Friday, January 6, 2012

Janet Zeller - Forest Service Advocate for Access

Janet paddling in Utah.
Janet Zeller is the National Accessibility Manager for the U.S. Forest Service - a woman with a severe disability and enormous enthusiasm for helping others access the great outdoors. Although we had met long ago, she remembered me when we crossed paths again this fall at a conference. The warmth of her personality and her vibrant energy for the work she does leaves me with a glow that continues to inspire the work I do. She's been traveling extensively this fall, presenting at conferences and conducting trainings, so it was only recently we were able to speak on the phone in preparation for this post.

"Outdoor recreation was my lifeblood," she said, "my sanity. I grew up with the idea that you work so you can recreate." Her childhood summers were spent in the White Mountains with her family, in a big cottage built in 1890 that served as a wonderful base camp for outings. She became an avid canoeist and had just learned to sea kayak before her injury. Her first career was as an elementary school supervising librarian, a "hazardous occupation", she emphasized with a laugh, in which she became quadriplegic after a serious fall in the school building.

Janet was paralyzed from the chest down, with severely limited hand function. After extensive rehabilitation she was "desperate to recreate" and began researching her rights to do so. It was the 1980's - before the ADA was passed - and the only entity she found that was required by law to provide access was the federal government. Try as she might, her previous career was no longer feasible. "I kept ending up in the hospital," she says. Those were difficult days, when she was often unable to access public buildings to get basic business done, let alone find a path back to the wilderness.

Janet providing consulation at Crotched Mountain
in New Hampshire. Photo by Donna Moxley of NHPR.
Janet had done some mediation work part time before the accident, so in the late 80s she moved toward it as new career, and people who knew her started contacting her with regard to recreation issues. Soon she was working with the White Mountain National Forest on an access issue. Janet eventually gained employment with the Forest Service in a brand new position in 1991 as a regional advisor on accessibility. It wasn't long before she was also advising on national policy in Washington D.C for the Forest Service. Twenty years later, she continues to lead the development and implementation of policies and procedures related to accessibility on national forest lands. She also represents the agency in relation to other federal agencies, state governments, partners and other organizations, educating at various national venues.

Janet is a fountain of zest for teaching and working with people. "There are two things I need in a job," she said, "something challenging and that makes a difference to people - and this the job for me!" She instructs Forest Service employees and the 5000+ outfitters who provide recreation programs and trips on national forest lands on how to be in compliance with the federal accessibility laws and standards without "undercutting the quality of the experience while also paying attention to safety". The network of Forest Service employees around the country can help match people to the type of recreation experience they are looking for with the type of access they need. Thanks to Janet, the range of their expertise includes an array of accessibility information, from places to go on your own to what types of wheeled devices are allowed in wilderness areas to the essential eligibility criteria each participant must meet to go on wilderness excursions.

"America's Big Backyard" as Janet calls the Forest Service lands, is 193 million acres, visited by 172 million people per year. This really puts our own work within the Massachusetts State Park system into perspective! I can barely fathom what must be required to keep a nationwide agency up to speed on accessibility. Two things I learned: Janet conducts monthly webinars on a wide range of accessibility topics for employees and the Forest Service will soon be introducing an online guide to short hikes around the country that meet access guidelines and provide great experiences to waterfalls, scenic vistas and other beautiful spots.

Janet is a firm believer that such opportunities provide incentive for people to begin and continue outdoor adventure on their own. All you need to do is ask - Forest Service staff on the national forest you plan to visit can link you to local opportunities to match the type of recreation and means of access you are looking for on national forest lands and friendly outfitters who may operate elsewhere too. Here in New England, our national forests are the Green Mountains in Vermont and the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. Possibilities expand across the US where national forest lands are more concentrated.

Janet found her way back to the wilderness again in her favorite way - on the water. Paddling - which she calls "the ultimate equalizer" - provides remarkable access to wilderness areas. One of her most favorite places is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota, an extensive region of lakes and rivers shared by the U.S. and Canada. (Anyone interested in paddling there can contact Wilderness Inquiry - I've been on their trips and Janet and I agree about how wonderful they are!) It seems that where ever Janet goes, positive change follows. She inspired the first prototype of an adaptive canoe seat by Colin Twitchell of Hampshire College, which is now available for sale at Creating Ability. She wrote the manual on adaptive paddling with others that is the standard in the industry. She also trains paddling instructors in adaptive techniques, co-instructing the American Canoeing Association Adaptive Paddling course where she fits in most of her paddling these days. Luckily she's got two of those coming up - in San Antonio in April, and Alaska next September.

(The next ACA Adaptive Paddling Workshop in New England will be hosted by Northeast Passage and take place June  7 - 10, 2012 in Durham, NH  hosted by Northeast Passage, Contact: Crystal Skahan (603) 862-0070, )

Thanks for your great work Janet!! - and kudos to the U.S. Forest Service for their pro-active approach to access for all!!


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