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Theme: Trails and the ADA

Trails and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Universal Trails Assessment Process

A Man with a Handcycle

Building Access

Other Features

Trail Center and Wilderness Press Join Efforts

A Short Hike with a Great View

Wild Lit

Note from the Literary Editor

Violet-Green Swallows - Maya Khosla

Autumn - Brenda Gunn

Haiku - Patricia Dove Miller


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The Trail Companion

Fall 1999

Theme: Trails and the ADA

Trails and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

      Since the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law, nearly every one of us has been touched in some manner by this far reaching law. From curb ramps to handicap parking spaces, the Act specifies an enormous number of architectural and design specifications that aim to provide equal access to public spaces which had been effectively off-limits to a large (and growing) percentage of the population. The Act, in its original form, did not address trails and parks in any great detail and there has been some speculation about how guidelines would be applied. Some have envisioned requirements that would force all trails to meet whole-access standards and thereby severely impact natural, cultural and historical features. The Trail Center's projects have only included three trails that allow access without barriers in the sixteen years of our existence-would all future trails have to meet ADA standards-effectively prohibiting construction of any of our trails which have a greater than 6% grade?
     The task of defining what is meant by barrier-free access to the outdoors is currently underway by a 25-member Regulatory Negotiation Committee under the authority of the Access Board (Washington, D.C.), comprised of representatives from federal and state agencies, advocates for the disabled, and trail groups, including American Trails, American Hiking Society, Appalachian Trail Conference, and the National Association of State Trail Administrators. They are charged with addressing the accessibility of trails in addition to buildings and programs by developing new rules for trails and outdoor recreation facilities under ADA.
     The Committee released the first draft of the guidelines in December 1998, revised them in January and are still working to clarify them. MacDonald notes that "various approaches have been considered, but the framework must include these two main parts:

Scoping Provisions: where, when, and under what circumstances a trail must be built to an accessible standard.
Technical Provisions: the dimensions, materials, and specifications that define what an accessible trail is in terms of trail grade, cross slope, height of obstacles, tread width, surface materials, etc.

     "But trails into natural surroundings clearly are different from access routes to buildings. Often the trail itself, with all its challenges, is the experience. Nor are trails always designed specifically for pedestrians, such as those built or adopted by mountain bicyclists or equestrians. While roads would be excluded, hikers in many cases share motorized trails with ATVs and other vehicles. How should ADA address these shared-use trails? Then there is the problem of severe topography, rocky or sandy terrain, or other environmental concerns. What if building an accessible trail to those standards is infeasible or, illogical?

     "First, the Technical Provisions would allow for a reduced standard of accessibility (e.g. allowing for a steeper slope) under certain circumstances which are still being debated. Second, language would define broader exceptions, or circumstances in which planners could document the need to build a trail to a lower standard of accessibility."
     The Committee met again in July to further define the guidelines. Their July clarification statement proposes that "accessibility guidelines for trails are triggered when a trail is newly constructed or altered. Operators and land managers make the decision when and where they will construct or alter a trail. Once they decide, the accessibility guidelines apply ONLY to those trails connected to an accessible trail or accessible trail head."
     The guidelines will not apply if one or more of the following conditions are present:

1. Where compliance would cause substantial harm to cultural, historic, religious, or significant natural features or characteristics;
2. Where compliance would substantially alter the nature of the setting or the purpose of the facility, or portion of the facility;
3. Where compliance would require construction methods or materials that are prohibited by federal, state, or local regulations or statutes;
4. Where compliance would not be feasible due to terrain or the prevailing construction practices.

     Two other general exemptions are included that basically exempt trails where the conditions are so extreme that it would be inappropriate to apply the technical provisions. This includes situations where there is a combination of conditions or extreme site characteristics. Extreme conditions include:

(a) Where the combination of running slope and cross slope exceeds 40% for over 20 feet
(b) Where there is a trail obstacle 30 inches or more in height
(c) Where there is an unstable surface for 45 feet or more
(d) Where a trail width is less than 12 inches for 25 feet
Technical provisions include:
1. New and altered trails that are not connected to accessible trails or accessible trailheads.
2. Existing trails where no alteration is planned.
3. Portions of existing trails that are being connected by a new or altered portion.

     The bottom line for the draft proposal is that the guidelines should require only sensible applications. Unlike requirements for buildings and other facilities, the trail guidelines have many more exceptions which protect the trail designer from being held responsible for not meeting guidelines when repairing a trail in the middle of a wilderness, while specifying what is meant by "accessible trails" in an area that does have full access.
      After a period of public comment early in 2000, the Access Board will publish a final version of the guidelines and they will become enforceable standards under the Dept. of Justice.

     For more information on the proposed guidelines, see the American Trails website and the Beneficial Designs website. An overview of the guidelines work can also be found in a summary paper by Dave Startzell, Executive Director, Appalachian Trail Conference.

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