I submit the following comments on behalf of the Partnership for the National Trails System (PFNTS). The Partnership is a tax-exempt nonprofit organization comprised of 29 organizations that work directly with the USDA-Forest Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management to sustain America=s 25 national scenic and historic trails. The 29 member organizations of the Partnership have more than 75,000 individual members. Thank you for the opportunity to participate in the planning process for the proposed accessibility guidelines for accessible trails and associated outdoor facilities.
The Partnership believes that the USDA Forest Service Trail Access Guidelines (FSTAG) adopted in 2004 provides a good model for applying accessibility guidelines for primitive and other trails on all Federal lands. Among the aspects of FSTAG we encourage you to adopt and include in your Guidelines are the much more complete definitions of trails and trail related settings, features, activities, etc. and the “process overview” or decision-making flow chart that illustrates for the trail designer or land manager how the general exceptions and conditions for exception from specific technical requirements can be applied in the trail design and trail construction process.
The Interagency Trail Data Standards (ITDS) have been adopted by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Reclamation. The ITDS include standardized trail terminology, definitions, and standardized management concepts including Trail Classes, Designed Uses and Managed Uses. The Partnership (PFNTS) strongly urges you to integrate the ITDS terminology, definitions and trail-management concepts of trail classes, designed use and designated use, including those within the “Conditions of Departure,” into the final Access Board guidelines in order for them to be useable within the Federal agencies’ trails administration and management systems.
We also encourage the Access Board to adopt guidelines that may be readily understood and followed by the volunteers who build and maintain primitive footpaths such as the national scenic trails or conserve the remaining sections of national historic trails.
We are troubled by the ambiguity of the definitions for “alteration” and for “maintenance” of trails in the current version of the Access Board guidelines and are concerned that this ambiguity will result in much confusion and misguided effort in the day-to-day care of our trails. We urge you to adopt the definitions pertaining to trails in the original Regulatory Negotiation Committee’s 1999 Report (page 6) instead. Specifically we support using these definitions 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.
General Exception(s): We are also concerned about the differences between the USDA Forest Service’s FSTAG provisions related to general exceptions and those provided in the Access Board guidelines. Whereas FSTAG describes two different general exceptions, the Access Board guidelines describe only one (with five “sub-conditions”). Regarding the general exception described in the Access Board guidelines (T303.2), we find the fifth condition (or “sub-condition”) to be quite confusing. The language states “the trail is not required to comply with any of the technical provisions in T303 for more than 15 percent of the length of the trail.” This exception arises from earlier discussions by members of the Regulatory Negotiation Committee around what was commonly referred to as the “what’s the point exception.” In other words, it was intended to address situations in which multiple conditions for exception or departure from certain technical provisions are encountered along a given trail section to such an extent that it would serve no useful purpose to attempt to meet other technical provisions because, realistically, the affected trail segment would never be truly “accessible.” However, as currently worded in the guidelines, the language could be interpreted to mean that only 15 percent of any trail segment is required to meet the various technical provisions. The language here should be rewritten to be consistent with the intent.
Regarding specific questions posed by the Access Board in its Federal Register notice we offer the following recommendations.
Question 1: The Partnership (PFNTS) supports the use of the exception based approach similar to those established in the Forest Service guidelines (FSTAG). We recommend a revision of T202 to clarify that newly designed and constructed trails and also altered trails only need to meet accessibility standards if those trails or trail segments are connected to accessible trails or trailheads.
Question 2: We support Condition 4, which provides for exceptions from the technical provisions where compliance would not be feasible due to terrain or prevailing construction practices. We also support the inclusion of the word “practicable” to further clarify that the use of the term “not feasible” should not be construed as “not do-able.” There are many instances, particularly in primitive settings, in which compliance with a given technical provision could be met but only through extraordinary efforts that could seriously undermine the character of the recreational setting, impose adverse environmental impacts, require unrealistic outlays of resources beyond the means of the trail builder, and/or violate the recreational expectations of the visitor. In those instances, while compliance may be do-able, it is not practicable.
Question 3: We do not support the suggested use of the International Symbol of Accessibility for trails that comply with the technical standards for the reasons cited in the Notice: Such a designation could lead a visitor to falsely conclude that the trail segment provides the same degree of accessibility as the built environment, which rarely will be the case along many trails, especially those in the backcountry. Instead, the Access Board guidelines should require that information be posted that is useful to all trail users in determining which trail best meets their skills and available resources, including maximum grade, cross slope, minimum width and so forth, as detailed in the FSTAG 7.3.10.
Question 9: Stability and firmness of the trail surface should be addressed as an advisory notice rather than be a requirement for accessible trails. Trail surface conditions can vary widely, even on a relatively short trail segment, due to weather conditions, seasonal fluctuations, degree of maintenance, etc.—especially along trail segments that rely on natural - soil or grass - surfacing, which is the norm along most trails. The varying trail surfaces would make measurement of trail surfaces impractical for volunteers and land managers. The guidelines on this topic should be written for practical application without equipment or advanced computations by trail volunteers who likely would be responsible for these measurements. We recommend the guidance currently provided in the USDA Forest Service’s FSTAG.
