August 13, 2011; Source: Associated Press via | New Jersey park officials are rushing to meet new federal mandates giving people with disabilities more access to federal, state and county parks. Environmentalists are challenging both the new rules and the actions of park managers. “Mobility disabled” residents just want a chance to enjoy the great outdoors.

A new rule under the Americans with Disabilities Act became effective March 15. It states that a trail must be open to all individuals operating power-driven mobility devices unless that trail has been officially declared unfit for such traffic. In addition to forcing a review of thousands of miles of trails to determine accessibility, the mandate appears to conflict with a long-standing ban on motorized vehicles in environmentally sensitive lands. Officials are calling it a “logistical nightmare.”

“This is not something we can do instantly,” Larry Ragonese, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Regulation, told the Associated Press. “We have thousands and thousands of miles of trails in New Jersey. It’s not as simple as putting up a sign and say ‘Motor through.’”

There isn’t any official definition of “other power-driven mobility device,” whether a motorized wheel chair, golf cart, ATV or a pickup truck. Both park staff and residents are confused by the new regulations, and websites offer little information.

Before the directive, most internal-combustion motor vehicles were banned on trails—the source of a longtime conflict between environmentalists and motor-sport enthusiasts.

Several parks have paved trails, but only one has been identified as ADA-accessible. A new .04-mile handicapped-accessible section of the Appalachian Trail was unveiled in June, built just over the border in New York by the NJ-NY Trail Conference. 

The current “open” status of a trail can be overturned if access to motorized devices poses a direct threat to humans or the environment that cannot be eliminated. If a trail is marked “closed” and bans power-driven mobility devices, reasons must be posted explaining why the trail has been banned. If there isn’t any information posted, it’s assumed that all devices are permitted on the trail.

Clearly, giving equal access to the parks and trails of New Jersey is easier said than done.—Nancy Knoche