Forest Service Changes Hunter Access Program

By Tony Robinson
Most of the handicapped hunters that utilized the program had been stopping by their respective U. S. Forest Service office during the fall for longer than they can remember.  It was an annual event usually taking place during the week prior to Thanksgiving.  After all, the primary purpose of the visit was to be ready to hit the woods in pursuit of deer on the opening day of the season.  For the western third of the state, this meant the Monday prior to Thanksgiving.
The visit was simple enough, stop by the Forest Service office, show them proof of being handicapped, pay a deposit of up to twenty dollars, and then leave with a key.  This key would then allow the handicapped hunter access to a couple of otherwise closed roads.  The hunter, along with any companion that he chose, could then open a couple different gates and drive to an area that they wanted to deer hunt.  The only other hunters they might encounter would be other handicapped hunters that had a key as well.
The program known as the “Disabled Hunter Access Program” and was the only special assistance, other than special licenses, that was available for that level of sportsman in North Carolina.  The benefits for disabled sportsmen have grown since those early years, two decades ago, including the hunter access program.  That is until this season when the U.S. Forest Service dropped the program from federal lands.  In North Carolina, that represents eight different Forest Service districts.  The good news is that the change may actually be for the best.
On paper, the plan was simple and certainly seemed like a fair, proper and good thing to do.  After all, if you are a handicapped person, you are not able to engage in the same level of physical activities as those that are not handicapped.  The problem was that the plan involved people and people always have a way of messing up what often looks good on paper.  You have those that abuse and take advantage of privileges.  You even have those that are jealous of what aid those that are handicapped get.  Several factors caused the Forest Service to drop this program including the law itself and other hunters.  As a result, all hunters may benefit from this move as the service looks for ways to make the forests more hunter friendly.
According to Forest Service officials in North Carolina, for several years the National Forest Service Districts in North Carolina, issued keys to select gated roads to qualified hunters with disabilities.  This was on a first-come, first-served basis during select hunting seasons on those forests.  This permit allowed hunters with disabilities to have motorized access by highway-approved vehicles, to a few areas along established and maintained roads. 
Several situations resulted from this program: Some, but not all, hunters with disabilities abused the program by not abiding by the agreement with the Forest Service and allowing able-bodied hunters (in addition to the one allowed by their permit) vehicular access to certain areas.  This created conflict among the hunting community and increased pressure on law enforcement; in addition, increased vehicular use on roads otherwise closed based on the assigned maintenance level or for resource protection lead to resource damage and needed maintenance levels that could not be sustained with current funding.
While the above consequences of this program certainly varied from year to year and area-to-area, the final straw in all likelihood was the threat of lawsuits by non-handicapped hunters against the Forest Service.  This action provided a review of laws, regulations, and policies addressing accessibility, specifically relating to hunting opportunities for persons with disabilities.
In reviewing the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the service found the following.  It shall be discriminatory to afford an individual or class of individuals, on the basis of a disability or disabilities of such individual or class, directly, or through contractual, licensing, or other arrangements with the opportunity to participate in or benefit from a good, service, facility, privilege, advantage, or accommodation that is not equal to that afforded other individuals.
As a result, the National Forest Service finds itself in a position of having to provide equally to all, whatever it may have been providing for only a few, even if they were handicapped.  The result is no Forest Service Roads open only to the handicapped.  They are either open to all hunters or open to none.
Some of the eight forest districts in the state have come up with an alternative plan that is still on a first come first served basis.  One district has decided to open its normally closed roads that handicapped only had access to for all hunters.  Other areas have plans to enhance the hunter access as a whole while others are still in the early planning stages.  To see what is currently available for hunters on the states National Forests, click here.


National Forest Gate
(Gates like the one above are a common sight on all of the states National Forests.  For the past several years, most of the states eight different forest districts had a small number of closed roads available for disabled hunters through the “Handicapped Access Program”.  Beginning this season, hunters found the program had ended.)  Photo by Tony Robinson

Box Blind
(With the Handicapped Access Program now over on National Forests, the service is looking for ways to make the states thousands of acres of public land more accessible for all hunters.  The Pisgah Ranger District in western North Carolina has installed a wooden box blind like the one shown here in the Avery Creek area.  Other districts are considering doing the same.) Photo by Tony Robinson