July 28, 2009
Better Access to Yellowstone's Wonders
Every summer, Yellowstone National Park relies on dozens of dedicated volunteers from the Yellowstone Youth Conservation Corps and Montana Conservation Corps to restore trails, build bridges, and perform other work that helps ensure great visitor recreation opportunities. This summer, Yellowstone also called upon members of the Utah Conservation Corps to help evaluate how accessible many of the Park’s trails, amenities, and natural attractions are for visitors with disabilities. Members of this innovative group are uniquely qualified to assist Yellowstone in this way.
The Utah Conservation Corps (UCC) has an "Access to Service" inclusive crew program. Fifty percent of the crew self-identify as having a physical disability such as quadriplegia, epilepsy, traumatic brain injury, or blindness. These dedicated volunteers are experts in assessing the true accessibility of trails and other features, and in offering practical recommendations for improvements.
As a member of the blind community, crew leader Quintin Williams is familiar with many accessibility challenges. But through his work in Yellowstone and other public lands, he is developing expertise around what makes recreation accessible for those with limited mobility.
“It’s obvious that Yellowstone has made great efforts to improve accessibility,” said Quintin, “but the guidelines are often blurred when factoring in the variations inherent to natural landscapes. Much of my crew’s work in Yellowstone this year focused on determining degrees of trail and boardwalk accessibility for visitors in wheelchairs.”
UCC crew members rely on some high-tech gadgets to assist them in their work. Quintin uses a talking tape measure (with a British accent) to determine trail widths and the distance between amphitheater benches. Crew member Jordan Pease, who uses a power wheelchair and crutches, utilizes a hands-free inclinometer attached to his helmet to visually measure grades of trails and various surfaces.
Other gadgets are decidedly more hand-crafted. Ron Hornsby uses a digital carpenter’s level duct-taped onto a bent “arm” of pipe, so he can use it from his wheelchair to determine slope gradient.
Ron found that the most rewarding aspect of his work in Yellowstone was experiencing the Park staff’s genuine desire to improve accessibility. “They aren’t just going through the motions. They truly care, and they really listened to our feedback,” said Ron. “They have designated resources for this effort, and I have no doubt that they will follow through on many of our recommendations."
More Information, Please
Even public lands and parks, like Yellowstone, that do a good job offering accessible recreation rarely provide adequate information to visitors about the degree of accessibility. Proper signage provides key information, not only for people with disabilities, but also for elderly visitors and families with small children, to select trails and other attractions that are at an appropriate level of difficulty.
“It is impressive how much thought has already gone into accessibility in Yellowstone,” said Ron, “but probably the area needing the most improvement is signage. Better signs would provide more details and let visitors make educated decisions based on their abilities and circumstances.”
“For instance, in the Old Faithful area, part of the boardwalk has a fairly steep grade,” added Quintin. “If someone using a wheelchair had an aide with them, they might want to attempt it, whereas someone else may not. Better signs could allow for choices rather than just saying yes, this trail is accessible, or no, it isn’t.”
In Canyon Village, the UCC crew evaluated the half-mile, asphalt North Rim Canyon Trail which was built in 2008 to be a more accessible alternative for visitors to view the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. However, due to the naturally steep and rugged landscape, the degree of accessibility at overlooks and en-route varies. The UCC group evaluated the trail grade, length and width, cross slope, surface material, edges, rest points, and obstacles, and then offered recommendations on improvements, including text and locations for signs.
Ron said that his visit to the stunningly scenic Canyon area made a big impression on him. “I was very glad we could help make suggestions for this area in particular, and I hope it helps enable more people to see these amazing views.”
Summer crowds posed navigation challenges for the crew, however the upside was an opportunity to raise awareness about accessibility issues and the UCC’s work. In fact, while visiting the trailhead to the Ice Lake backcountry area, they met a family that included a young girl in a wheelchair.
“We were able to give them tips as to the best route to take and the varying degrees of accessibility,” said Quintin. “If we hadn’t been there, enhanced signs or pamphlets would have helped them make the most of their visit.”
The UCC crew had first-hand experience to help them evaluate campground accessibility. Their home base for their entire two weeks in the Park was the Mammoth Hot Springs campground, which Yellowstone Park Foundation funding helped make accessible in past years. While they had to rough it like all the other campers there -- there are no showers or warm water -- they did have raised tent platforms and a ramp to the latrine.
The group also surveyed campsites at Indian Creek Campground, south of Mammoth. This small, rustic campground is a favorite among visitors who like to fish, but it currently has no fully accessible campsites. Yellowstone staff asked the UCC crew to provide recommendations on creating an exceptional, accessible campsite at Indian Creek.
The crew focused on evaluating the routes for a camper to reach vault toilets, water spigots, and the amphitheater from different locations in the campground. They assisted with determining the exact location to install an accessible picnic table that can accommodate wheelchairs, as well as an accessible fire-ring that is higher off the ground, has a more maneuverable grill, and includes an extra outer ring for safety. They also assessed several options for creating accessible fishing access points nearby.
A National Model
UCC’s inclusive crew has served as a model, and inclusive crews are now under development within Conservation Corps groups in Wisconsin and Minnesota. During their visit to Yellowstone, the UCC crew met with members of the Montana Conservation Corps, which works closely with Yellowstone staff on Trails Fund Initiative projects. MCC learned more about the “Access to Service” program in the hopes of creating a similar inclusive crew in 2010.
The UCC provides an important public service, but it is also valuable to the participants. “The inclusive crew gives people with disabilities an opportunity for a rewarding job that really utilizes their skills, while also giving them a chance to explore the outdoors,” explained Quintin.
The Yellowstone Park Foundation and Yellowstone National Park would like to extend heartfelt thanks to the Utah Conservation Corps for their hard work and dedication to helping Yellowstone. Yellowstone visitors of all abilities will benefit from their unique perspective and expert assistance.
The 2009 visit of the UCC crew was made possible in part by a generous contribution from Al and Stella DiPasqua to the Yellowstone Park Foundation.