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Universal Trail Assessment Process promotes understanding

For all varieties of trail users, having objective information ensures a better trail experience. The UTAP helps land managers understand trail conditions but is not a system for deciding how a trail will be managed and used.

By Peter Axelson, Director of Research and Development, Beneficial Designs, Inc.

It has recently come to our attention that significant misinformation has inadvertently been circulating in regard to the Universal Trail Assessment Process (UTAP) and the software, called TrailWare, that has been designed to analyze UTAP data. We are responding to ensure that all trails enthusiasts have accurate information about UTAP and TrailWare. We would very much appreciate your assistance in conveying this information to everyone you know that has been involved in the recent discussions.

The UTAP was originally envisioned, in 1993, as a way to accurately and objectively describe whether the conditions on a trail were suitable for people with disabilities (primarily those who use wheelchairs). Subsequently, the work to develop UTAP was funded by a research grant from the National Institutes of Health and completed in partnership with Federal land management agencies (National Park Service, USDA Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Reclamation, US Army Corps of Engineers), American Trails, Wilderness Inquiry, the National Center on Accessibility, and several State and local trail and disability organizations. As the original UTAP became widely implemented in several States, we received feedback from land managers that the objective information gathered using the UTAP had a wide range of benefits, including maintenance planning, budget development, environmental monitoring, increased enjoyment and safety for all users, and enhanced search and rescue planning and operations. As a result, the UTAP was significantly revised in the period from 1998 to 2000 to use a universal design approach.

The "new UTAP" (referred to as UTAP 2000) is an OBJECTIVE MEASUREMENT SYSTEM for documenting the conditions on any outdoor path of travel (e.g., sidewalk, recreation trail, shared use path). It is a series of measurement procedures that enable information about the trail conditions (e.g., grade, cross slope, surface, width, obstructions) to be collected in an accurate and repeatable manner. It is solely a measurement system. A land manager may choose to apply the measurement system to one trail or a wide variety of trails. Some organizations use UTAP solely for trails that the land management agency identifies as accessible. Others use the UTAP for a wide variety of trails.

UTAP 2000 DOES NOT COLLECT INFORMATION ABOUT OR ADVOCATE FOR OR AGAINST TRAIL USE BY ANY PARTICULAR USER GROUP. Rather, it enables the person doing the assessment to record information about the trail use designations that have been assigned by the land management agency. Therefore, if a land management agency has an equestrian trail that does not allow motorized vehicles or bicycles, that information can be recorded. Similarly, if the agency manages an OHV trail, that permitted use can also be recorded.

The UTAP is NOT a system for deciding how a trail will be managed and used. However, accurate and objective UTAP measurements of existing trail conditions can (and in our opinion should) be used as the basis for making informed decisions about appropriate trail use. These decisions can be made by the land management agency (e.g., deciding to temporarily close a trail to allow regeneration of the vegetation after documenting consistent and increasing degradation over several years) or by trail users themselves (e.g., an equestrian decides not to go on a trail that has widths less than 60 inches).

TrailWare is a software program developed to analyze data collected using the UTAP procedures. TrailWare also generates several report formats (called Trail Access Information or TAI) that can be used to convey the trail data to land management personnel or trail users. In creating TAI, the person entering and analyzing the data designates the scope of information included in the reports. For example, up to 5 trail users can be included on the TAI reports. The person designing the TAI report chooses which activities will be represented and whether or not they are permitted.

TrailWare does NOT independently determine the information about permitted or prohibited trail uses. TrailWare includes graphics for permitted and prohibited uses for many user groups.

A couple of examples may help to illustrate the range of uses for UTAP and TrailWare. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MN DNR) was one of the first agencies to implement UTAP measurements of trails on an agency-wide basis. The information collected through these assessments is available on a website operated by Wilderness Inquiry, the organization that was contracted to conduct the assessments. Reviewing the information provided for the trails in Lake Bronson State Park indicates there are three trails in this park.

One trail (Lakeside Extension) permits only pedestrians, cross-country skiers, and dogs. The other two trails (High Bank Interpretive and Hiking/Biking Trail) allow bicyclists as well as pedestrians, cross-country skiers, and dogs. In contrast, the National Park Service used the UTAP to gather information in the Craters of the Moon National Monument only for hiking trails. Therefore, all these trails only describe use by hikers.

Both of these projects used the UTAP measurement procedures to collect objective information and the TrailWare software to analyze the data. However, each land management agency made its own choices regarding how and when the UTAP would be used. These particular examples happened to prohibit equestrian or OHV use as determined by the management agencies prior to the UTAP being conducted. However, the UTAP also may be used to evaluate trails for equestrian and OHV use.

We believe that much of the recent misunderstandings have originated because references to UTAP and TrailWare are becoming more widespread (e.g., national awards have recently been received for UTAP from American Trails and the National Park Service). As one person or group describes how they are using UTAP and TrailWare, it is easy for others to misunderstand that the use chosen by that group is the "official" intended or most appropriate use. This is particularly true if several groups talk about using the UTAP and TrailWare for a similar purpose and individuals who have used UTAP for other purposes are not involved in the discussions.

Organizations and agencies that promote a wide range of trail types and uses, such as American Trails or the Federal Highway Administration, have been very supportive of UTAP implementation not because it is anyone's "official policy", but rather because UTAP is (at present) the only objective measurement system with research that demonstrates its accuracy and repeatability.

They recognize that for ALL TRAIL USERS, having objective information about the on-trail conditions ensures a more enjoyable and appropriate trail experience. For example, a person who uses a mountain-bike wheelchair might look for a trail with primarily downhill grades and a width of at least 36 inches. Someone on a mountain bike might prefer a trail with obstructions less than 6 inches in height and a narrow tread less than 24 inches. An equestrian might prefer a trail that has a firm or soft (rather than hard) surface and a minimum width of 60 inches. OHV users may look for a trail with obstructions over 6 inches in height and a width varying from 12 to 72 inches depending on their vehicle of choice. Each of these trail users would have a different definition of the "ideal" trail.

The availability of objective information about the on-trail conditions, data collected using UTAP and analyzed with TrailWare, helps each of these users to identify trails that will provide them with an enjoyable trail experience. We hope the above information helps to clarify what the UTAP is and how it can be used. Our goal is to provide land managers with a reliable assessment tool so they can manage their trails based on accurate, objective information. We welcome the opportunity to provide additional information to you at any time. We would also be interested in hearing directly from groups who feel that UTAP and TrailWare (in their current forms) require modifications or are not appropriate for a particular type of trail.

If you have any questions or would like to contact us about UTAP or TrailWare, please contact Beneficial Designs: trails@beneficialdesigns.com.

May 14, 2003

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