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The Access Board has posted for 60 days of Public Review their Draft Final Outdoor Areas Accessibility Guidelines for developed areas such as campgrounds, picnic areas, etc and also for trails.

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US Forest Service response to proposed Accessibility Guidelines

Comments from James Bedwell for U.S. Forest Service on Access Board Draft Final Rule of Accessibility Guidelines for Outdoor Areas


Overall, the Access Board has simplified the guidelines’ content. However, some important specifics have been lost through the simplification process. To ensure the guidelines can be applied effectively to trails on the ground a few critical concerns must be addressed. The Forest Service has three remaining concerns related to the lack of guidance for necessary decision making and reporting involved in actual implementation of the guidelines on the ground.

photo of girl putting on bike helmet

Cross slope and rudnning slope; From Forest Service
Accessibility Guidebook on Outdoor Recreation and Trails


1. Need to Define Feasible

The Draft Final relies heavily on the direction that, if there is a Condition that allows for an Exception from a technical provision, that provision is to be applied “to the maximum extent feasible”. However the term “feasible” is not defined. “Feasible” should be defined as “able to be completed within the limits of the applicable Conditions”.

The term “to the maximum extent feasible” has been long used in the federal accessibility guidelines in relation to buildings, including for historic structures also where platform lifts are allowed rather than elevators, on highly modified accessible routes and on golf course’s where one is teeing off. “Technically infeasible,” as the standard applied to those types of facilities and sites, is defined in the ADA/ABAAG as referring to actions such as the removal of load-bearing walls.

It is important the Access Board guidelines recognize trails in the often undeveloped outdoor environment are very different than buildings or golf courses. Using a “feasible” standard, the same as that for buildings (i.e.,“technically infeasible” as the opposite of “feasible”), just doesn’t work on hiking trails.

In the outdoor environment the program based “fundamentally alter” standard is a far better measure of how much change is too much before the experience, the reason a person goes to that place, is fundamentally altered. Using “technically infeasible” as the standard to determine whether meeting a requirement is NOT “to the maximum extent feasible” does not work for trails. Crisscrossing a mountainside with switch-backed ramping would be “technically” feasible in that it would be possible to construct. However, it would definitely result in a fundamental alteration to the setting and therefore to that program.

The only explanation for the use of the term “feasible” is within a preamble comment, on page 5, (not in the guidelines themselves) stating in an example “to the maximum extent feasible means that the portion of the trail can depart from the technical provision for running slope to the extent necessary to address the condition”. What does that mean?
At what point is it appropriate to not pursue a technical provision because it will produce a fundamental change? In the previous outdoor drafts since 1999 (Reg.Neg. and NPRM) and in the Forest Service guidelines, there was no measure based on technical feasibility / possibilities because with enough money, anything is possible. Those previous guidelines worked well on the ground and used only the Conditions and the measure of fundamental alteration to define when the change should and when it should not be made. IF that is what is meant by this Access Board language, then that needs to be stated clearly in the guidelines.

By not clearly defining “feasible” in the context of trails, these guidelines pit technical feasibility against fundamental alteration as laid out in the Conditions. The result will be confusion and the downside will be felt in the outdoor environment. A clear definition of the term “feasible” within the Final guidelines themselves is essential. The opposite of feasible must not be “technically infeasible”. “Feasible” should be defined as “able to be completed within the limits of the applicable Conditions.”


2. Retain General Exceptions for Trails.

As representative of the U.S. Forest Service, I served on the 1997-1999 Regulatory Negotiation Committee which drafted the original guidelines upon which the current draft final is based. As is the standard for all facility accessibility guidelines, the Regulatory Negotiation Committee was charged to develop accessibility guidelines based on independent use by a person who uses a wheelchair or similar mobility device as the most difficult footprint to be addressed by the guidelines for clear passage and so forth. In addition the goal was to blend accessibility into the natural setting while ensuring that the sites developed provided a meaningful rather than a token recreational experience for that individual.

For trails this was a particularly difficult charge. There was much discussion as to how the guidelines could be implemented within that mandate and not result in piecemealed accessibility on otherwise non-accessible trails. To provide the necessary guidance for those decisions two general exceptions for trails were developed.

The first general exception identified combinations of factors and conditions that would result in extreme barriers to most independent access for a person who uses a wheelchair and beyond which requiring compliance with the trail provisions was not reasonable. The 2nd general exception defined the point at which so many departures from the technical provisions were necessary that, due to terrain or other natural features, the resulting accessibility would be so piecemealed that no meaningful access on the trail would be provided. The Forest Service developed an Overview that allows all of those considerations to be evaluated when the flag line was being laid out for the new or altered trail. That overview is in both the FSTAG and in the 2006 Accessibility Guidebook.

Those two exceptions have provided clear guideposts that have proved to be helpful for the past ten years as trail builders and designers have used the 1999 draft and /or the FSTAG as best practice for their trails. In the 2007 NPRM comments, no one requested a change in those two General Exceptions for trails. The only comments regarding those trail exceptions were that in the NPRM the 2nd General Exception had been rewritten and it should be returned to the original language in the Reg.Neg. to continue to provide decision guideposts for the trail designer/manager. The Access Board staff has instead deleted both of the General Exceptions entirely.

