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The Daily Tar Heel

'We don't want easy, we want possible': Organizations push for trail accessibility

Photos courtesy of Adobe Stock.

In January, Gov. Roy Cooper proclaimed 2023 the Year of the Trail in North Carolina. The effort to pass the proclamation was led by the Great Trails State Coalition, a group of organizations, agencies and supporters advocating for increased state investment in all types of trails.

The Year of the Trail campaign aims to spread information about how and where to experience trails that showcase North Carolina’s landscapes, provide healthy recreation and stimulate local economies.

“We really wanted to share stories and just create content that can help all people feel welcome on trails because trails really are for all,” Palmer McIntyre, the Year of the Trail director, said. “We're not the ones fixing the challenges, but we're trying to lift up great examples of inspiration, of groups and activities and projects.”

Despite the group's best efforts, and for all the undeniable benefits the outdoors pose, not everyone can even use public trails, much less feel welcome on them. 

Accessibility and inclusivity challenges — ranging from pathways that aren't wide enough for a wheelchair to the lack of safe and easily reachable outdoor spaces — can impact engagement with nature.

According to a paper published in March 2022 in the North Carolina Medical Journal, exposure to green space can benefit mental health in a variety of ways, reducing the severity of stress, depression and anxiety disorders.

The outdoor economy in North Carolina generates $28 billion in spending every year and contributes $10 billion annually to the state’s GDP, according to the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina. 

“There's a lot of work to do, but we're making progress,” McIntyre said. “I hope everyone will get inspired to try trails because it's a great way to explore North Carolina's landscapes and different communities.” 

Wes Hall, the co-founder of North Carolina Adapted Sports was just 15 years old when he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, leading to the amputation of his right leg.

As an active kid who started on the soccer team, his world of recreation was immediately paused. Nine months after his amputation, Hall attended an outdoor adventure camp and discovered what he was capable of as an athlete. Now, he said he wants to provide that same experience to other adaptive athletes in North Carolina.

The mission of NCAS is to build an inclusive and equitable community for individuals with physical disabilities through recreational and competitive sporting opportunities. Not only does the organization want adaptive athletes to be afforded the same opportunities as their able-bodied peers, but it also wants them to experience the outdoors together.

"We don't want easy," Hall said. "We want possible."

Another organization working to connect more people to the outdoors is Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit creating more connected trail infrastructure across the country with a focus on free, accessible and safe places where all people can be active.

Their focus is on building rail trails, which are trails built over abandoned railroads.The discarded stretches of train tracks often run through otherwise untouched sections of nature, which can make it a perfect site for trails once the tracks are removed.

Currently, there are 35 rail trails in North Carolina and over 24,000 miles of rail trails in the United States. 

“When you think about access to trails, whether that's people with disabilities or people who live in communities who may not currently have this infrastructure, it really is an issue of health equity and social justice,” Brandi Horton, RTC’s vice president of communications, said.

@DTHCityState |

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