Making Michigan's outdoors more accessible
Nov. 27, 2013
At the recent Universal Design Conference in Marquette, Mich., the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Grants Section was awarded an "Above and Beyond ADA Award" for funding projects that make recreational facilities not only compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act but take accessibility to another level.
This is by no means the first time the DNR has been lauded for its efforts to include folks with disabilities in its programs. Fact is, the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund -- the DNR's main source of funding the purchase and development of recreational facilities -- has long added bonus points for projects that incorporate accessibility elements when scoring proposals for funding.
"Since 2007, universal accessibility design has been part of our scoring criteria," said Steve DeBrabander, who administers the Trust Fund. "Just as the Trust Fund was founded on the principle that the natural resources belong to all generations of Michigan residents, we want to make sure citizens of all levels of abilities are able to access our wonderful natural resources."
Eric Cadeau, a regional field planner with the DNR Parks and Recreation Division in Baraga, Mich., said universal design -- "the highest level we can achieve"-- is always the goal.
"From hiking trails to launch ramps, every facility that we are constructing new or rehabilitating, renovating or retro-fitting, we're hoping to achieve universal accessibility," Cadeau said. "There are obstacles -- everything from topography to budget constraints -- so we're not always able to achieve the goals were aiming at. It's very challenging balancing all stakeholder needs with limited resources, but we're often hiring consultants and working with the Department of Management and Budget to make sure that we create accessible opportunities to our cultural- and resource-based facilities and our natural resources."
Motz County Park, a 42-acre development surrounding an old sand and gravel pit in Clinton County that received a Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund grant in 2008, illustrates how universal design concepts can include everyone.
Before the county applied for the grant, it worked with the DNR's Accessibility Advisory Council to plan a barrier-free park. In order to make the water accessible to individuals with mobility impairments, the county pumped much of the water from the groundwater-fed, 15-acre lake so it could get a bulldozer in the lake. The dozer moved large rocks and used sand to create a gentle slope from the shoreline out to a depth of about 6 feet of water -- a distance of about 125 feet -- so no one would ever step into a hole.
"The picnic area beach house and parking level were at a higher elevation -- I'm thinking at least 30 feet -- so we put in a walkway with a very long gradient," explained Jerry Jaloszynski, Clinton County parks and green space coordinator. "It's 10-foot-wide concrete walkway that goes to the high-water mark. We didn't want to use asphalt because it absorbs the heat from the sun and can make it extremely hot; concrete is much cooler.
"We put in a 10-by-10 concrete pad for wheelchair storage and a transfer device that allows people to get out of their wheelchairs and onto a platform -- basically to get people down to water level."
The park acquired two all-terrain wheelchairs that can be taken into the water. The large-tired chairs -- Mobi-chairs -- have large, air-filled arm pads so the chairs float. Users have their bodies immersed in water while their heads stay high and dry.
"People who otherwise would never be able to go in the water could go swimming," Jaloszynski said.
Motz Park, which also features a barrier-free fishing pier, has won a number awards for universal-access design. More than half the cost of the $900,000 development was paid for by a Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund grant.
Bringing people to the water is a big theme at the DNR and what's been accomplished at Ocqueoc Falls, near Onaway, is a perfect example.
Thanks to Trust Fund grants, the Recreation Improvement Fund and the Recreational Trails Program, the DNR made the waterfall universally accessible -- people can actually get in the water and splash around -- garnering the DNR a Da Vinci Award for exceeding ADA requirements.
Recently the DNR added an EZ Launch Accessible Transfer System for canoes and kayaks on Bishop Lake at Brighton State Recreation Area. The transfer system allows wheelchair users to access a bench, from which they can drop into their boats unassisted. The system, purchased with a grant from the Michigan State Waterways program, is a big hit.
"We're starting to put them in all over the place," said Paul Yauk, land program manager with the DNR's Parks and Recreation Division. "Local communities have really taken this to heart and the Natural Resources Trust Fund has been very supportive. There are a bunch of these going in all over the state."
The DNR's Wildlife Division has long supported efforts to make hunting opportunities more accessible, too. There's an unusual waterfowl hunting blind at Maple River State Game Area, for instance, that allows wheelchair users to get into the game.
"You can wheel right into it and it has room for someone in a chair and another person," explained DNR wildlife biologist Chad Fedewa. "It has a landing and a ladder for a dog and it overlooks a little pothole in the cattails."
Unfortunately, the blind won't do anyone much good this year as the pool in which it's located has been drained for dike maintenance. But Fedewa points to three accessible upland blinds, on the west side of the game area, which offer a variety of opportunities.
"They're accessible by a crushed limestone pathway from the parking lot," he said. "They've been there for 15 or 20 years. They've got shooting lanes cut for the hunters and there's one at the end of the trail that overlooks an open wood lot. And there are also three cement pads where someone could pull up a chair and put up a tent blind."
But the DNR doesn't believe that wheelchair users should have to be restricted to ground blinds; there is a fully accessible elevated blind available to hunters at the Rifle River Recreation Area in Ogemaw County.
The Huntmaster Classic blind is affixed to a trailer and is located in active wildlife corridors by park staff. A hunter can wheel into the insulated blind and raise it to a height of 20 feet by its internal control system. The blind is available for reservation by persons with disabilities.
Certainly not all DNR facilities are fully accessible, but as they are upgraded or as new ones are added, the department is committed to making them as accessible as possible to everyone. Learn more about the DNR's efforts to better connect more people with outdoor recreation opportunities at www.michigan.gov/dnraccessibility.