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Are proposed ADA trail rules a nightmare or just misunderstood?

Courtesy of the Appalachian Trailway News - February 2001

An interview with Dave Startzell, Executive Director of the Appalachian Trail Conference

"Accessibility for the disabled"-- for some wilderness lovers, the words conjure up a horrific vision of wilderness tamed with paved paths, concrete ramps, guardrails, and elevators up the sides of cliffs and mountainsides.

"The most commonly voiced concern is that modifications could fundamentally alter the nature of the Appalachian Trail experience."

Executive Director Dave Startzell and Peter Jensen represented the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) during a two-year process of negotiations designed to come up with a reasonable plan for making all U.S. recreational facilities more accessible. They joined a committee of 25 people appointed by the United States Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, better known as the "Access Board." About half were people with disabilities or representatives for groups associated with particular disabilities; others represented federal and state agencies, groups such as ATC and American Trails, and recreational businesses such as KOA.

The committee's report, issued in late 1999, is still undergoing a final review by the federal Office of Management and Budget.

Appalachian Trailway News: How would you characterize the experience of serving on the committee?

Dave Startzell: In a word, intense! Many of the discussions were highly emotional, while others on technical requirements were extremely tedious. And yet we all came away with a heightened awareness of the challenges that people with disabilities face in gaining access to outdoor recreation.

ATN: Do you think the outcome satisfied members of the disabled community and recreation providers alike?

Startzell: For the most part, yes. But, compromise is at the heart of any negotiation, regulatory or otherwise. In that respect, neither side got everything it wanted. In a sense, both factions were forced to take a "leap of faith" and accept that, somehow, a common-sense interpretation of accessibility will prevail. Only time will tell whether such faith is justified.

ATN: Did the committee reach consensus on all of the issues?

Startzell: Not entirely. One particularly relevant issue concerns remote campsites that only can be reached by a non-accessible trail. Half the group believed that shelters, privies, fire rings, picnic tables, tent pads, and so forth at such sites should meet accessibility standards. Others, including ATC, argued that the modifications would result in unnecessary expenditures of limited financial and human resources at sites few, if any, disabled people are likely to ever reach. Our view is that a more logical approach is investing in sites that can be readily accessed by disabled people.

ATN: Did the committee consider how likely disabled people are to actually use backcountry facilities and trails?

Startzell: Yes. It probably is fair to say that the prevailing attitude among the representatives of the disabled community was: "If you build it, they will come." But some recreation providers with experience in designing and building accessible recreation facilities did not necessarily support that.

ATN: What are the implications of the cost?

Startzell: The disabled community generally believes that equal (or at least proportional) access fundamentally is a civil-rights issue that does not lend itself to traditional cost-benefit analyses. Some recreation providers, on the other hand, believe that accessibility requirements stemming from the Americans with Disabilities Act and other related legislation simply represent an "unfunded mandate."

ATN: How did the committee resolve this conflict?

Startzell: I believe each side came to recognize some basis for both perspectives. In any case, the Access Board is required to develop and consider some financial-impact analyses before adopting any final regulation. That information also should be available for inspection during the public-review period.

ATN: Do the recommendations address the needs of all disabled people?

Startzell: Not necessarily. The greatest emphasis was on people with mobility impairments, who require the assistance of wheelchairs, motorized scooters, or prosthetics, and, to a lesser extent, people with vision or hearing impairments.

ATN: So, how would you summarize the committee's recommendations affecting trails?

Startzell: The committee recommended an "exceptions-based approach." This means the decision-maker begins by assuming that accessibility can be incorporated into the design and construction of the trail or trail segment. In other words, to paraphrase one of the committee members, "access should be 'on the table' whenever decisions are made affecting outdoor-recreation facilities, including trails," in much the same way as we presently consider slope, surface conditions, and a host of other issues.

ATN: Will all trails will be required to meet these standards?

