Back in August, the National Park Service announced a decision that has been controversial to elements of the trail using community ever since. Suddenly and with no public input, the NPS in a letter from Interior Secretary David Bernhardt instructed national park superintendents to, at their discretion, allow e-bikes on all non-motorized trails open to bicycles within 30 days. All e-bikes, the letter said, regardless of class (there are three classes, depending on top speed and whether the bikes have a throttle), were to be regulated exactly as traditional bikes were. According to the NPS, there was no functional difference between e-bikes and traditional bikes for trail management.
The decision was immediately controversial, and in recent weeks, a lawsuit has been filed against the NPS in hopes of reversing the new policy. The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is the headlining plaintiff in the case and they argue that Bernhardt and the NPS met in secret with e-bike industry reps before their sudden decision to allow e-bikes on trails. Such behavior, the lawsuit alleges, is a violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, meant to prevent lobbying with no oversight or transparency. The suit also claims that acting Park Service Deputy Director P. Daniel Smith, who helped craft the decision, lacked the authority to make park service rules because he was not appointed by the President, as the law requires.
Considering Bernhardt once carried a card through the halls of the White House that listed the many conflicts of interest he’d developed while working as a professional lobbyist, it’s perhaps to be expected that there’d be a lobbying connection with the e-bike decision.
“The impetus from industry is not surprising given that, as a former industry lobbyist himself, Secretary Bernhardt is known for hearing industry concerns and not public concerns,” PEER’s Executive Director Tim Whitehouse said in a press release.
“Concerned groups and individuals are joining PEER in demanding that the Park Service follow the normal regulatory processes and assess the additional impacts that higher speed e-Bike riders pose both to other trail users and to wildlife in the parks,” said Whitehouse.
A similar lawsuit was filed against the US Forest Service earlier this fall after e-bike access was approved in California’s Tahoe National Forest. Equestrian and trail advocacy groups filed suit at the end of October, claiming that the decision to allow e-bikes on trails within the Tahoe National Forest system was arbitrary and violated a rule requiring environmental impact studies to be done to look into the effects of the decision.
The NPS decision does not allow e-bikes on all trails, just those already open to traditional bikes. For a list of national parks that allow bikes on trails, click here.
Though the lawsuit as filed argues that lobbying groups representing e-bike interests were illegally involved in helping usher the NPS decision through the system, it’s likely that, even if lobbyists weren’t involved and that proper environmental impact reports had been filed, there would still be legal challenges to the NPS ruling.
“E-bike use in the National Park System creates qualitatively new risks, such as high speeds, increased likelihood of collisions compared to non-motorized bicycles, and the startling and disturbance of hikers, runners, and horse and traditional bicycle riders,” the plaintiffs claim in the filing. “Their use also causes environmental impacts such as increased noise, trail damage, and disturbance of wildlife.”
According to PEER, 25 NPS sites have acted to allow e-bikes on trails to this point.
The full press release from PEER is below.
Washington, DC — The recent National Park Service (NPS) order allowing electric bicycles on park trails violates several federal laws and should be rescinded, according to a lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and a coalition of conservation groups and affected individuals. Nearly 25 National Park System units have acted to implement the e-bikes order.
Following a Secretarial Order by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt directing that all Interior Department agencies, including the NPS, immediately allow e-bikes “where other types of bicycles are allowed,” on August 30, 2019, Deputy NPS Director P. Daniel Smith issued a “Policy Memorandum” ordering all park superintendents to now allow e-bikes on trails where the parks currently allow bicycles.
The PEER suit cites several legal impediments to the NPS order, including that it:
• Violated NPS’s own regulations that may not be set aside by administrative fiat;
• Improperly evaded legally-required environmental reviews; and
• Came from an official, Smith, who lacked the authority to issue such an order.
“This e-bikes order illustrates an improper and destructive way to manage our National Parks,” stated PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse, a former enforcement attorney with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Concerned groups and individuals are joining PEER in demanding that the Park Service follow the normal regulatory processes and assess the additional impacts that higher speed e-bike riders pose both to other trail users and to wildlife in the parks.”
It also turns out that Bernhardt and Smith’s staffs have been regularly meeting behind closed doors with an industry-dominated advisory committee called the “E-bike Partner & Agency Group” at Interior Headquarters and through teleconferences. E-bike vendors stand to profit from the NPS move. The PEER suit demands a halt to these meetings because they violate the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires transparency to prevent such clandestine lobbying.
“The impetus from industry is not surprising given that, as a former industry lobbyist himself, Secretary Bernhardt is known for hearing industry concerns and not public concerns,” added Whitehouse, noting that other Bernhardt moves, such as forbidding parks from trying to limit plastic bottle sales, are a form of creeping commercialization affecting park policies. “E-bikes represent another inroad of commercialized recreation into our National Parks.”
Joining PEER in the suit as co-plaintiffs are Wilderness Watch, Marin Conservation League, Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, Save Our Seashore, and three impacted individuals.