The Great Public Lands E-Bike Rush of 2019

During the administration of President George W. Bush, officials who oversaw public lands and the environment would frequently wait until 5 P.M. on Friday to announce rollbacks that would help businesses and industry at the expense of environmentalists and recreational users. The hope, presumably, was that no one would notice. For some of those years, a top official at the Interior Department was a man named David Bernhardt.

Bernhardt is now secretary of the interior, and he must still favor the tactic. Late in the day on August 29, the Thursday before Labor Day weekend, Bernhardt signed a secretarial order that could open an enormous swath of public lands to electronic bicycles, those motorized two-wheelers that have become common in cities but are a newer and more contentious presence on unpaved trails.

If Bernhardt hoped his order would go unnoticed, it didn’t work: The media reported on the change immediately, and it quickly stirred up controversy. Secretarial Order 3376 is broad, with potentially large ramifications for public lands and people who enjoy them, whether they’re in the saddle or not. Here’s what you need to know.

What 3376 Says

Interior’s land agencies—the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Reclamation—have been told to no longer define e-bikes of all power types as off-road motorized vehicles. (As described in more detail below, all e-bikes contain motors. Different classes of e-bikes offer increasing amounts of power and speed to assist a rider. Some will provide assistance up to 28 miles an hour.)

“E-bikes shall be allowed where other types of bicycles are allowed,” the order states. It doesn’t place any restrictions on which e-bikes can be used on nonmotorized trails. It gives agencies 14 days to adopt the new policy. While news reports have focused on what the changes could mean for the Park Service, which controls more than 85 million acres, the BLM is perhaps more significant. The agency manages 248 million acres of the country, more than any other government body overseeing federal land.

The goal of all this, Bernhardt wrote, is “to increase recreational opportunities for all Americans, especially those with physical limitations.” The order also tries to simplify the rules surrounding e-bikes and “decreases regulatory burden”—always popular in Republican circles.

The order gives the agencies 30 days to produce a public policy about how e-bikes can be used. It’s currently unclear how each agency will respond—that is, how widely they will throw open the doors of the public lands they manage, given that there are regulations already on the books for each agency that might conflict with the order.

The National Park Service already issued its new policy on Friday, August 30. It allows e-bikes on park roads, paved or hardened trails, areas designated for off-road motor vehicle use, and administrative roads and trails where traditional bikes are allowed. The bikes are not allowed in wilderness areas, nor are they allowed in areas where traditional bikes can’t go. (Unlike other agencies, the Park Service has few singletrack trails where bikes currently are permitted.) Except on park roads, the policy also requires the rider of an e-bike to use the motor only to assist pedal propulsion and not to use it like a motorbike, with a throttle. It’s unclear how the service would be able to enforce that, however.

The Park Service has claimed that superintendents still have the discretion to restrict or impose conditions on e-bikes for protection of the park or public safety—keeping a trail open only to traditional bikes, for instance.

The upshot is still a bit murky. Will people be e-biking on a paved trail in Yosemite sometime soon? Probably so. Will people be e-biking up a narrow hiking track to a kiva on BLM land in Arizona? Maybe not. Such questions will be answered in the weeks and months ahead.

E-Bikes: A Primer

E-bikes are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. bike market. Their share of total bike sales in the U.S. is still small, but it tripled in the past three years, to six percent of the market—and it’s grown more than eightfold since 2014, even as sales of conventional road bikes have been dropping.

Another attraction to bike companies is the cost of e-bikes, which is high. For example, at Bangtail Bikes and XC Skis in Bozeman, Montana, a full-suspension e-mountain bike (eMTB) starts at around $4,500 and can sell for as much as $12,000. (It should be mentioned that a high-end, full-suspension mountain bike can cost nearly this much, too.)

For these and other reasons, the bike industry has been pushing hard, particularly at the state and federal level, for more off-pavement e-bike access. The People for Bikes Coalition, a bike-industry group based in Boulder, offers a playbook with talking points and suggested answers to questions from people who don’t know much about e-bikes or don’t like them. REI, which doubled its e-bike offerings in 2019, also donated $110,000 to the group’s efforts to expand e-bike access both on and off road, which includes getting states to enact e-bike laws that the industry finds favorable.

There are three classes of the machines: 

  • Class 1 e-bikes have a motor that provides assistance when the rider pedals—often called pedal-assist—but once you hit 20 miles per hour, you don’t get an additional boost.
  • Class 2 e-bikes have a throttle. The motor can propel the bike without pedaling at all, similar to a small motorbike. Motors are governed at 20 miles per hour.
  • Class 3 e-bikes are pedal-assist bikes that can go up to 28 miles an hour.

