OFFICIAL CORRESPONDENCE SENT VIA ELECTRONIC MAIL
(No hard copy to follow)
United States Department of the Interior
NATIONAL PARK SERVICE
Ice Age & North Country
National Scenic Trails
700 Rayovac Drive
Madison, Wisconsin 53711-2468
October 17, 2007
Mr. Bill Botten
Office of Technical and Information Services
Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board
1331 F Street, NW., Suite 1000
Washington, DC 20004-111
Subject: Docket No. 2007-02; Comments on Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board Accessibility Guidelines for Outdoor Developed Areas
Dear Mr. Botten:
We have reviewed the proposed Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board) Accessibility Guidelines for Outdoor Developed Areas as they may affect the Ice Age and North Country National Scenic Trails (NSTs). We have the following comments.
The Ice Age and North Country NSTs are congressionally-authorized long-distance trails (1,200 miles and 4,600 miles, respectively) patterned after the renowned Appalachian NST (2,174 miles). They traverse a variety of Federal, state, local, and private lands. The majority of the length of both trails lies in rural or semi-primitive settings. Some portions pass through small communities. Occasionally, they pass through or near a large city.
The design standards used by the National Park Service (NPS) and its partners result in trails that are typically 18-24 inches wide, with approximately 12 inches of cleared vegetation on either side. The trail tread is usually native soil or mowed native grasses. Typical grades range up to 10 percent, with sections of 20 percent grade permitted for stretches up to 100 feet. Occasionally, the terrain necessitates exceeding these limits. Bridges, boardwalks, puncheon, and turnpikes are used to traverse streams and wetlands when it is necessary to cross such features. Annual maintenance includes trimming vegetation above and along the sides of the trails, mowing through grassy areas, and repairs to the tread, bridges, boardwalks, puncheon, and signs.
These trails are sought out by hikers for the solitude, natural experience, and challenge of the trail. Hikers and backpackers value the primitive nature of the design and construction of these trails. Amenities are often limited or non-existent, but primitive (pit toilets) or modern facilities are sometimes available when the trails connect to developed recreation sites or communities.
Consideration of accessibility guidelines for trails has been ongoing since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. We have monitored these proposals and have commented when opportunities were provided because these guidelines have the potential for far-reaching effects on the Ice Age and North Country NSTs, both in terms of how the trails are designed, constructed, and maintained, and the type of experiences they provide to hikers and backpackers. Such guidelines could change the essential function and intended purpose of these trails. While we embrace the objectives of improved accessibility for all Americans, it must be realized that these changes come at a cost — not only the cost of more extensive development and larger trail structures, but also the cost of a larger footprint on the environment, a larger commitment from the volunteers who build and maintain the trails, and larger government involvement to ensure compliance with the guidelines.
We have previously reviewed and commented on two draft versions of the outdoor recreation guidelines being developed by the Access Board’s Regulatory Negotiation Committee (Committee) as they address trails, especially simple footpaths in rural and semi-primitive areas. This is the setting and character of the vast majority of both the Ice Age and North Country NSTs.
We have also reviewed and commented on the U.S. Forest Service Trails Accessibility Guidelines (FSTAG) which were finalized in May 2006. Our experience in learning about, reviewing, and analyzing both sets of guidelines over the past several years leads us to the clear conclusion that the FSTAG is a better set of guidelines for maximizing the accessibility of trails without bringing about drastic changes to the setting and character of our NSTs — to the essential function and intended purpose of these trails.
The Forest Service based its guidelines on the 1999 draft of the Committee’s outdoor recreation guidelines, which also served as the basis for the current Access Board Proposed Rule. However, the Access Board guidelines, if adopted without further changes, would leave certain issues unclear and, depending on how they are interpreted, could lead to changes to these trails detrimental to their character, essential function, and intended purpose. In part, this is due to a lack of definition of terms in the proposed guidelines. The Accessibility Guidelines for Outdoor Developed Areas define only three trail-related terms; the FSTAG defines 32 trail-related terms. Additionally, the FSTAG specifically defines certain terms, such as “alteration,” within the specific context of trails. The definition in the proposed Access Board Accessibility Guidelines may work well for buildings and interior spaces; it will not work well for trails. The ambiguity of this term alone, as it may be interpreted and applied to trails, could have serious adverse impacts on the character and setting of simple footpaths, and change the experiences that they provide to trail users.
Consequently, we supported adoption of the FSTAG by the Forest Service and their integration into Forest Service Manual 2350 regarding trails. We believe these guidelines are more reasonable in their treatment of trail accessibility than the Access Board guidelines now under public review and comment.
Some of the points which form the basis of our differing position on the two sets of guidelines, and why we favor the FSTAG, are the following:
Question 1 in the Proposed Rule asks whether any of the approaches applying different provisions to, for example, “front” country and “back” country trails, should be reconsidered. (Question 14 also touches this issue.) At one point in the Committee’s work, use of the Forest Service’s Recreation Opportunity Spectrum (ROS) as a basis for different provisions was considered. The trail design and accessibility guidelines we and our partners have been using on the Ice Age and North Country NSTs were generally based on the ROS and we regretted the decision of the Committee to abandon use of the ROS as a basis for different guidelines and technical provisions. However, the FSTAG’s approach of having one set of guidelines, but incorporating consideration for Trail Class, designed and managed use, etc. is in fact, in our opinion, an even better approach than having different provisions. So our answer to Question 1 is that if the FSTAG could be adopted in lieu of the Access Board Guidelines, we would not favor reconsideration of any of those approaches. However, viewing the Accessibility Guidelines proposed in this rule, we believe reconsideration of different provisions for various settings of trails is needed if they are to be realistically used and applied.
For these overarching reasons, we believe the FSTAG is superior to and more realistic than the Access Board Accessibility Guidelines as they pertain to trails. Because the FSTAG more nearly reflects the “real world,” we believe compliance with the guidelines, both inside and outside national forest areas, would be more likely than with the Access Board Accessibility Guidelines. The Access Board would do well to propose and subsequently adopt separate accessibility guidelines for trails that are identical to the FSTAG.
We summarize our comments by stating what is undoubtedly already clear from the foregoing — we believe the FSTAG is a superior set of accessibility guidelines for trails and we recommend that the Access Board adopt the FSTAG in lieu of the portions of its proposed guidelines and technical provisions relating to trails. While the two sets of guidelines are based on the same 1999 Committee draft, the FSTAG exhibits a greater degree of insight into the “real world” of trails and their needs, uses and defines trail terminology already in common usage among Federal Agencies, uses words that more accurately convey the accessibility guidelines and how they are to be applied to trails, and has features that will assist in minimizing changes in the character of trails while facilitating the application of accessibility guidelines to trails.
We appreciate the opportunity to provide these comments. Questions about these comments can be directed to Superintendent Tom Gilbert, Ice Age NST Manager Pam Schuler, or North Country NST Manager Fred Szarka at 608-441-5610.
/s/ Thomas L. Gilbert