E-bikes remain a controversial subject among some members of the cycling community, maybe especially those who ride in the dirt. Although powered bikes are gaining toeholds of acceptance even among the hardcore bike crowd, there are plenty of people and organizations who still think they have no place on trails, and no place at all in federal lands, including on dirt roads. That includes the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service, which typically forbids the use of e-bikes on all non-motorized roads and trails.
But the popularity of e-bikes is growing. They’re now the fastest-growing segment in the bike industry. As more and more of them leave bike shop floors, the rules governing where the bikes can be ridden may be softening.
Just last month, in fact, 50 different trail conservancy organizations signed a letter arguing that public lands should not allow e-bikes of any kind on non-motorized trails, and sent that letter to senior figures at the US Forest Service, the National Park Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. This just as cities and national parks within urban areas are beginning to consider allowing e-bikes on commuter trails used by regular bikes. For example, in Alabama, Casey Anderson, chair of the Montgomery County Planning Board, recently told the Washington Post of that county’s evolving thinking on e-bikes, “eventually, we will get to the point where most trails will allow e-bikes if not all of them.” Many trail advocacy groups are fearing that kind of thinking will lead to a slippery slope allowing e-bikes in all national parks. The letter these groups signed onto in fact was written in response to the idea that “federal land management agencies are currently considering policy changes to allow e-bikes on non-motorized trails.”
Whether that letter will gain any traction remains to be seen.
The letter makes no distinction between e-bike classes, though there are important distinctions between the three recognized power levels. Class 1 bikes are pedal-assisted up to 20 mph and do not include a throttle. Class 2 bikes are also capped at 20 mph for the motor assist, but include a throttle that accelerates the bike without pedaling. Class 3 is essentially the same pedal-assist only system as the first class, but the motor will assist up to 28 mph. Right now, as technology makes electric motors ever smaller, quieter, and more efficient, many hikers would be hard-pressed to distinguish between a mountain bike that’s actually a Class 1 e-bike, versus a tradition mountain bike. If battery packs continue to get smaller, the distinction will grow even fuzzier. The 20 mph max assist isn’t a terribly difficult speed to achieve, at least while going downhill, for an experienced rider on a non-powered bike.
As of now, different states and local municipalities have different rules for where e-bikes can be ridden, including trails. Washington, for example, passed a bill in March of last year that banned all e-bikes from trails within the state. Colorado and California have passed bills that allow up to Class 2 bikes on trails unless a local governing authority decides otherwise. Mammoth Mountain, in California, a ski resort, recently opened its slopes to e-bikes over the summer. The Bentonville, Arkansas, region has 200 miles of singletrack accessible by Class 1 e-bike. So too do Jefferson County, Colorado, and State College, Pennsylvania.
Class 3 bikes are fast enough that it’s unlikely they’ll ever be allowed anywhere other than motorized trails.
A rule change in 2012 opened the doors to mountain bikes on trails in national parks, as the NPS began allowing park superintendents to set their own rules about bike use on trails. One can easily imagine that door widening further in coming years to let in e-bikes too. Hence the letter from trail groups, the full text of which can be read, below.
On behalf of our millions of members, supporters and public land users across the country we write to object to any attempt by public land management agencies to legalize electronic motor bikes (e-bikes) on non-motorized trails.
We oppose any effort that would allow any class of vehicle with a motor—including all classes of e-bikes, which by definition have a motor—to be allowed on non-motorized trails. A contrary interpretation would create an unmanageable slippery slope and threaten future management of all non-motorized trails and areas on public lands.
Non-motorized trails were created to ensure that the public could find recreational trail opportunities free from the ever-growing motorization and mechanization. Millions of public land users including hikers, backpackers, hunters, horse packers, climbers, mountain bikers and many more, value non-motorized trails for recreation. Opening non-motorized trails to motors would forever change the backcountry experience for these users.
We recognize that e-bikes have a place on public lands and generally should be allowed where motorized vehicles are permitted. The existing motorized trail system provides plentiful opportunities for e-bike use with tens of thousands of miles of trails currently open to their use.
The Bicycle Products Suppliers Association, international power equipment companies, and e-bike user groups, created a classification system for e-bikes, based on motor and battery sizes and engagement systems for the motor. This classification system is confusing for land managers and lawmakers and the bikes themselves are often difficult to distinguish from one another. The fact remains that all e-bikes are motorized by definition, regardless of the size of the motor or how it is turned on.
We understand that federal land management agencies are currently considering policy changes to allow e-bikes on non-motorized trails. Such a policy is ill-advised and would undermine nearly a half-century of management precedents and practices. First, allowing e-bikes on non-motorized trails would be un-manageable and send agencies down a slippery slope towards allowing further motorization of trails and potentially the entire backcountry. Federal land managers simply do not have the resources to police e-bikes on trails.
Second, permitting e-bikes on non-motorized trails is contrary to long-standing “travel management” laws and policies dating back to the Nixon administration that require all motorized recreational uses of our public lands to be confined to a system of designated roads, trails, and areas. Among other requirements, motorized trails must be located to minimize conflicts with other recreational uses of the public lands, as well as damage to soil, water, and other public land resources and harassment of wildlife. Separately, agencies are required to manage certain wildlands–including Wilderness Study Areas, Forest Service recommended wilderness, and BLM lands managed for wilderness characteristics–to preserve and protect wilderness character. National Scenic Trails are also required by law to be managed as non-motorized trails. In short, current laws and policies require that non-motorized trails remain non-motorized, and any contrary interpretation could only be supported, if at all, through full notice and comment rulemaking processes.
Millions of public land users across the country enjoy both motorized and non-motorized recreational experiences. Opening non-motorized trails to motorized bikes would effectively eliminate the non-motorized, primitive recreational opportunities. We strongly oppose any effort to change existing trail management rules or policies and encourage all federal land management agencies to reject any effort to open non-motorized trails to e-bikes or other motorized vehicles.
The full list of organizations that signed the letter can be found here.
Photo by the author