All classes are limited to 750 watts of assist power, equivalent to one horsepower.

“In our store, the Class 1 mountain bikes are the most popular models,” says Rob Funderburk, shop manager at Bangtail Bikes. They rent for $85 for 24 hours, and they allow a less-fit person to hang with a partner on the trails. “People usually come back with a huge grin on their face because they were able to keep up with the rest of their more enthusiastic family members,” Funderburk says. “It’s an equalizer.”

Another big user group, he says, is “people extending their cycling careers”—riders who’ve had to stop or slow down because of age, injury, or weight gain. E-bikes get them back out there.

What Do Environmentalists Think?

Many environmental and conservation groups were stunned and infuriated by the announcement. “It’s extremely sweeping. It basically says you have to allow e-bikes of all different classes. And you cannot treat them as motor vehicles,” says Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association. “I am absolutely shocked he did a secretarial order on this,” Brengel says. “Not even considering conservation in this decision, it goes against the Organic Act of the Park Service,” she says, referring to the 1916 legislation that founded the service.

There are always challenges when something new appears on public lands, Brengel says. But in national parks, the overriding mandate is supposed to be conservation. She says that didn’t happen at all in this case.

What’s more, as far as Brengel could tell, Bernhardt didn’t appear to consult with any trail groups before making a decision that directly affects trails. “These are not only the volunteers, but the philanthropists,” she says. “I’m baffled. He completely just bypassed all of them and made the decision for all the agencies.”

Lovers of quiet nature and wildlife should also worry about the new order, some environmentalists say. “By changing the definition of what’s a nonmotorized vehicle, you open the door to all motorized vehicles,” says Brad Brooks, public lands campaign director for the Wilderness Society. It’s not far-fetched, Brooks believes, to foresee a day in which electric snowmobiles and electric motorcycles—both already on the market—would be allowed into nonmotorized areas, too. “There will be no such thing as quiet, nonmotorized backcountry recreation anymore. It’s gone.”

Another future byproduct of e-bikes, he predicts, will be less wilderness. “Anyone who has ever worked on a wilderness campaign knows that once a motorized use has been established in an area, you draw the boundary around it,” excluding it from the future designation as wilderness, he says. If Bernhardt’s order takes full effect, he says, “practically speaking, you’re pretty much eliminating the possibility of new wilderness areas on BLM land. For people who care about wilderness, they should be concerned about this.”

E-bikes could also increase hunting pressure by sending more hunters deeper into the less accessible country. “The dilemma here is that nobody wants to talk about restraint. Nobody wants to talk about limits,” says George Nickas, executive director of Montana-based Wilderness Watch. “We need to confine ourselves to the footprint we have and figure out how to lessen it, not continue to expand it.”

Bernhardt’s order struck Alison Flint, director of litigation and agency policy for the Wilderness Society, as both “rushed” and “backward.” The order declared a goal, she says, then ordered agencies to figure out how to get there, while acknowledging that longstanding policies stand in the way.

To Flint, the order suggests the same haste and disarray that often marks Trump administration attempts to unwind environmental rules. She predicts that corners will be cut on environmental reviews and “a big fight” down the road will be the eventual result.

The People for Bikes Coalition has been pushing Interior for increased e-bike access on public lands, but even they were caught off-guard by the scope of the announcement. “It’s not exactly what we asked for,” says Noa Banayan, federal affairs manager for the group, which represents nearly 100 bike makers, industry suppliers, and shops, including major companies like Trek and Giant. “This is pretty broad access,” Banayan says. Still, she adds, “We think it’s a really good first step.”

How Do Mountain Bikers Feel About This?

Some are upset, but not all. The mountain-biking community has been split on the rise of eMTBs.

This was reflected recently in a survey done by Flathead Area Mountain Bikers, a group of about 300 riders in northwest Montana. Noah Bodman, who sits on the group’s board, says, “My takeaway was that people are split, almost evenly, between ‘e-bikes should be allowed only on motorized trails,’ ‘e-bikes should be allowed on every trail,’ and ‘e-bikes are their own separate thing, requiring their own separate rules that need to be discussed.’”

Bodman says e-bike fans range from downhillers who want an easier ride up—so they can bomb down slopes—to older people who need an assist, to fit grinders who “just think e-bikes are fun.” Opponents are hard to pigeonhole, but include people who “hold an ill-defined grudge against them, because they feel like it’s cheating.”

