huts, will have modifications for wheelchairs.

There also will be accessible canoe and kayak launch areas and fishing spots, composting toilets and an electric wheelchair recharging station powered by solar panels and a backup generator.

An unpaved two-mile road will provide auto access for campers from the nearest highway to a parking lot at a headquarters area where resident staff and caretakers will stay.

Barnett is part of a state task force on accessibility that was formed as a result of a federal suit brought by other disabled people who demanded more access to state-owned land in the Adirondacks. He said Dillon Park is a step in the right direction.

''I haven't thought about camping out since I got hurt, but there are people with worse injuries than mine who get out there,'' Barnett said. ''This will really make it possible for people to do that without a lot of difficulty and risk.''

The facility will be run by students from the outdoor recreation program at Paul Smith's College, which has launched a $2 million fund-raising campaign to provide an endowment for the project.

Tom Kokx, a landscape architect and consultant in Guilford, N.H., is designing the facilities. Before he retired from the U.S. Forest Service, he was involved in making areas in the White Mountain National Forest more accessible to the disabled.

Most such projects in state and national parks involve eliminating barriers in existing facilities, most of which can be reached by car, Kokx said.

''What's different about this is it's in a setting that's completely undeveloped,'' Kokx said. ''We have an opportunity to design something from the ground up, rather than correcting something that's already there.''

''We tried to find other projects like this, but couldn't find any,'' Kokx said. ''We expect that there will be people from other parts of the country who will look at this as a model and will build on it.''

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