Startzell: No. That's why it's "exceptions-based." In the first place, the standards apply only to new construction or substantial alterations to existing trails or trail segments. Also, the affected segment must be connected to an accessible trailhead or to another accessible segment. The regulations would not apply to trail segments "in the middle of nowhere." Another general exception would effectively eliminate from consideration trail segments characterized by "extreme" conditions&emdash;severe slopes, cross-slopes, and/or surface impediments. Such conditions are quite common along primitive, mountain-crest footpaths such as the A.T.

ATN: Are there other exceptions?

Startzell: Yes. Where modifications would cause substantial harm to natural or cultural resources; or substantially alter the nature of the setting or the purpose of the trail; or require construction methods prohibited by federal, state, or local laws; or would not be feasible due to terrain or prevailing construction practices. Clearly, one or more of these circumstances may exist along many sections of the A.T.

ATN: What's been the reaction of the volunteer trail-maintaining clubs to the accessibility proposals?

Startzell: Before the actual language of the recommendations was fully developed, many of the reactions tended to cluster at the "fear and loathing" end of the spectrum.

ATN: And now?

Startzell: Once the exceptions-based approach was explained, I think people came to understand that what is being proposed is not as onerous as some had feared. I would not, however, suggest that all of the concerns have disappeared. The most commonly voiced concern is that modifications could fundamentally alter the nature of the Appalachian Trail experience. The trail has been designed, constructed, and maintained for seventy-eight years to provide a primitive, mostly backcountry experience with opportunities for physical challenge and to "lie lightly on the land." When people think of wheelchair-accessible trails, they tend to think of flat, paved pathways that would be altogether incongruous with the character we have striven to establish and maintain along the A.T.

ATN: That's not a legitimate concern?

Startzell: It's legitimate, but no one is suggesting that a primitive footpath, such as the A.T., should be modified in that way. Today, new trail construction or reconstruction tends to make greater use of sidehill terrain to facilitate drainage anyway. It has a somewhat wider tread-way, gentler slopes and cross slopes, and more self-maintaining erosion-control devices, such as drainage dips. Many of these same techniques also can be employed to make the trail more accessible to people with varying degrees of disabilities.

ATN: Aren't modifications for accessibility expensive? Will funds be diverted from other projects in order to pay for accessibility modifications?

Startzell: It depends on the site, but modifications for wheelchair or scooter access are quite expensive when compared to our "normal" construction practices. So funds targeted for access certainly could divert funds away from other projects.

ATN: Is that the main concern?

Startzell: A greater concern may be the impact on our human resources-- our volunteers. They already devote an incredible number of hours to trail construction and maintenance. If compliance with accessibility regulations significantly increases demands on those volunteers, the burden could prove to be "the straw that breaks the camel's back."

ATN: How do we address that issue?

Startzell: We should focus on trail segments that can be most easily modified to accommodate accessibility-- and where there is the greatest likelihood for ready access by disabled people. We also will need to program these projects without placing disproportionate demands on any single club.

ATN: What are the next steps?

Startzell: Next comes the public-review process. We hope many trail-maintaining clubs, as well as individual ATC members and trail users, will participate by commenting on the recommendations developed by the advisory committee. ATC also will be submitting additional comments.

ATN: When will we actually see regulations?

Startzell: Even if the public-comment phase results in some changes to the recommendations, my expectation is that new regulations will be adopted within the next year or so.

ATN: What will ATC be doing in the interim?

Startzell: I'm suggesting to our Board of Managers and leaders in the trail-maintaining clubs that we may want to begin now to incorporate "accessibility awareness" into our decision-making processes. We make decisions almost every day affecting trail construction and reconstruction projects all along the A.T. Considerations related to accessibility traditionally have played little or no role in the design or construction process. Those days may soon be coming to an end.

Through expanded education and training programs, I hope staff and volunteers engaged in the trail project can develop the skills necessary to incorporate more opportunities for people with disabilities to experience at least selective portions of the Appalachian Trail. But, I believe we should create those opportunities in a way that does not alter the primitive character or the challenging recreational experience that makes the A.T. such a special place. That will be our greatest challenge. I think we can do it!

For more information on the ADA and trails, see the American Trails web site: www.AmericanTrails.org: Click on "Resources & Library," then on "Accessible Trails."

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