Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Importance of Accessible Nature Trails - and Where to Find Them in Massachusetts

Accessible trails allow for group as well as individual
and family exploration of parks.
This month I attended the Massachusetts Trails Conference in Leominster. The theme of the conference was “Trails For All”. I use many accessible trails in the course of my work as an adaptive recreation program coordinator and well know how they improve quality of life for people of all abilities. Many trail users, including trail building advocates, continue to discover the value of trails designed for everyone.
Dick O’Brien, Chairperson for the Massachusetts Recreational Trails Advisory Board, gave a wonderful opening speech sharing how he has discovered the importance of accessible trails. Many of the 250+ attendees had gray hair, so it is surely getting easier for the trail using community to grasp the issue as they age.  Nevertheless, by sharing his personal experiences, Dick spoke to our hearts. From his father’s need for a wheelchair changing his ability to access favorite places, to a conservation donor’s frustration at not being able to see her property to discuss improvements, and to his own recent health issues, Dick demonstrated the vital need for access to natural places. How do you get out there to enjoy the outdoors if your health and abilities have become compromised?

Accessible trail in use at Mt. Tom State Reservation.
The answer is to find the accessible trails in your vicinity and use them. They are not as common as they should be, however more are being built all the time. It is essential to support and develop new "Trails for All" whenever possible. It’s been well documented that time in nature is good for your health. If you want to share the experience with family members or others, accessible trails are an undeniable benefit to any community.
Of those 4000 miles of trails in the Massachusetts State Park system, approximately 5 miles are specifically designed to integrate people with disabilities into quieter natural settings. Combined with Mass Audubon’s accessible trails statewide, roughly ten miles of designated and maintained trails exist. A list of these trails is at the end of this post. Certainly many other trails or trail portions may be reasonably accessible or improved for access but usually are not singled out or maintained for such use and so aren’t well known for all- person use. There are an additional 150 miles of paved bikeways and rail trails in the Massachusetts State Park system - usually quite accessible - but not always the quiet experience one seeks when being passed by bicyclists and others traveling at faster speeds. 
Alewife River Reservation in Arlington offers accessible
trail sections along a commuter route.
Since most wheelchair accessible trails are well under a mile in length to accommodate those who cannot walk or wheel longer distances, there is a vital need for more designated accessible trails to be spread throughout the landscape to best serve those who need them most. Part of accessibility includes not having to drive or ride too far to access a desired opportunity. For further information on building accessible trails, I recommend checking out the U.S. Forest Service guidelines. Although these are only required on federal lands, they are an excellent guide to basic requirements. Wheelchair accessible trails do not need to be paved!
It just so happens that in my own community of Northfield, plans are underway to create the first wheelchair accessible trail in town. This week I visited the location on a Sunday morning group tour offered by Mt. Grace Land Trust and was thrilled to discover a fantastic location and a well-thought out trail plan to bring people through woods to a beaver pond and loop back along a field edge.  I attended a town meeting this week to add my “aye” to a unanimous town vote to approve funds for the project.
Fort River Birding and Nature
Trail in Hadley.
Accessible nature trails, once completed, should be promoted to potential users with accurate information as to trail length, restroom availability and other features. Below is a list of some of the accessible trails I know about. Some are not represented here due to the lack of online information about them.

DCR Massachusetts State Parks: 
Belle Isle Marsh, Revere – ¼ mile +
Bradley Palmer State Park, N. Andover – ½ mile +
DAR State Forest, Goshen – ½ mile
Dunn Park, Gardner – ¾ mile 
Harold Parker State Forest, N. Andover – ¼ mile improved for access
Mt. Greylock State Reservation, North Adams – ¼ mile at summit 
Mt. Tom State Reservation, Holyoke - ½ mile loop + ½ mile
Pittsfield State Forest, Pittsfield – ¾ mile
Savoy Mountain State Forest, Savoy – ¼ mile

Stone dust trail at the Boston Nature Center - a more
natural alternative to paving.
Massachusetts Audubon Sanctuaries:
Arcadia, Easthampton – 850 feet loop 
Blue Hills Trailside Museum, Milton – 850 feet 
Boston Nature Center, Mattapan – 1 mile
Broad Meadow Brook, Worcester – 1 mile 
Broadmoor, Natick – ¼ mile loop
Drumlin Farm, Lincoln – 1 mile
Habitat, Belmont – ½ mile loop
Pleasant Valley, Lenox – 850 feet each way
Stony Brook, Norfolk – 1000 feet each way
Wellfleet Bay, South Wellfleet – ¼ mile each way

Other Accessible Nature Trails in Massachusetts
Doyle Reservation, Leominster  -.1mile

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