ST. PAUL — A planned expansion of Minnesota’s heavy-duty, powered wheelchair rental program is on hold because of the coronavirus — at least for now.

With multiple state agencies now in a holding pattern because of the pandemic, the state Department of Natural Resources has postponed the expansion until at least 2021, said DNR park and recreation consultant Jamie McBride. Costs and other specifics of the program, including the number of parks it will encompass, are once again up for debate.

The plan was for the new rental program to be up and running in four state parks this summer. Motorized chairs allowing people with physical disabilities to traverse uneven terrain can be rented currently at Itasca, Vermilion-Soudan and Camden state parks.

But as McBride puts it, “focus shifted during the pandemic.”

“Our initial thought would be we would deploy one in each region of the state,” McBride said in an email. “Specific locations will be determined when we dig into the details of the project. Final project recommendations may or may not include four chairs depending on the usability of the chairs in that region.”

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State park systems in other states face a similar dilemma. Chair rental programs have been challenging for state parks even in the best of times, said Action Trackchair head of outdoor events and opportunities Brad Strootman.

Equipment costs can be prohibitive — the Action Trackchair, made in Marshall, for example, retails for between $14,000 and $30,000 — but the programs also require staff resources that he said some states can’t spare. (Strootman said the company makes a mid-range chair for state parks that are typically less expensive.)

Other states have turned to charity for help, with philanthropic organizations helping to prop up chair rental programs. One philanthropy in Wisconsin purchased chairs from Action Trackchair for several public outdoor spaces there that visitors can reserve and use at no charge.

No such arrangement appears to be in the works in Minnesota, though local charities and civic organizations do occasionally raise funds to purchase assistive equipment for specific individuals.

“There’s nothing delinquent or ill-intended in Minnesota, it’s just no one has stepped up and been that person,” Strootman said.

Making parks accessible

But disability advocates say that assistive technology alone will not make Minnesota’s outdoors more accessible.

Spreading gravel over trails, posting more descriptive signage and literature for those with mental disabilities, designating sensory friendly spaces and providing accessible facilities can all help to improve the experience of persons with disabilities, advocates say. The DNR has since 2018 sought to take such actions at William O’Brien State Park in St. Croix, though funding for the effort is taking time to secure.

Park officials have asked the state Legislature for $10 million for the project but funding for it and $2 billion worth of other public works projects remains a point of contention among lawmakers, who still have yet an agreement on a new biennial bonding bill. Some of that would go toward the design of similar plans slated for Fort Snelling State Park.

The DNR requested as much in 2018 when the O’Brien project was first proposed but only received about $500,000 for it.

Comprised of relatively flat and wide trails and located near a populous Twin Cities metro, the park is intended to serve as a model where more accessible designs can be tinkered with for implementation at other parks later on, DNR parks and trails development consultant Erik Wrede said.

The intent is for the park to be "universally designed," or laid out such that it can be used by all citizens regardless of physical and mental ability. Accessibility concerns will be balanced against a desire to disturb the park's natural state as much as possible. Consider that gravel trails are easier for individuals who use mobility devices to hike on than dirt trails while still being “kinder on the environment than asphalt," according to Wrede.

Picnic areas would be paved over and wider shower stalls would also be installed under the plan.

“It’s really intended to be a full-park, comprehensive makeover so the park can be enjoyed by everybody,” Wrede said.

Some accessibility efforts unfold at the local level in parks and other outdoor spaces outside the state system. Wirth Lake in Minneapolis, for example, sports ramps that allow wheelchair users to more easily enter the water.

But such amenities, said David Fenley, ADA coordinator for the Minnesota Council on Disability, appear to be more common in local parks closer to the Twin Cities metro area. Even then, they occasionally come up against local opposition from park users who believe they threaten the pristineness of nature. A proposal that would have paved over trails and graded hills in the county-owned Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Eagan was quashed on those very grounds in 2014.

Many publicly managed fishing piers, meanwhile, fail to meet standards added to the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act in 2010, according to Randy Sorensen, executive director of the Grand Forks-based Options Center for Independent Living. Across the region, he said, “I have not found one that’s accessible yet, or that meets the letter of that law.

“Really, both North Dakota and Minnesota … are quite a long way away from making their trail systems, campgrounds and parks accessible. They do a good job with facilities,” Sorensen said, “but not so much in the other area.”

For some, it can be difficult to think of accessibility options beyond those laid out in the ADA. A park can have visiting centers and restrooms that meet the letter of the law, said Autism Society of Minnesota education program director Eric Ringgenberg, and still be unwelcoming to the disabled.

An individual with autism might, for example, might be struck with a spell of sensory overload by during a visit to a new park. The Autism Society here has worked with several local parks to develop what Ringgenberg called “social narratives” — essentially park literature that describes visitor traffic, sights and sounds to expect and quiet places to go when feeling overwhelmed. It’s a simple thing not touched upon in law that can help prepare those with mental disabilities, he said, to better prepare for and enjoy an outdoor excursion.

“It’s very important to do this sort of work … people benefit from that, and everybody should have the opportunity to do so,” he said. “We want people to experience the natural world, to kind of reap those benefits of being in nature, and everyone should have that option.”