By Ama Koenigshof, Trail Builder/Educator for the Trail Conference
There are 57 million people in the United States with disabilities. As our population ages, this number increases. When you consider the family and friends of people with disabilities who want to do recreational activities together, the percentage of the population affected is very large.
But it’s not just people with disabilities who appreciate accessible trails. As I have seen over and over while building trails on Bear Mountain, people are looking for opportunities to get outdoors with the whole family on paths they can walk together, regardless of their age or fitness level. Though the federal Outdoor Developed Area Accessibility Guidelines were produced with wheel chairs in mind, they increase the accessibility of a trail for every type of user.
For all these reasons, a group of accessibility experts, trail builders, and representatives from the Federal Highway Administration and Forest Service developed Federal guidelines for outdoor recreation and trails. The guidelines are meant to produce accessible, sustainable, low-maintenance trails that showcase nature. They are not meant to encourage paving our wild places.
The Outdoor Developed Area Accessibility Guidelines fall under the Federal Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) and affect trails built on federal lands or federal projects. Currently many states and land managers are choosing to adopt the guidelines as best practice. They apply only to trails that meet ALL three of the following criteria (few of our trails do):
- the trail is new or altered from its original purpose, intent, or function;
- the trail has a designed use of hiker/pedestrian;
- the trail connects directly to a trailhead or directly to a trail that currently substantially complies with all the trail accessibility technical requirements.
The guidelines do not apply if meeting them is not practicable due to terrain, would fundamentally alter the function or purpose of the facility or the nature of the setting, cannot be accomplished with the prevailing construction practices, or is precluded because the cultural, historic, or significant natural features are eligible for protection under Federal, State, or local law.
At any point on a trail where a condition prevents compliance with a technical provision, at that point the trail is to comply to the extent practicable. Once past that point, the trail must comply with the technical provisions.
How the New Rules Affect Our Work
For the Trail Conference, the guidelines apply to new trail that we build on federal land or for federal projects, or if a land managing partner want to build a more accessible trail, they may apply (all three conditions need to be met). Trail maintenance, our primary trails function, is not directly affected by the guidelines.
Nevertheless, when designing new trail, we can use the guidelines to help make trails more accessible and more sustainable, even if we aren’t able (or it doesn’t make sense) to fully comply.
- When creating a reroute around a problem area, for instance, consider grade rules; following them will help you to avoid creating a future problem area.
- When discussing signage with our park partners, we can encourage safe placement and easier-to-read designs.
New ABA Regulations for trails help to ensure that we consider who we may be excluding when we make decisions about trails. In so doing, they help open up opportunities for all stakeholders to enjoy nature. Following the guidelines, we can design trails that are harmonious with nature, an enjoyable experiences for all users, and sustainable, easing the burden on the volunteers, park personnel, and budgets that maintain them.
To learn more about trail design and Outdoor Developed Area Accessibility Guidelines, check our Trail-U schedule of courses. To read a longer version of this article that includes technical trail information, download the PDF Federal Trail Accessibility Guidelines from our website.