On the Trails: Trails need to be accessible to everyone

By Russell Hirschler

The work of the Upper Valley Trails Alliance is based on four central tenets: equitable access, conservation and sustainability, physical and mental health, and economic development. Together with our partners, they support the Power of the Alliance.

As we enter our 25th year, trail access is more important than ever.

Over the past 10 years, UVTA has designed and built nearly a dozen wheelchair accessible walking/hiking trails.

While the number of accessible trails in the Upper Valley continues to grow, there undoubtedly should be more. Unfortunately, they are both difficult and expensive to build.

Difficult because of the specific requirements set out by federal agencies (like the Access Board and the US Forest Service) that adhere to the Architectural Barriers Act. These requirements look at everything from running slope of an upgraded or newly built trail, cross slope, surface materials, and environmental impacts of construction to name a few.

Expensive because, unlike simple hiking trails that can mainly be done with hand tools, accessible trails often require more dirt to be moved and significant amounts of materials to be brought in to “harden” the surface. Ultimately an accessible trail comes to fruition when you have the right location and the resources to pay for it.

Luckily, many communities are making the investment. For example, during the fall of 2022 and 2023, the Dresden School District supported the upgrade and construction of an accessible trail loop at the Marion Cross School in Norwich. The principal shared the following: “The Marion Cross School uses the Norwich Nature Area as an essential part of our science curriculum. Students in grades preK-6 spend time gathering data, making observations, and using the forest as a classroom. Prior to the trails becoming accessible we were not able to fully utilize this resource for all students. Instead, we needed to modify the experience based upon the physical ability of students to access the trail system. At this point, any student at the Marion Cross School is able to navigate our trail system and, therefore our outdoor curriculum. This has been a game changer for utilizing the forest and making our public-school program equitable.”

In addition, with funding from the Town of Lyme Conservation Commission and the Lyme Foundation, UVTA was able to upgrade 1,000 feet of trail at the Chafee Wildlife Sanctuary in Lyme in the summer of 2023. The trail includes an accessible parking area and ramp leading to a wildlife viewing blind. The Upper Valley High School Trail Corps spent many days working on the trail.

Upon completion, a Lyme resident sent the following: “I commend all the work and groups that pulled this together. I was out at Chaffee recently with my 94-year-old wheelchair bound mother. She would not have been able to access the area without the recent changes. I am happy to share some photos of the day if you would like to pass along to folks for either promotional material or just to share that their work has an impact and is appreciated. Special thanks to the kids that were out there this summer putting in the path.”

The State of Vermont is also making accessible trails development a priority. Earlier this year, House Bill 83 was introduced, which, if passed, would make 10% of each newly constructed trail on state lands accessible to individuals with physical disabilities. The same would apply to trails built using state funds.

More recently, the Vermont Outdoor Recreation Economic Collaborative (VOREC) 2023 Community Grant Program offered, for the first time, a grant track specifically focused on expanding Outdoor Equity including accessible trails.

While there is a lot more work to be done to make trails accessible for all, progress is being made. Some of this can been seen at the UVTA Trail Finder website (trailfinder.info) where you can search for accessible trails in Vermont and New Hampshire. By no means does Trail Finder show every trail (or accessible trail) in the two-state region — Trail Finder only posts trail manager approved content — but it does show more than 80 trails marked as accessible by the trail manager.

If you have an interest in building and accessible trail or have a trail you want to see on Trail Finder, please reach out to us at info@uvtrails.org. With your help, the Upper Valley Trails Alliance will continue to build and maintain trails and provide equitable access to the outdoors for everyone for years and decades to come.

Written by UVTA’s Executive Director, Russell Hirschler, and published in the Valley News on 12/23/2023