Universal access, public lands, and backcountry composting

Along a mild section of Appalachian Trail in the hills around Norwich and Hanover, there is a small shelter (previously maintained by the Dartmouth Outing Club, now the responsibility of the Green Mountain Club) with a big responsibility. The Happy Hill shelter on the Appalachian Trail in Vermont is home to the first of the new generation of backcountry composting outhouses: a universally accessible, two chambered moldering privy.

As backcountry facilities are being replaced, renovated, and updated on our public lands across New England, these facilities are now being designed to meet the requirements of universal access. Land managers and non profit partners balance the needs of accessibility (size of the building, width of the door, angle of the ramp) as well as the traditional design considerations of the science of composting and that intangible wilderness character. The Happy Hill outhouse, completed in 2012 by the Green Mountain Club, is the first attempt at striking that balance. (Here at AMC trails we have met the requirements of accessibility by building Garfield and Eliza’s new shelters at the precise height off the ground, in order for a person to transfer off a wheelchair onto the shelter floor.)

“But why do you build an accessible building in the middle of the woods?”, is often the question raised about accessibility in the backcountry.

There are many ways to answer this question. The first is political. As a civil right, (the rights of the disabled community have now been recognized as civil rights), we as the abled community should not judge what the disabled community can or cannot accomplish. For decades the disabled community has fought in a variety of arenas for equality: equality of work, pay, access to buildings. This a similar kind of fight that other communities have fought for, and have resulted in desegregation and women’s right to vote. During those fights for equality, the majority side fully believed they ‘knew’ how to make decisions about the minority sides abilities and interests; as a majority of able-bodied people, we really can not be in the business of judging the capabilities of the disabled. 

The second is a philosophical one. Why do we modify outhouses to include stairs to access the door? Most outhouses are on remote hiking trails that include hand over hand ledge climbs (Mahoosuc Notch to Speck Pond) or grueling long distances and rock hopping across streams (Guyot), and if a person can hike to those remote places, why do we need to modify the outhouse to have stairs? Certainly a person could step up into an outhouse if they can make it through Mahoosuc Notch. And if we give able-bodied individuals a set of steps, why can’t we give disabled individuals a ramp or a transfer handrail?

These reasons, philosophical and political, challenge us as abled-bodied to think about the basic assumptions we use to guide our decisions about what is the ‘right’ way to do things. At any rate, these are the requirements that we work within, and in many ways are simply another set of considerations that we add to our decision making (cost, wilderness character, durability, sustainability). As a program manager responsible for 18 different outhouses across the White and Mahoosuc Mountains, as well as an individual who has strong connections to the differently abled community in New Hampshire, I believe in civil rights and the spectrum of access.

The Happy Hill outhouse is a feat of accessible engineering, thrifty budgeting (all materials were hand-carried in), and creative thinking from some of the premier composting minds of the Northeast. There were lessons learned in design (how to access the material underneath), to be incorporated in future outhouses.