Tahoe National Forest, Please CEASE allowing e-Bikes on non-motorized trails

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The Wilderness Society, Gold Country Trails Council, Back Country Horsemen of America, Backcountry Horsemen of California, along with its Mother Lode Unit, and Forest Issues Group request that the Tahoe National Forest immediately withdraw its decision to permit Class 1 electric mountain bikes (EMTBs) on non-motorized trails and remove the approximately 132 miles of trails closed to motor vehicle use from its list of recommended Class 1 E-MTB trails. This was sent to Forest Supervisor Eli Ilano, Tahoe National Forest in response. Click here to download and read the full letter sent to Forest Supervisor Eli Ilano.

Dear Supervisor Ilano,

The Wilderness Society, Gold Country Trails Council, Back Country Horsemen of America, Backcountry Horsemen of California, along with its Mother Lode Unit, and Forest Issues Group request that the Tahoe National Forest immediately withdraw its decision to permit Class 1 electric mountain bikes (EMTBs) on non-motorized trails and remove the approximately 132 miles of trails closed to motor vehicle use from its list of recommended Class 1 E-MTB trails. 1 As explained further below, permitting E-MTB use on non-motorized trails violates long-standing travel management law and policy, as well as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The Tahoe should conduct an open public process, consistent with the Travel Management Rule and NEPA, to determine whether any changes to its Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM) are warranted for Class 1 E-MTBs.

1According to our GIS analysis, the list includes approximately 215 miles of trails, including 132 miles of nonmotorized trails and 83 miles of trails currently designated for motor vehicle use. See Attached Map.

With over one million members and supporters, The Wilderness Society (TWS) is the leading conservation organization working to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places. TWS staff and members enjoy the Tahoe National Forest for recreational activities including hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, skiing, wildlife viewing, and camping, and for the aesthetic,
spiritual, and wildlife values and opportunities it provides. TWS has invested significantly in the Tahoe over the years, including participating in summer and winter travel management planning – even intervening to successfully defend the forest’s MVUM from litigation by motorized interest groups. 2 In anticipation of an upcoming forest plan revision, TWS also recently conducted an intensive inventory and evaluation of over 214,000 acres of roadless lands on the Tahoe that are suitable for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS). More broadly, TWS works nation-wide to ensure sound management of our shared national forests, bringing to bear scientific, legal, and policy guidance to land managers, communities, local conservation groups, and state and federal decision-makers. In doing so, TWS hopes to ensure the best management of our public lands for recreation, wildlife conservation, water quality, climate adaptation, and the ability of present and future generations to enjoy and benefit equitably from public lands.

To these ends, TWS has worked for decades to influence and implement long-standing travel management laws and policies that help ensure higher quality recreational experiences for both motorized and non-motorized users, prevent avoidable resource damage, alleviate public safety concerns and conflicts between users, and benefit local economies by encouraging visitation and tourism. The Tahoe National Forest’s allowance of E-MTBs on non-motorized trails constitutes a direct threat to both TWS’s local work on the Tahoe and its national work.

For more than three decades, the Gold Country Trail Council (GCTC) has partnered with the Forest Service and other local and state agencies to provide funding, volunteer strength, and energy to plan, build, and maintain non-motorized trails and equestrian campgrounds. GCTC was founded in 1981 by a group of Nevada County citizens to address the need for non-motorized trails in the county and surrounding foothills. It is a volunteer organization representing over 350 members, and many others who visit our national forests to enjoy non-motorized trail opportunities as equestrians, hikers, mountain bikers, and backpackers. GCTC provides construction, maintenance, and monitoring of equestrian campgrounds, trails, and staging areas, maps, and trail education materials, and volunteer trail patrols to greet and educate users about responsible trail use on public lands, in partnership with the Forest Service.

