Removing Park Barriers

Recently, a long-running lawsuit over access for the disabled at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area was settled in a landmark agreement that will significantly improve access to the park for thousands with mobility and vision disabilities who visit each year. It is the first comprehensive settlement in the country that will improve accessibility of a federal park system.

Whether you plan for it in advance or adjust your facilities later, accessibility is a big deal. Providing access to those with disabilities isn't just the law, it's also the right thing to do. Federal agencies have aimed to make improvements. In fact, finding ways to make parks, refuges and public lands more accessible is one component of President Obama's America's Great Outdoors initiative. But facilities across the country are also making changes on a smaller scale—and it all adds up to improved access for everyone.

U.S. Forest Service

Even in the rustic environs of the U.S. Forest Service, accessibility is getting greater attention. In 2013, the agency released its 2013 Accessibility Guidebook on Outdoor Recreation and Trails, which updated the agency's direction on providing recreational opportunities accessible to everyone. The agency's streamlined Outdoor Recreation Accessibility Guidelines and Trail Accessibility Guidelines provide guidance to Forest Service units on maximizing accessibility while protecting the unique characteristics of the natural setting of outdoor recreation areas and trails. The guidelines require all new or altered camping units, picnic areas, scenic overlooks, beaches, hiking trails and more to comply with this accessibility direction.

"Americans of all ages and abilities are welcome to enjoy the wide range of outdoor recreation opportunities on the national forests and grasslands across the U.S." said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. "By integrating accessibility into our facilities, visitors can choose the type of outdoor recreation they want to pursue and the setting where that type of recreation is allowed in a way that best works for the individual."

The release of the publication coincided with the release of new outdoor guidelines by the U.S. Access Board, an independent federal agency whose primary mission is accessibility for people with disabilities

The Forest Service has more than 23,000 accessible recreation units, including campsites and picnic areas, and 8,000 accessible recreation buildings. "It is accessibility integrated into the outdoors without changing the setting or the outdoor experience," said Janet Zeller, Forest Service National Accessibility Program Manager. "We don't call them accessible trails, which make one think of flat and paved paths. Instead, trails that comply with the accessibility guidelines look like other trails that blend into the setting, but with a sustainable, firm, stable surface and, where the terrain allows, grades that provide easier passage."

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

In Kempton, Pa., you'll find Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, the world's first refuge for birds of prey. The facility provides a wide range of educational opportunities, scientific research, conservation training and more.

Recently, the sanctuary expanded its education building, and at the same time created a fully accessible connector trail.

Built into the mountain slope, it was important to provide a trail that was not only accessible, but one that could handle stormwater runoff. A bonded wood fiber trail system, offered by Zeager Bros. Inc., was chosen for its many benefits. The product creates a natural, pervious walkway that provides accessibility while requiring little maintenance. It is also an eco-friendly solution.

"Today the new trail looks absolutely beautiful, blends into the natural environment, is low- to no-maintenance, and has helped to address our many concerns with stormwater runoff," said Mary Linkevich of the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association.

Further improvements are coming at the facility, funded via grants from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. One of the projects funded will help build a fully accessible walkway to connect an outdoor amphitheater, the visitor center, the native plant garden and Hawk Mountain Road. The upgrades will support the facility's ongoing effort to serve visitors—an average of 70,000 per year.

Upgrades at the Education Building will support the facility's new "DCNR Classroom," a launching pad for school students and others who participate in guided field trips, and also will make the facility fully accessible while also incorporating green building features such as geothermal heating and cooling.

Plans for the new walkway will improve accessibility to programs, increase safety and create a central gathering area that improves new visitor orientation.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

The Golden Gate National Recreation Area attracts more than 13 million visitors per year. Situated along 75,000 acres of land and water from San Mateo to Marin County, it is the country's largest national park in an urban area and encompasses a range of landmarks, from Alcatraz and the Presidio to the Marin Headlands and Muir Woods.

While the park has long included boardwalks and other paths that may accommodate wheelchairs, it didn't include routes and plans to provide meaningful access to the disabled, according to those who filed the suit. The settlement will provide visitors with mobility and vision disabilities greater access to trails, beaches, facilities, exhibits, publications and visitor's centers. A few highlights include:

  • Wheelchair access to trails at Lands End, Marin Headlands, Mori Point and Muir Woods.
  • Beach access routes at several popular beaches.
  • Beach wheelchairs and seasonal, wheelchair-accessible beach mats at many of the most popular Bay Area beaches.
  • Braille, audio and tactile orientation signs, guides and route maps for visitors with vision impairments.
  • Park staff and volunteer accessibility training and availability to lead guided tours for disabled visitors.
  • Expanded access reviews for new construction and alterations to ensure full access compliance.
  • A dedicated maintenance fund to ensure that existing and new access features are kept in accessible condition.

In addition to these and a host of other required access improvement projects, GGNRA has committed to spend at least $3 million completing other accessibility projects including the construction of a boardwalk at one or more beaches in Marin County, accessible picnicking and restrooms at Rodeo Beach and adding the new Quick Response Code access features to existing wayside exhibits. QR codes allow visitors with smart phones to access the complete information in the exhibit in multiple accessible formats.

"GGNRA contains some of the world's most beautiful and historically significant sites," said Disability Rights Advocates' Executive Director Larry Paradis. "People with disabilities for too long have been excluded from many of the experiences offered by national parks, experiences that many people cherish. These range from watching a sunset from an ocean-side beach, to visiting the redwoods, to walking a trail through wilderness, to visiting historic structures. This settlement provides a model for federal and state parks nationwide to be inclusive of all people in our community."

The case points out the importance of adjusting our definitions of accessibility to include more than just the mobility-impaired. Other disabilities that ought to be considered, whether you're planning a park, a playground, a picnic area or a trail, include vision impairment, cognitive disabilities and more.

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