Question 13: In general, we believe that it is appropriate to provide greater flexibility in tolerances affecting trails and certain elements in outdoor environments by prescribing tolerance ranges. In fact, a number of the technical specifications for trails and certain other elements provided in the current guidelines already are written as “up to a maximum of,” while in other instances exceptions are provided such that some flexibility on the part of the designer and builder is permitted. For example, tread cross slope can be up to 5 percent maximum, so a designer may specify that the trail should be built with a cross slope in a particular area of 3 to 5 percent in order to provide for adequate drainage. The builder then has the flexibility to construct the trail within that range. It should be understood, however, that, in an outdoor environment, with the passage of time and based on the frequency or volume of use, the cross slope may increase to greater than 5 percent. This reality illustrates one of the differences between built versus outdoor environments: in outdoor environments conditions often change over time.
Question 14: While it may be appropriate to recommend or encourage access compliance of trail facilities along non-accessible trails, we strongly oppose making this a requirement or requiring that the trail connecting such elements must meet the standards of an outdoor recreation access route. Providing accessible facilities on non-accessible trails make it increasingly difficult for volunteers and land managers with ever diminishing resources to work towards access compliance on non-accessible trails.
Question 20: We strongly 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 outdoor recreation access route. Such a requirement would prove overly burdensome and impractical in many backcountry settings and might actually create unintentional disincentives for managers to provide accessible elements. We believe it would be clearer to state throughout the guidelines document that, where elements are provided along trails, whether or not such elements are accessible, they are not required to be connected by an outdoor recreation access route. An example might be the language contained in the USDA Forest Service’s FSTAG, where it is noted that the pathways connecting certain elements, or what the Forest Service terms “associated constructed features” (e.g. shelters, privies), are not considered to be outdoor recreation access routes.
Question 21: In general we believe the prescribed standards for outdoor recreation access routes with respect to slope, cross slope, surface, etc., while perhaps appropriate for highly developed camp sites or picnic areas, are far too stringent to be applicable in the vast majority of backcountry or remote settings. It is for that reason that we support Exception 1 under T204.2: “Elements located along trails shall not be required to be connected by an outdoor recreation access route.” Even given this exception, in those rare instances in which a camp site is accessed by a trail that meets accessibility guidelines and the elements provided at the site also meet accessibility standards, the designer/builder still would have the option of connecting those elements with a pathway that meets or closely approximates the standards for an outdoor recreation access route.
Question 25: Signage requirements for accessible trails should not exceed those of the USDA Forest Service’s FSTAG. The Forest Service requires that signage include information describing typical and maximum trail grade, typical and maximum cross slope, minimum clear tread width, surface type and firmness, and obstacles and should clarify that such information reflects the condition of the trail when it was constructed. Even these modest requirements could prove burdensome to land managers given that the vast majority of trails have only minimal to nonexistent signage but at least the Forest Service recognizes that certain conditions such as cross slope and especially surface firmness can change over time—even from day to day—as a result of use levels, weathering, storm events, and other factors. The more detailed the required information becomes, the more burdensome it will be for Federal land managers and their partners to monitor and maintain the information in an accurate state and the greater the likelihood will be of misleading the would-be trail visitor.
Question 26: The present guidelines prescribe an 80-inch vertical clearance along trails but permit an exception provided that a barrier is placed to warn persons with visual impairments of reductions in clearance. As noted in the Notice language, this represented a compromise reached by committee members. The Forest Service provides appropriately greater flexibility. Like the committee, the Forest Service allows for a departure from the 80-inch rule provided a warning barrier is installed. However, the Forest Service also acknowledges that there may be certain situations in which the placement of a barrier is impractical, such as where the trail passes through caves or through certain types of tree canopies. In those instances the Forest Service permits an exception from the requirement for the placement of a warning barrier. We support greater flexibility with respect to the vertical clearance guidelines and we believe an additional exception is warranted for those instances in which placement of warning barriers are not feasible or practicable. It also should be understood that, while the maintenance standard for a given trail may strive for an 80-inch vertical clearance, such clearances can be transitory given snow loads and other factors that can have the effect of reducing vertical clearance.
Again, thank you for the opportunity to comment on the accessibility guidelines. The Partnership for the National Trails System and its 29 member organizations share the desire of the Access Board to improve accessibility for persons with disabilities to outdoor environments including along trails, in campsites and other trail related facilities. Over the past several years, the staffs and volunteers of our trail organizations have gained experience in applying many of the guidelines along new or altered segments of the national scenic trails and trails related to national historic trails. We will continue to incorporate accessible design in our trail design and trail construction processes and to strive wherever feasible to provide for improved access along appropriate segments of the national scenic and historic trails and within related facilities.
Partnership for the National Trails System
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