Founded in 1973, the Back Country Horsemen of America (BCHA) is a national 501(c)(3) non-profit service organization. Its mission is to perpetuate the common sense use and enjoyment of horses in America’s backcountry and Wilderness. BCHA is one of the country’s leading volunteer groups assisting in the maintenance of the nation’s trails, particularly throughout the National Forest System. BCHA volunteers contributed 322,125 hours working to maintain trails on public lands in 2018 alone. Those hours equate to an in-kind value of $12.1 million in trail work donated to local and federal land managing agencies. Since 1995, the in-kind contribution of BCHA volunteer efforts has exceeded $140 million.

2See Friends of Tahoe Forest Access v. U.S. Dep’t of Agric., E.D. Cal. No. 2:12-cv-01876-JAM-CKD, 9th Cir. No. 14-15336.

BCHA volunteers operate in 31 states that include the Backcountry Horsemen of California (BCHC), whose volunteers last year donated 108,293 hours of service to maintain horse camps and trails, including trails located within the Tahoe National Forest. The BCHC chapter located closest to the Tahoe National Forest, BCHC’s Mother Lode Unit, last year contributed 5,195 hours of volunteer labor. Most of that effort was directed to projects within the Tahoe and El Dorado national forests and included manual labor and the packing of equipment and materials for the Forest Service and other trail partners, including youth corps organizations and the Pacific Crest Trail Association.

The members that comprise BCHC, its Mother Lode Unit, and their families, also enjoy recreational horseback riding on trails throughout the Tahoe National Forest. These trails are used by horsemen and women to both hunt and view wildlife; to access scenic vistas, favorite picnic spots, fishing holes and campsites; and, in general, to enjoy the quiet and tranquility of the national forest. The ability to access trails that provide an escape from the motorization and mechanization of modern society is one reason Backcountry Horsemen use and enjoy non-motorized trails within the Tahoe National Forest. System trails on the Tahoe National Forest enjoyed by BCHC members include many of the non-motorized trails on which the use of E-MTBs recently has been authorized by the Forest Service.

Forest Issues Group (FIG) is 501(c)(3) non-profit that focuses its activities on the public lands of the Sierra forests – particularly the Tahoe National Forest – and the impacts of U.S. Forest Service management on these forests. FIG is an organization made up of local citizens committed to healthy national forests. FIG provides community education and public review of Forest Service management.

In the attached July 26, 2019 letter to Chief Christiansen, over 50 hiking, equestrian, and conservation groups, plus 30 Back Country Horsemen States with 196 chapters, articulated why, as a general matter, permitting e-bikes on non-motorized trails on federal public lands would create an unmanageable slippery slope and threaten future management of non-motorized trails and areas. As the letter points out, permitting e-bikes on non-motorized trails is contrary to travel management laws and policies dating back to the Nixon administration that requires all motorized recreational uses of national forest system and other public lands be confined to a system of roads, trails, and areas designated in compliance with the so-called “minimization criteria.”3 The Forest Service’s Travel Management Rule (TMR) echoes these criteria and restricts “motor vehicle use” to the designated system identified through travel management planning, and the associated public process and NEPA review, and depicted on the forest’s MVUM.4 The Tahoe National Forest’s 2010 MVUM permits motorized vehicle use on nearly 2,500 miles of motorized roads and trails.

The TMR defines “motor vehicle” broadly as “[a]ny vehicle which is self-propelled,” excluding vehicles operated on rails and battery-powered mobility devices.5 On numerous occasions, the Forest Service has explicitly and correctly recognized that e-bikes – which by definition have a motor – are motor vehicles subject to the TMR. For instance, the response to comments on the agency’s 2015 winter travel management rule (subpart C of the TMR) stated that “[n]ew technologies that merge bicycles and motors, such as e-bikes, are considered motor vehicles under § 212.1 of the TMR.”6 A 2016 memo (attached) from then, Washington Office Director of Recreation Heritage & Volunteer Resources Joe Meade further explained:

E-bikes have a motor, thereby are self-propelled, and are not covered by the exceptions in the definition. Therefore, e-bikes are motor vehicles and are subject to regulation under the TMR, which requires designation of National Forest System (NFS) roads, NFS
trails, and areas on NFS lands for motor vehicle use.

