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The Universal Trail Assessment Process... it's not just for accessibility any more

Several states have started programs to train volunteers to conduct UTAP assessments throughout their state.

By Mike Passo, Board of Directors of American Trails

"UTAP reinforces the concepts of good trail design."

The Universal Trail Assessment Process (UTAP) has come into its own as a land management tool rather than simply an accessibility tool. In this expanded role, the UTAP program provides the country with a consistent way of looking at trails.

UTAP gives land managers a common language by which they can communicate with the public and each other. It also reinforces the concepts of good trail design, and provides a vehicle by which trail managers can assess the effectiveness of that design on the users of the trail.

Many of you have heard of UTAP, but may not understand what it is. Beneficial Designs created and developed UTAP back in the mid 1990's. American Trails supports UTAP because it is the only objective trail assessment process that has proven accuracy and reliability. Land managers benefit from having accurate and reliable measurements that clearly describe the conditions on their trails. Accurate information about trail conditions enhances the safety and enjoyment of all trail users.

A lot has changed since the first training was done nine years ago. The concept of universal design for all users has grown in popularity and we now have proposed guidelines from the Access Board for accessible recreation trails, outdoor recreation access routes, and beach access routes. One of the most significant changes has been in the way that many agencies are using the UTAP tool.

American Trails is in the process of surveying State Trail Administrators from all 50 states to determine the depth and breadth of understanding of the UTAP program. Of the land managers who are conducting UTAP assessments on a regular basis, nine out of ten indicate that their primary motivation for doing the assessments was for land management purposes rather than determining accessibility. For example, UTAP has been effectively used by state and local agencies to:

  • Inventory and prioritize trail maintenance projects
  • Determine trail project compliance with grant funding requirements
  • Map trail systems
  • Aid search and rescue operations

Over the course of my conversations with State Trail Administrators, I have learned some excellent ideas about how American Trails can improve the usefulness of this tool. It has also become increasingly clear that there are misconceptions regarding UTAP. I would like to address a few of those misconceptions.

Misconception #1: UTAP is primarily a trails accessibility tool and is irrelevant because my trails cannot meet the proposed accessibility standards.

UTAP has much greater value than simply assessing trails that may be considered "accessible" to people with disabilities. The goal of a trail manager should be to make any given trail (including back country trails) as safe, user-friendly, and activity-appropriate as the environment will allow. For most users accessibility is more about information and knowledge than it is about gentle grades and paved trails. Every person is different, and therefore has different needs and desires. By providing each individual with accurate and consistent information about a trail, they can each make decisions for themselves whether an experience is accessible to them or not.

Misconception #2: UTAP is a great thing to do some day, but there are higher priority issues that must be dealt with before my agency gets to that point.

UTAP assessments need not be mutually exclusive of other important land management tasks. Land management agencies often have no problem sending out crews to conduct routine maintenance or map trails using GPS. Agencies using UTAP in the field have proven that a well-trained pair of people can conduct a UTAP assessment while these other activities are being conducted, with very little additional time or personnel. In the future, a High Efficiency Trail Assessment Process (HETAP) cart that requires only one person to operate will be available to make a UTAP assessment blend with many other trail management tasks.

Misconception #3: UTAP requires a lot of people and a very long time to complete.

Highly trained crews have conducted UTAP assessment at a rate of one mile an hour. Several states have combined UTAP with other land management tasks, and have started programs to train volunteers to conduct UTAP assessments throughout their state. There is a broad population of potential volunteers, such as retired people, students seeking school credit, scouts seeking service projects, and service organizations.

The Federal Highway Administration has long been a supporter of the Universal Trail Assessment Process, and through American Trails, FHWA provides funding to offer the UTAP workshop to State Trail Administrators or their designees. Additional training opportunities are being developed.

At the conclusion of the survey of State Trail Administrators, American Trails will publish a report of the findings that will include some of the excellent ideas put forward for improving the usefulness of the UTAP program and exactly how American Trails will implement those ideas.

March 4, 2005

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