As currently written, if there is a Condition present, the trail is to comply with the guidelines “to the maximum extent feasible”. As previously highlighted, the term “feasible” is not defined, so there is no guidance provided as to how much change to the trail environment is the maximum “feasible”. If the trail designer/manager determines that due the presence of one or more a Conditions it is not “feasible” to apply the guidelines to the entire trail, the trail designer/manager is required to document, sign, and file their rationale in the project file and also to file a Notification with the Access Board.

While that sounds like an easy solution, the Forest Service is concerned because all the guideposts in the previous versions that helped the trail builder/designer know when enough is enough, the “what’s the point” guidance, has been deleted. Now the trail designer/builder is on their own, however their decision will be legally reviewable. This problem is avoidable and should be addressed.

This deletion from the guidelines, with no replacement by other guideposts, leaves the trail building community in jeopardy. The Access Board has the legal authority to require the trail be rebuilt if a complaint is filed by any member of the public as to the lack of accessibility on the trail if they determine it is not in compliance with the applicable accessibility guidelines. The Access Board staff will decide if the trail builder/designers decision to not make the entire trail comply with guidelines was or was not "reasonable,” based only on the Access Board staff’s judgment. There are now no other guideposts by which to make that assessment of compliance evaluation. With the deletion of these two general exceptions, the trail and beach access route guidelines are the only ABA guidelines without specific criteria.

In summary, the Forest Service supports the process developed by the Regulatory Negotiation Committee and currently contained in the two General Exceptions, per the Regulatory Negotiation Committee 1999 Final Report. This process and the two General Exceptions include specific data based guidance as to how much change is too much change. The FSTAG Overview process is based on this guidance. Working through this process and consistent with this guidance, the trail designer/manager gathers data during the layout of the trail, reaches a final decision based on his/her evaluation of on the ground information, and clearly cites, in documentation, the specific findings that led to her/his decision. The final decision is then based on data determined to be consistent with applicable guidance and within the bounds of reasonability. We should not rely on a proposed simple challengeable judgment call by the trail designer/manager that too much change would occur on the ground if the technical provisions were to be applied to the entire trail.


3. Duplicative Notification Process

Notification will be required to be sent to the Access Board when the guidelines will not be applied to the entire length of a new or altered trail or beach access route. The Board states the purpose is so they “can monitor situations where the exceptions for trails and beach access routes result in exempting an entire trail or beach access route” (F201.4.1). The Forest Service supports the Access Board’s gathering of information about trails that are 1) new or altered, 2) have a designed use of hiker/pedestrian, and 3) are connected either directly to a trailhead or to a currently accessible trail, where the guidelines can’t be applied, in order to, as the Access Board has stated, use the information provided by the Federal agencies to develop additional guidance on exempting entire trails and beach access routes.

However, the Forest Service is concerned because the guidelines do not explain how this Notification process differs from the also required “Documentation” process (1017.1 Exception 1) for such trails and routes. It is unclear why it not sufficient to simply require that same Documentation also be sent to the Access Board without creating a second separate Access Board Notification form and process. The documentation process as described in the FSTAG (section 7.1.3) would be sufficient for both purposes. Clear direction needs to be added to the Final Access Board guidelines regarding a simplified single process to serve both as Documentation for the trail entities’ files and to also be sent to the Access Board for their Notification.


Letter of transmittal with USFS comments on Draft Final Accessibility Guidelines

December 9, 2009

Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board
Office of Technical and Information Services
1331 F Street, NW, Suite 1000
Washington, DC 20004-1111

The U.S. Forest Service strongly supports the need for accessibility guidelines that specifically address developed outdoor areas. People recreating on the National Forest System (NFS) lands are looking for a range of opportunities, from highly developed areas with paving and hot showers, to remote areas where there is little to no infrastructure. Guidelines are needed to ensure accessibility is maximized where possible, without changing the outdoor recreation experience and the natural environment. .

Since the June 2007 publication of the Access Board’s Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) for Accessibility Guidelines for Outdoor Areas and the subsequent submission of comments, the Access Board has consulted with a group of representatives of the Federal land management agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service (Forest Service). This group has reviewed the various revisions developed by the Access Board and has submitted comments to the Board. The Forest Service appreciates these opportunities to provide a perspective on the level of guidance needed for on the ground implementation of accessibility requirements.

The Forest Service has significant experience integrating accessibility into the construction and alteration of outdoor recreation areas. In 1993, universal design of outdoor recreation facilities became the policy of the Forest Service. Since 2006, on the ground implementation of this policy has been guided by the Forest Service Outdoor Recreation Accessibility Guidelines (FSORAG) and the Forest Service Trail Accessibility Guidelines (FSTAG) across the National Forest System (NFS) as well as working with trail partners across the U.S. to implement these guidelines.

193 million acres of the NFS receive over 178 million visits each year. Through our National Visitor Use Monitoring program, we know 7.7 percent of groups (i.e., parties of more than one person) that visit National Forests and Grasslands include at least one person who has a disability. Of those groups, 77.7 percent say they have found Forest Service facilities to be accessible. We believe this excellent statistic, which we strive to continually improve, is the direct result of our universal design policy and its implementation through the FSORAG and FSTAG.

It is from this perspective of on-the-ground implementation that the Forest Service shares the attached comments concerning the Access Board Draft Final Rule on Accessibility Guidelines for Outdoor Areas.


Director of Recreation and Heritage Resources

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