The Big A Loop trail on the top of Mt. Agamenticus in York, ME. Credit: Jerry Monkman

The Big A Loop trail on the top of Mt. Agamenticus in York, ME. Credit: Jerry Monkman

Portland Press Herald | January 22, 2017| Deirdre Fleming|

SCARBOROUGH — When the Scarborough Land Trust surpassed its $2.5 million fundraising goal in an effort to protect the 135-acre farm on Pleasant Hill Road, the land trust stewards wanted to spend the extra $36,000 in a memorable way.

So they decided to spend the extra funds last fall on a trail that was short – but one that would provide greater access. Situated just six miles from downtown Portland, the Pleasant Hill Preserve was the perfect place to build a trail accessible to people with physical disabilities, said the trust’s director, Kathy Mills. Despite the expense, it was a decision more land trusts have made in recent years.

 “We always said an (Americans with Disabilities Act) trail was something we wanted if we had the funds,” Mills said. “It’s a commitment to build an ADA trail, it’s an additional resource. It’s hard to do the work of conserving land and (also) take on this significant commitment. I totally understand why (land trusts) don’t. They’re expensive.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires accommodations in work places, government buildings, public buildings and commercial facilities that allow them to be accessed by those with physical disabilities.

The law does not extend to hiking trails on private lands, such as land trust preserves. Yet providing outdoor paths that can be maneuvered by people using wheelchairs, walkers or canes is something more Maine outdoor conservation groups are trying to do.

Such trails are often called “universal-access” trails because, while not required to be ADA compliant, they have many of the same features of an ADA pathway. They require more rigorous drainage (since a log bridge cannot be used) and must have gentle slopes, wide and flat surfaces, and places for those using a wheelchair, walker or cane to take a break.

As a result, such trails are expensive to build and maintain. In Maine, universal-access trails ranging in size from a few hundred yards to a mile have ranged in price from a $20,000 to $330,000.

Barbara Schneider, executive director at Maine Adaptive, believes more land trusts will add universal-access trails because Maine has an aging population.

“There are not a lot of (these trails) because land trusts are afraid that the construction and maintenance are expensive,” said Schneider, whose agency helps those with disabilities enjoy outdoor sports such as skiing and kayaking. “But they serve a variety of needs. If you look to a broader base of support, you can engage different communities: the elderly, moms pushing strollers, kids on tricycles.”

The Scarborough Land Trust built its trail to a viewing spot that looks out to the back of Pleasant Hill Preserve, which backs up to the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. It is the first trail built on the new preserve and eventually will be the keystone trail in a 2-mile network. Already, it provides a welcoming wide path at the entrance kiosk for visitors of all ages and physical abilities.

Nearly all of Maine’s 45 state parks and historic sites have an ADA-compliant trail, said John Bott, spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. Bott said in recent years the department has worked to establish at every facility at least one area of accessibility from the parking lot to a key point of interest.

However, there are probably less than a dozen such trails on private conservation land owned by land trusts, Schneider said.

A universal-access trail was built in 2014 at the Maine Coast Heritage Trust’s Erickson Fields Preserve in Rockport. Two years ago, one was built at the Western Foothills Land Trust’s Roberts Farm Preserve in Norway, and last year a mile-long universal-access trail was completed atop Mount Agamenticus.

The Mount Agamenticus summit in York draws between 40,000 and 60,000 visitors a year, said Mike Sullivan, York’s parks and recreation director. The summit takes in views of Mount Washington to the west and the Maine coast to the east. The consortium of conservation groups and municipalities that oversee the 13,000-acre Mount Agamenticus region decided that a universal-access trail here would offer something extraordinary. However, the price tag was $330,000.

Sullivan said the bulk of it was paid for through two voter-approved bonds from the town of York, with the balance covered by grants.

“It all started when we cleared the trees on the top and opened up the view. Then we thought, how can we get more people to enjoy this view?” Sullivan said. “To have a trail like this on Mount A is exceptional. It allows people of all walks of life and abilities to enjoy the view. It will require maintenance. But we are committed.”

After the Maine Coast Heritage Trust built its $20,000 Bog Brook Cove universal-access trail in Cutler in 2008, it added a similar trail at the Erickson Fields Preserve two years ago. Now it is working to raise money for one in Milbridge.

“We’re well aware that Maine is the oldest state (based on median population age),” said Rich Knox, communications director at the Heritage Trust. “That’s a trend. So people enjoying the outdoors are looking for the opportunity to go there with walkers and wheelchairs on gentle slopes.”

Jane Arbuckle, the trust’s director of stewardship, said topography has to lend itself to such a trail. While much of Maine contains wetlands, universal-access trails need to be built on flat, dry land.

But Arbuckle said there is excitement around the trust’s work in this area, and the trail in Milbridge that will provide access to community gardens along the Down East coast has support.

For one student at Camden Hills Regional High School, the trail at Erickson Fields Preserve has allowed him to have an experience in a wild place he otherwise wouldn’t have, said Anastasia Alley, the special education manager for the transitional life skills program at the high school.

The teenager has cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects body movement and muscle coordination, and he uses a walker.

“We don’t go far but we do find that trails such as this afford him access to nature that he may not get,” Alley said. “I have had students in the past who would not be able to access trails unless paved and completely flat, but this student has more accessibility.”

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