People with disabilities are gaining more access to parks and open spaces as a result of two recent developments: the settlement of two related class action suits against California State Parks and, at the federal level, a major step toward adoption of long-awaited access guidelines for outdoor recreation areas. The economic analysis of the proposed guidelines--underway for more than six years--is nearing completion, and they are expected to be presented to the public for comment later this year.
State Parks will spend an average of $10 million per year over the next 11 years to improve campgrounds, trails, visitor centers, and other facilities in its parks, according to Roy Stearns, the department's communications director. The improvements are specified in the comprehensive consent decree agreement reached in Tucker, et al. v. California State Parks and signed by U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Bryer in November 2005. Plaintiffs in the primary case, filed in 1998, were two disabled individuals, the California Council of the Blind, and Californians for Disability Rights.
When the court's preliminary approval of the agreement was announced in July 2005, Laurence Paradis, executive director of Disability Rights Advocates and lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said: "With this settlement, California is on its way to having the most accessible parks system in the country."
The plan developed under Tucker v. State Parks specifies a wide array of improvements to be made, first at 37 of the most frequently visited parks, by July 2009. At the other 241 parks, improvements will be made according to priorities established in the agreement; work is scheduled to be completed at most parks by July 2016. State Parks has been improving access in keeping with the ADA since 2000 and had spent more than $47 million by the time the settlement was reached. "State Parks always agreed with the goal" that is now laid out in the settlement, Stearns said.
Improvements to be made include modifications at visitor centers, campsites, picnic areas, restrooms and showers, parking areas, and the routes of travel between them. For example, wheelchair seating spaces will be added at the campfire center of Carlsbad State Beach, telescopes at Hearst San Simeon State Monument will be made wheelchair accessible, and American Sign Language interpreters will be provided on some tours throughout the state park system.
Tucker v. California State Parks was filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in 1998. To achieve a resolution, the parties cooperatively took on an enormous challenge. They surveyed each program in each park and each trail to "determine what programs and trails had barriers and which of those barriers could be feasibly removed," said Kasey Corbit, an attorney with Disability Rights Advocates. "The surveys were an enormous undertaking." Once they were completed, the parties worked to create timelines and work plans for removing the identified barriers. "There were also smaller issues, such as accessibility of portable toilets, that arose along the way and added more time to the negotiation process," she said.
The intent is not to "pave over" large parts of the parks system or otherwise affect the wilderness experience for visitors, all the parties agree. "It's impossible to make the wilderness ADA accessible," said Stearns. "But we can go to certain places where there are neat trails, and make at least the first three to five miles of them accessible, so everyone can get a real sense of what the place is about."