Dear Sir or Madam:
Please accept the following comments from American Hiking Society on the Architectural Barriers Act Proposed Accessibility Guidelines for Outdoor Developed Areas. American Hiking Society, a national nonprofit organization and long-time partner with federal land management agencies including the Forest Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management, is dedicated to promoting and protecting America’s hiking trails, their surrounding natural areas, and the hiking experience itself. American Hiking Society, our members and member organizations—including many volunteer-based trail maintaining organizations— and the 75 million Americans who hike have a strong interest in the guidelines as they pertain to trails and recreation facilities on federal lands. Additionally, American Hiking volunteers contribute approximately 25,000-30,000 volunteer hours to trails per year through our Volunteer Vacations program, mostly on federal lands. American Hiking volunteers and staff have worked on several projects over the years to build and maintain accessible trails, including a current effort to plan and build a Braille trail in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Although American Hiking Society did not sit on the Regulatory Negotiation Committee on Outdoor Recreation Developed Areas commissioned by the Access Board, American Hiking participated in most of the Reg Neg meetings in the late 1990s. One of American Hiking’s larger and more prominent member organizations—the Appalachian Trail Conservancy—has been a very active participant in the process to develop accessibility guidelines and had a representative serve on the Reg Neg Committee. American Hiking Society endorses the specific comments submitted by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy on the Access Board guidelines.
We strongly agree with the underlying principle that whenever a new trail is being designed or an existing trail is significantly rerouted or reconstructed, accessibility should be considered. However, we also urge the Access Board to ensure the guidelines are reasonable and understandable to the trail organizations and volunteers who will help implement them, and that primitive, backcountry hiking trails retain their natural character. We firmly believe there are numerous trails and sections of trails, both already on the ground and others still on paper that could and should be made accessible to people with disabilities, where appropriate.
We commend the Access Board for its efforts to incorporate input from the trails and recreation community during the development of the guidelines, yet we remain concerned that the guidelines are still very complicated. We strongly suggest that the guidelines include a decision-making flow chart (as in the Forest Service Trail Accessibility Guidelines) or similar process diagram that illustrates how the general exceptions and conditions of departure can be applied in the trail design and construction process. Such a tool would be extremely helpful to land managers as well as partner organizations and their volunteers given the highly technical and complex nature of the guidelines.
The effect of volunteers on trail construction and maintenance varies regionally but must not be underestimated. In some areas, volunteer-based organizations have taken complete responsibility for trail-building, and in many cases, the volunteers are more knowledgeable than the thinly-stretched public land managers. We are concerned that overly complex regulations could have the effect of reducing the contributions of trail maintaining organizations and volunteers.
Following are specific comments on the Access Board Questions:
Question 1: We support the exceptions-based approach as reasonable and key to enhancing accessibility while recognizing and adapting to the varying conditions in the outdoors versus the built environment. As indicated above, however, we urge the Access Board, as well as other federal agencies, to take additional measures to simplify the understanding of the guidelines among both agency staff and private sector partners. This should include greater emphasis and resources toward education and training.
We also support the applicability of the guidelines solely to trails or trail segments that connect to designated trailheads or an accessible trail. The language in T202.1 should be clarified to reflect the requirements for connecting to designated trailheads or an accessible trail.
Question 2: We support Condition 4 which permits specific exceptions to the technical provisions for trails where compliance would not be feasible due to terrain or prevailing construction practices. We believe the word “practicable” should also be used in this condition to reflect that there may be instances where compliance could be met but only through extraordinary efforts that may result in adverse impacts to the natural setting or recreation experience or place undue, unrealistic hardship on the trail builders.
Question 3: The final Access Board guidelines should not use the International Symbol of Accessibility (ISA) as it may lead the public to expect the same degree of accessibility as in the built environment. Instead, land managers should be provided with examples of different approaches to signage that can be adapted as appropriate to help users determine if a trail meets their skills and desired experience.
Question 9: We believe the guidance regarding firmness and stability should remain advisory, not as a requirement, given the highly variable nature of surface conditions, even on short trail segments.
Question 14: We do not believe that elements (e.g. benches, picnic tables, toilet rooms) located on inaccessible trails should be required to be accessible. However, we support language encouraging managers to consider accessibility of such elements even where the trail is not accessible. Where elements are provided along trails that do not meet accessibility guidelines, there should be no requirement to connect the elements with an Outdoor Recreation Access Route (ORAR). Additionally, ORARs should not be required in areas that are not developed recreation sites.
Question 19: We urge clarification of the definition of “open drainage structures.”
Question 20: As indicated above, we believe that where elements are provided along trails that do not meet accessibility guidelines, there should be no requirement to connect the elements with an ORAR.
Question 21: The final guidelines should include a grade/slope exception for ORARs in alterations of existing sites.
Question 25: As indicated in our response to Question 3, the final Access Board guidelines should not use the ISA, and we believe land managers should be provided with examples of different approaches to signage that can be adapted as appropriate to help users determine if a trail meets their skills and desired experience. Additional guidance can be provided by using the Forest Service Trail Accessibility Guidelines (FSTAG) as an example, which require information to be posted that is useful to all trail users, including maximum grade, cross slope, minimum width, and so forth.
Question 26: We support greater flexibility regarding the vertical clearance guidelines and believe the final guidelines should include an additional exception for those instances where placement of a warning barrier is not feasible or practicable.
Definitions: We believe more detail and definitions addressing the unique aspects of trails are needed in the final Access Board proposed guidelines. For example, the proposed guidelines only include 3 definitions related to trails while there are 32 definitions related to trails in the FSTAG. The definitions for alteration and for maintenance of trails in the original Regulatory Negotiation Committee’s 1999 Report must be included specifically for trails in the definitions section of the final Access Board guidelines: “Trail Alteration: An action that changes the original purpose, intent, or design of the trail.” “Trail Maintenance: Maintenance is routine or periodic repair of trails or trail segments to restore them to the standards to which they were originally designed and built.” Those original report definitions are clear and applicable to trails.
The final Access Board guidelines must also integrate the Interagency Trail Data Standards terminology, definitions, and trail-management concepts of trail classes, designed use, and designated use, including within the Conditions of Departure, so the final Access Board guidelines are useable within the federal agencies’ trails structure.
General Exceptions: The second General Exception no longer states what the Regulatory Negotiation Committee Report intended. As currently written, it is confusing and appears to imply that only 15 percent of the length of a trail ever needs to be accessible. The final Access Board guidelines must use the original Regulatory Negotiation Committee’s language for the second General Exception.
The proposed guidelines will have a considerable impact on hiking trails throughout the nation and will influence the manner in which volunteers and federal agency staff approach trail and campsite design and construction. We appreciate and respect the significant efforts to improve access for disabled persons and urge the Access Board to ensure the guidelines are reasonable, practical, and applicable in a manner that preserves the natural setting and recreational experience for current and future generations. It is particularly crucial that the guidelines be clear and understandable to the trail organizations and volunteers who will help implement them. Without these partners and volunteers, many trails would not be built, nor would they continue to be maintained.
Thank you for your consideration of our comments.
Vice President for Programs
American Hiking Society
1422 Fenwick Lane
Silver Spring, MD 20910
301-565-6704 x 205