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Advocates call for more accessible trails in Massachusetts: 'These trails change lives'

Amy Sugihara and Meg Bandarra explore the Fort River Birding and Nature Trail in Hadley, Massachusetts, an accessible trail in the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.
Nancy Eve Cohen
Amy Sugihara and Meg Bandarra explore the Fort River Birding and Nature Trail in Hadley, Massachusetts, an accessible trail in the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.

Outdoor enthusiasts recently gathered in Hadley, Massachusetts to advocate for a bill that would improve access to trails on state land for all people, including those with disabilities.

They met at the trailhead of the Fort River Birding and Nature Trail, part of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.

"When it comes to access to nature for everyone, our current trail system in Massachusetts unfortunately falls short. There aren't enough trails," Northampton artist Meg Bandarra told the crowd.

Bandarra is leading an effort to pass Massachusetts Senate Bill S.446.

The bill would amend state law so that the Department of Conservation and Recreation would "maximize access to trails, outdoor spaces and outdoor recreational activities for people of all abilities, and to advance equity for all residents of the commonwealth." The Department of Fish and Game would also maximize access.

The bill would also establish a trail access working group to evaluate existing trails for accessibility and set goals for funding more. It calls for the group to have "no less than one-third of its members having disabling conditions."

"The Trails for All act will increase access to nature spaces, and for the first time, give those of us with the lived experience of disability, a seat at the conversation table, which is how it should be — because nothing about us, without us," Bandarra said.

Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, who sponsored the bill, explained the purpose of the working group.

"There isn't a depth of understanding about how many of our trails in the commonwealth are universally accessible and how many are not. And without that full understanding, we cannot take action. We cannot ask for investment. We cannot make a strategic plan to change this," she said.

The working group would review best practices, including accessible trail guidelines from the U.S. Forest Service. It would also hold public hearings, and file an annual report with recommendations "on ways to improve access to paved and unpaved trails for people with mobility considerations."

The report would also include an estimate for the cost of creating more accessible trails and possible funding sources.

The bill is currently being considered by the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Making nature trails accessible does not mean paving them.

The Fort River trail has stretches of hardpacked surfaces and boardwalks. It's mostly flat with no tree roots or other obstructions.

On this sunny June day, about twenty people explored the trail on foot, scooters and wheelchairs. Some used walking poles. One used a cane for the blind.

The trail begins near a wetlands where Red-winged black birds trilled and Green frogs called. It continued through a forest where people stopped to peer through binoculars, hoping to catch a glimpse of an Indigo Bunting — a blue songbird in the Cardinal family.

"These trails change lives," Meg Bandarra said before the hike. "You can ask anyone who uses these trails, who needs these trails to access nature."

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.