For now, the coalition’s official position is that e-bikers in the Flathead area should follow all current rules, which means they should only be allowed on trails where motorized uses are allowed. But that could change, he says. One of the group’s big concerns is the same one shared by the head of the International Mountain Bicycling Association, the Boulder-based advocacy group: e-bikes and traditional mountain bikes should not be lumped together by regulators.

“It’s very important that traditional mountain bikes remain independent, that they don’t become one and the same,” says David Wiens, IMBA’s executive director. “We’ve been supportive of Class 1 e-mountain bikes on mountain bike trails as long as our access isn’t impeded or threatened.”

What About E-bikes on Forest Service Lands? 

Bernhardt’s order doesn’t apply to Forest Service property, because it’s part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And don’t expect a blanket change any time soon. The agency operates under regulations created during the Clinton administration that would have to be amended for e-bikes to be allowed as a national policy, says Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. The process is “laborious,” Stahl says. “You can’t simply have secretary [Sonny] Purdue whip off an order.”

That said, e-bikes already are in use on a few national forests around the nation, including the bike park at Mammoth Mountain, California. Earlier this year, Tahoe National Forest opened nearly three dozen trails to Class 1 e-bikes, including a few well-known routes. A 2016 letter from the Forest Service’s national office reminds regional foresters that e-bikes should be managed as motorized vehicles, and be allowed in places designated for them. But Eli Ilano, the supervisor at Tahoe National Forest, told Outside that “the Forest Service doesn’t have any formal policy on e-bikes in our regulations or in our manuals or in law, just as many emerging technologies aren’t addressed.”

He likened the situation to the agency trying to figure out how to treat snowboarding when it first appeared at ski resorts on public lands. And since Ilano considered Class I e-bikes closer to mountain bikes than motorcycles, managers opened up some nonmotorized trails to them without notifying the public about putting motors on a nonmotorized trail.

Groups like the Wilderness Society disagree with this move. This week several groups wrote to Ilano, demanding that he withdraw the decision to allow e-bikes. The Wilderness Society says it is considering legal action.

The Art of Compromise

One Colorado county’s careful experience with e-bikes has showed officials there that the bikes don’t have to strike fear in other trail users, if they are managed thoughtfully.

A few years ago, Jefferson County, west of Denver, was starting to see e-bikes crop up in its parks. So in 2017, Jefferson County Open Space set up a study across the county’s 27 parks and 244 miles of urban and rural trails. They took surveys of visitors, asking them about their impressions of e-bikes as volunteers clandestinely rode them around the same park.

There were a lot of misconceptions about the lower-powered bikes, says Mary Ann Bonnell, visitor services manager and a ranger for Jefferson County Open Space, and the author of a study on the work. “In many cases, the e-bikes were not detected by the visitor,” says Bonnell. “One of their concerns was that they’re loud,” she says of visitors concerns, before they saw them. “Well, they’re not loud.”

Last year, the county conducted a pilot program in which they allowed Class 1 e-bikes on the trails. Encouraged by the result, this year they made the pilot program a full policy on the county’s nonpavement trail system. But, Bonnell says, “We heard loud and clear from our visitors that they did not want to see a throttle on bikes on natural surface trails”—that is, Class 2 bikes, which require no pedaling at all.

Today, she says, the county fields “far more complaints about off-leash dogs” than about e-bikes. “The idea that they cause more accidents—we are not seeing that with e-bikes in our medical response calls,” Bonnell says. The bike problems, when they happen, are about poor biking etiquette generally, she says. As one commenter put it in a survey, “If you’re an (expletive) on a regular bike, you’re gonna be an (expletive) on an e-bike.”

These sentiments ring true to Lloyd Erlandson, president of the Backcountry Horsemen of California. “My personal feelings is that this is gonna happen, and that it’s probably not all that bad,” Erlandson says of e-bikes. “But we need to learn how to work with it, and everybody needs to know the rules of the road.” A lot of bike riders simply don’t know how to ride properly around horses, Erlandson says. When they don’t, dangerous situations can result—for horses, equestrians, and cyclists. E-bikes could compound this, by bringing more riders, he says.

Bonnell points out that Jefferson County took the pulse of the local community before implementing its policy.

It is yet unclear what effect permitting bikes of different powers or abilities could have on user conflicts, however. Earlier this year, Colorado’s state parks system year went a step further than Jefferson County, allowing both Class 1 and Class 2 bikes on any trails open to mountain bikes. It’s too early to evaluate the program, says Fletcher Jacobs, state trails program manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. But, he says, “Talking to folks anecdotally at this point, we haven’t seen any issues.”

Lead Photo: Anthony Smith

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