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Trail groups look at future of accessible trails regulations

Hiking organizations debate accessible trail issues with the USDA Forest Service.

From American Hiker, August/September 2003, by the American Hiking Society

Since the mid-1990s, American Hiking Society-- along with the Appalachian Trail Conference, other trail interests, representatives of the disabled community, and state and federal land managers-- have been participating in a long, winding process of myriad meetings to develop regulations for accessible trails and their accompanying trail facilities (including shelters, fire rings, and tent pads). The process is not any closer to completion, but it is now headed down a different track. Instead of developing regulations that would cover all public lands-- federal, state, and local-- the regulations at least initially are likely to be limited to federal lands.

This new tack was announced at a meeting held in early June, 2003 by the Access Board, the federal entity responsible for enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Access Board invited American Hiking Society, the Appalachian Trail Conference, the North Country Trail Association, and most of the recreation staff of the Forest Service to address the trails community's concerns about the Forest Service's approach to trail accessibility issues.

After early efforts of the Access Board to develop broad regulations became bogged down because the cost to implement them was prohibitively expensive (estimated at well over $100 million), the Forest Service decided that it would develop its own regulations. For the last two years, AHS and the Appalachian Trail Conference have been advising the process, and the trail regulations were headed in what we considered to be a positive direction. However, we in the trails community repeatedly raised questions about the sensibility of making trail shelters and privies accessible when they are built deep in the backcountry on trails that, under the regulations, could never be made accessible to people with disabilities.

At the June meeting, the Access Board acknowledged the viability of the issues raised by the trails community, as well as our interst in having concrete answers. The Board's solution is to again try to move the accessibility regulations and apply them to all federal land managing agencies. However, the process is likely to take three years. The Access Board has indicated that it will announce this process on its website at www.access-board.gov as well as the standards that will guide trails accessibility issues in the interim [note: no update as of Jan. 5, 2005.

August 2003

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