'Calm, soothed and able;' western Mass. users offer testimony on impact of accessible trails
At a public hearing Wednesday before the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, several people from western Massachusetts spoke in favor of House and Senate bills that would maximize access to hiking trails for people of all abilities.
Senate bill 446, sponsored by Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton and House bill 769, sponsored by Rep. Michelle Ciccolo, D- Lexington, would establish a Trail Access Working Group to review how accessible paved and nonpaved trails are in the state, recommend improvements and assess the cost of building more.
Several state residents with mobility difficulties, who testified in favor of the bills, said there are very few accessible trails in the state.
Amy Sugihara from Northampton said discovering them and being amongst trees again was amazing.
"I felt energized, joyful, calm, soothed and able," she said. "For me, getting back on a trail in a way that felt doable, unlocked something and made me feel capable—like I had agency again. That sense of freedom — of fully living — spills over into everyday life."
Jeremy Dubs also testified. He said he has used a wheelchair for 40 years, but for the first time last March, he spent time on an unpaved trail — the Lake Wallace Sensory Trail in Belchertown — after friends invited him to join them.
"This alone was a groundbreaking moment in my life as a disabled person who had never before been invited to go hiking," he said in his testimony. "The exclusion that I'd experienced so often when friends and family go out together to do things that I can't do, suddenly that feeling was not there."
Rae Ettenger, New England conservation policy specialist with the Appalachian Mountain Club, spoke in favor of the proposed legislation, saying it would benefit all residents including "the elderly, parents with strollers and people with blindness or low vision."
Ettenger said the AMC has experience designing "natural surface" accessible trails. They said these trails are more costly to build, but the proposed working group could help identify funding for future trails.