3 See Exec. Order No. 11,644, §§ 1 & 3 (Feb. 8, 1972), as amended by Exec. Order No. 11989 (May 24, 1977).
4 See 36 C.F.R. part 212, subpart B.
5 36 C.F.R. § 212.1; see also Exec. Order No. 11,644, § 2 (defining “off-road vehicle” subject to travel management restrictions as “any motorized vehicle designed for or capable of cross-country travel on or immediately over land, water, sand, snow, ice, marsh, swampland, or other natural terrain,” while excluding emergency, authorized, and official uses).

Given the clear language of the TMR, any contrary interpretation would be unlawful absent full notice and comment rulemaking based on information in the administrative record. 7Any contrary interpretation would also require a reasoned explanation for the change in position, again based on the record. 8

The Tahoe National Forest’s decision to permit Class 1 E-MTBs on non-motorized trails disregards the requirements of the TMR and the agency’s clear interpretation that e-bikes are motor vehicles. While Class 1 e-bikes are often described as “pedal assist,” the rotation of the pedals merely triggers the motor and does not necessarily propel the bicycle. Indeed, the motor on a Class 1 e-bike may generate 100 percent of the power under a variety of circumstances. In short, the classification does not in any way obviate the fact that e-bikes are, by definition, motor vehicles. The motor-propelled nature of e-bikes means that riders can travel further and faster than might otherwise be the case. This, in turn, is likely to have impacts on recreational use trends and a variety of forest resources.

If the forest desires to permit E-MTBs on non-motorized trails, it must conduct a travel management planning process, with appropriate public process and NEPA analysis. Notably, the TMR encourages
designation of roads, trails, and areas by “vehicle class,” which could facilitate designation of certain
trails for motor vehicle use only by Class 1 E-MTBs (assuming the designation decision complies with the minimization and other TMR criteria), thereby preserving the more primitive experience that some EMTB users may seek. The Tahoe has completed no such process. This not only violates the TMR and NEPA, but it has also damaged public trust and opportunities for collaboration.

The decision also results in real harm to our interests. For instance, as depicted in the attached map, nearly half of the recommended Class 1 E-MTB trails included on the Tahoe’s list are in areas identified by TWS as suitable for inclusion in the NWPS. As just one example, the Mt. Lola trail traverses a high priority proposed wilderness area that is now open to motorized use by Class 1 E-MTBs, thereby degrading its wilderness character and the potential that it would be designated by Congress or recommended by the Forest Service for inclusion in the NWPS. Those impacts must be analyzed under NEPA and minimized under the TMR, with stakeholders able to weigh in through a public process.

6 80 Fed. Reg. 4500, 4503 (Jan. 28, 2015).
7 See also Winter Wildlands Alliance v. U.S. Forest Serv., No. 1:11-cv-586-REB, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 47728, at *32 (Mar. 29, 2013) (“Executive Order [11,644] requires the Forest Service to ensure that all forest lands are designated for all off-road vehicles.” (emphasis in original)).
8 See Encino Motorcars, LLC v. Navarro, 136 S. Ct. 2117, 2125-26 (2016) (agency change in position requires acknowledgment of the change, showing that there are good reasons for the new policy, and an examination of the facts and circumstances that underlay or were engendered by the prior policy).

For these reasons, we request that the Tahoe National Forest immediately withdraw its decision to
permit Class 1 E-MTBs on non-motorized trails and remove the approximately 132 miles of trails closed to motor vehicle use from its list of recommended Class 1 E-MTB trails. Failure to do so will result in significant legal liability. After withdrawing its decision, the Tahoe should conduct an open public process, consistent with the TMR and NEPA, to determine whether any changes to its MVUM are warranted for Class 1 E-MTBs. Thank you for your prompt attention to our request.

Sincerely,

Alison Flint
Director, Litigation & Agency Policy
The Wilderness Society

Helen Harvey
President, Gold Country Trails Council

Darrell Wallace
Chairman, Back Country Horsemen of America

Lloyd Erlandson
President, Backcountry Horsemen of California (BCHC)

Randy Hackbarth
President, Mother Lode Unit
Backcountry Horsemen of California

Don Rivenes
Executive Director, Forest Issues Group