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Accessibility Guidebook for Outdoor Recreation and Trails

Applying the Forest Service Outdoor Recreation Accessibility Guidelines

The first step in applying the FSORAG is to know when and where compliance is required. Sections 1.0 General and 1.1 Extent of Application state that newly constructed and altered camping facilities, picnic areas, constructed features, beach access routes, and outdoor recreation access routes (ORARs) under Forest Service jurisdiction must comply with sections 1 through 6 of the FSORAG. Every bit of public land does not need to be developed, but if we build something, we need to build it for everybody (figure 24).

Photo of a man using a wheelchair leaning over to drink out of a fountain that is mounted on a wood post in a forested area.
Figure 24—Universal design makes sense.

The FSORAG is based on the realities of the outdoor environment. It recognizes that accessibility isn't feasible everywhere because of the limitations imposed by natural terrain, existing vegetation, or other constraints. To ensure that the unique characteristics of the outdoor environment and recreation opportunity at a site aren't compromised or fundamentally altered, exceptions and deviations from some technical provisions are permitted where certain circumstances, called conditions for departure from the guidelines, apply. Conditions for departure apply only where there is an exception detailed in the technical provision sections for a particular recreation feature.

Using the Conditions for Departure in the FSORAG

Although conditions for departure allow for exceptions and deviations due to limitations imposed by the environment, they are not a blanket exemption from the technical provisions. The deviations permitted by conditions for departure should only be used after all other design options to provide accessibility have been thoroughly explored. Deviations are permitted only where an exception is allowed for that particular feature and is needed in the specific area being designed. If a condition for departure exists only on part of the feature, the technical provision applies to the rest of the feature and all the technical provisions that are not affected by the condition for departure apply as well.

Four conditions for departure permit deviations from specific technical provisions where they are allowed by an exception. Examples are provided to explain the intent of the conditions for departure.

  1. Where compliance would cause substantial harm to cultural, historic, religious, or significant natural features or characteristics.

Cultural features include areas such as archeological sites, burial grounds and cemeteries, traditional cultural properties, and tribal protected sites. Historical features are properties listed or eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places or other places of recognized historic value. Religious features are tribal sacred sites and other properties considered sacred by an organized religion. Significant natural features are objects such as a large boulder or rocky outcrop, body of water, or unique vegetation that are regarded as distinctive or important locally, regionally, or nationally (figure 25). Areas protected under Federal or State laws, such as habitat for threatened or endangered species or designated wetlands, also could be considered significant natural features.

Photo of two people using wheelchairs sitting at the base of a huge tree. Interpretive signs are mounted on a wooden rail protecting the tree from foot traffic.
Figure 25—Properly developed recreation features
don't harm significant natural vegetation.

If the significant feature would be directly or indirectly harmed in the process of providing accessibility, this condition for departure would apply. Consider only the additional impact of change necessary to provide accessibility. This condition for departure doesn't apply where substantial impact will result from construction of features that are not accessible and construction directly related to accessibility adds just a little more impact.

  1. Where compliance would substantially change the nature of the setting or the purpose of the facility or a portion of the facility, or would not be consistent with the applicable forest land and resource management plan for the area.

Public lands provide a wide variety of recreational settings, from highly developed campgrounds with plenty of opportunities to relax with family and friends, to wilderness areas that appear unchanged from primeval times with opportunities to experience primitive and challenging conditions (figure 26). The FSORAG recognizes the value of a wide array of recreational opportunities by allowing exceptions where compliance with technical provisions would unacceptably change the nature of recreation opportunities or conflict with the land and resource management plan for the area.

Photo of four people rafting on a river. The raft contains camping equipment and a wheelchair.
Figure 26—People who recreate in primitive areas
may be looking for risk and challenge.

Campers in a primitive setting experience the outdoor environment in a nearly natural state, with limited or no development. These campers generally desire challenge and risk so they can use their outdoor survival skills. Use of manufactured building materials or engineered construction techniques to comply with accessibility requirements could destroy the natural or undeveloped nature of the setting. There is no requirement to use drastic measures to provide accessibility if doing so would unacceptably change the character of the setting and the recreation opportunity.

  1. Where compliance would require construction methods or materials that are prohibited by Federal, State, or local law, other than State or local law whose sole purpose is to prohibit use by persons with disabilities.

This condition for departure can be illustrated by example. For instance, use of mechanized equipment is prohibited in congressionally designated wilderness areas. If work necessary to comply with a technical provision can't be accomplished using handtools, this condition for departure will apply in wilderness areas. This condition for departure may also apply in:

Local law has been included in this condition for departure to address situations where conservation or scenic easements or development programs have prohibited or restricted construction methods and practices. For example, where land is purchased from farms, certain use restrictions may prohibit importing surfacing materials.

On the other hand, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, State and local governments may not establish laws whose sole purpose is to prohibit use by people with disabilities. Therefore, such laws may not serve as a basis for deviation from the technical provisions in the FSORAG.

  1. Where compliance would be impractical due to terrain or prevailing construction practices.

The phrase "would be impractical" in this condition for departure refers to something that isn't reasonable, rather than to something that is technically impractical. The intent of this condition for departure is that the effort and resources required to comply shouldn't be disproportionately high relative to the level of access established.

For example, when renovating an ORAR, compliance with the technical provisions, particularly those pertaining to running slope in areas of steep terrain, may require extensive cuts or fills that would be difficult to construct and maintain and that would cause drainage and erosion problems in highly susceptible soils. If compliance with the FSORAG requires techniques that clash with the natural drainage or existing soil, then the ORAR will be difficult, if not impossible, to maintain.

This condition also may apply where construction methods for particularly difficult terrain or an obstacle would require the use of equipment or methods other than that typically used in that setting. In an area where small equipment is normally used to minimize impact on a sensitive adjacent stream, blasting might be necessary to remove a rock outcrop. Because blasting typically would not be used in this situation, this condition for departure would apply. If the work could be done using small equipment, the condition for departure wouldn't apply.

This condition for departure isn't intended to exempt an area from the technical provisions simply because of a preferred construction practice. A contractor may prefer to use a large mechanical roller for efficiency rather than a smaller vibrating plate or impact-type compactor that might be more appropriate in some settings. A contractor's or designer's preference for the larger equipment isn't a feasibility issue.

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