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Archive for Monday, November 27, 2006

Making nature accessible

Few public parks disabled-friendly

November 27, 2006

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— Doug Conklin used the hand rims to propel his lightweight wheelchair up the gravel path through pine forest. He was breathing hard by the time the trail from the boat dock branched off toward several new log lean-tos.

"I'll tell you what: Pushing up this thing, I won't have to go to the gym tonight," joked the broad-shouldered Conklin, visiting John Dillon Park in the central Adirondacks in September from his home in suburban Kansas City, Mo.

The hard-packed gravel trail overlooks Grampus Lake in the 200-acre wilderness park, built entirely for people with disabilities and their companions. It opened in June about 100 miles north of Albany.

Conklin, 53, talked about returning next summer for a few nights. Firewood was neatly stacked by the lean-tos, the hearths showing little evidence of use, which annoyed him.

"People go the extra mile and do something good, and they don't use it," he said, noting a tendency of many disabled people to stay around the comfort zone of home. Paralyzed since a 1973 car crash, he drove alone to upstate New York to visit friends.

While federal laws have guaranteed handicapped access to the outdoors at federal, state and municipal land for almost two decades, advocates and officials say privately owned Dillon Park is exceptional.

Many public parks have wheelchair-accessible rest rooms, designated handicapped parking spots, a few campsites with an asphalt pad and at least one short paved trail.

At Maine's Acadia, for example, the Web site lists wild gardens with packed gravel paths then six more trails for "the adventurous and hardy" with detailed descriptions. Its beach link shows good accessibility to Echo Lake, but 31 steps that make Sand Beach inaccessible to wheelchair users.

And the deep backcountry of the nation's parks, often protected wilderness without paving, ATVs or planes, is more elusive.

"When I look at it over the course of 25 years there's been huge progress," said Greg Lais, whose Minneapolis-based nonprofit Wilderness Inquiry has taken about 50,000 disabled clients on backcountry trips since 1978, often on federal land.

"Many people need to know there's an accessible thing there or they would never even come out," Lais said.

Located in a 15,800-acre forest owned by International Paper Co., protected from development through an easement with the state and operated by Paul Smith's College, Dillon Park is open from May through September. In its first season, it had 300 users, about 30 of whom spent at least one night, manager Stephen Cobb said. Only four of seven lean-tos have ramps, since the park is also meant for people who are blind, deaf or have other physical or developmental disabilities.

"Some people are a little leery," Cobb said. But staff will help with campfires, canoes and kayaks, fishing or rides on the pontoon boat, and Cobb said he can see usage growing. Two more lean-tos at their "backwoods" site, at the end of a 1.5-mile trail to Handsome Pond, are expected to open next summer. Wide handicapped-accessible outhouses stand at each campsite.

There's no swimming - the lake has submerged hazards and no budget for lifeguards - but there is a public beach four miles away on Long Lake.

In July, New York's Department of Environmental Conservation opened the 241-acre Scaroon Manor Recreation Area on Schroon Lake, the first new recreation area built in the Adirondack Forest Preserve since 1977, in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It has wide wheelchair-accessible restrooms and blacktop walkways, some leading to the picnic area and sand beach. Plans include an accessible boat dock and 60 campsites.

State and local governments were required to file a transition plan in 1992 for removing all physical barriers to their programs, services and activities, said Jennifer Skulski of the National Center on Accessibility at Indiana University. Some haven't filed plans at all, while some others haven't kept up with theirs.

The U.S. Access Board proposed rules in 1994 but has yet to issue final guidelines covering access to trails, beaches, and picnic and camping areas that would apply to new construction and alterations at state and municipal parks. The Justice Department would enforce guidelines, like it does for public buildings.

Dave Park, access program manager for the National Park Service, said its statutory requirements are basically the same as state and municipal parks.

"Essentially what it means is that in general whenever you build anything new, regardless of where it is, if it's in a park or recreation area, you're obligated to make it accessible according to national standards unless you can come up with a compelling reason why it can't be done," Park said.

The National Park Service doesn't have data on the percentage of park areas considered accessible, how many disabled visitors it receives or how many have the lifetime Golden Access Passport for free admission to national parks and forests.

However, its Web site lists the various parks, and their Web sites have access links, and some like Acadia, Yellowstone and Yosemite have a lot of information, Park said.

"Some have little or nothing," he said. "We've got a lot of work to do."

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