A Motor is a Motor. Um, Right?
When is a motor on a mountain bike not considered a motor? When the Secretary of Interior commands it. Nothing could be more crazy, but here we are. Electric bikes (e-Bikes) soon could be sharing multiple-use trails with horsemen.
On August 29th, Secretary of the Department of Interior (DOI), David Bernhardt, issued Secretarial Order 3376, titled “Increasing Recreational Opportunities through the use of Electric Bikes.” The Order applies to all DOI agencies (National Park Service, BLM, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service). Essentially, it orders the agencies to adopt, within 14 days, policies that declare e-Bikes a non-motorized trail use. Yes, 14 days.
I hope you picked yourself off the floor to continue reading. Fourteen days represents a blink of the eye within the federal bureaucracy. Yet the Order provides the agencies at least one work-around, where it states: “unless prohibited otherwise by law or regulation.”
That’s the rub. The entire Order is essentially prohibited by existing law and regulation. The Secretary knows that. Yet the impact of his Order nonetheless is intended to be met, come hook or crook, in short order. It states:
“E-bikes shall be allowed where other types of bicycles are allowed; and E-bikes shall not be allowed where other types of bicycles are prohibited.”
So at least we don’t have to worry about this applying to federally-designated Wilderness areas. Not at the moment. But, by enshrining falsehoods into agency policy, comes the risk of creating a slippery slope.
Worst of all, the Department never offered the public an opportunity to comment on this proposal. It’s the result of behind-closed-door negotiations with lobbyists representing bike and electric motor manufacturers. Your opinion, or that of BCHA, hikers, hunters, anglers, etc., was neither sought nor deemed important.
A Little Background
E-Bikes have been around for many years—a bit longer in Europe and Canada. But to date, e-Bikes have been marketed primarily as a nifty option for city commuters or as an alternative form of transportation or outdoor recreation for the elderly. Envision a classic Schwinn town bike, wicker basket mounted on the handlebars, and sporting a bulky motor attached above or beside the rear wheel. Most of us understand the need for, and would welcome, such an enjoyable option.
Yet the e-Bike you’re bound to see on the trail is a whole different beast. Envision a beefy mountain bike with a thick down tube and a slightly larger crank case. They are called electric mountain bikes, or eMTBs. The electric motor is barely detectable. But inside the frame is a rechargeable battery that is capable of propelling its rider at speeds up to 28 mph, with current ranges from 50-75 miles. And some, like the makers of the Optibike (www.optibike.com), which claim a range of 180 miles.
A mere search on YouTube reveals a dizzying array of eMTBs, some capable of speeds in excess of 36 or even 50 mph. Check out the promotional videos of happy riders zooming quietly by on dirt roads and natural surface trails—some of which are zooming uphill.
It gets even crazier. The Secretarial Order applies to the current three classes of eMTBs (Class 1, 2 and 3), where Class 2 uses throttle-assist, like a motorcycle—no pedaling required!—and Class 3 is capable of achieving speeds of 28 mph before the motor assist kicks off. Still, these bikes don’t look much different than their higher speed, higher wattage eMTB counterparts. This brings into serious question whether law enforcement officials on our federal public lands could tell the difference, and effectively enforce this new machination of mechanization of our trails.
Even modestly fit riders claim that an e-Bike places them on a level nearly equivalent to that of an Olympic mountain biker. A super-fit rider told me that, with an e-Bike, they can easily double their speed on a trail, primarily with respect to flat terrain and, more specifically, while traveling uphill.
So it’s not the elderly tootling along a bike path on an e-Bike that I’m worried about. All power to them (pun intended). It’s the young, gonzo mountain bikers that worry me the most, who are out to set new speed records or to conquer those higher hills or mountains that previously where beyond their range and grasp.
Now, in addition to scanning the hillsides ahead of us for descending mountain bikes, will horsemen and women soon need to constantly scan the trail behind us—no matter how steep the slope?
How has BCHA Responded?
BCHA went into high gear when we first heard of this potential policy change in late June. We knew our actions had to be proactive. In early July, we sent an action alert to BCH state officers asking that every state and chapter be listed on a protest letter we would soon submit to federal agency leaders.
BCHA sounded the alarm. We were quickly joined by our partners, including The Wilderness Society (TWS), the American Hiking Society, and the Pacific Crest Trail Association. The letter we submitted in late July to agency leaders carried the support and signatures of over 60 regional and national trail- and recreation-oriented organizations, plus a listing of 30 BCH states and 196 chapters (the BCHA-affiliated list alone occupied four pages of the letter, even using two columns!). It expressed, in no uncertain terms, our unified opposition to any change in agency policy that would authorize e-Bikes, which clearly are motorized vehicles, on non-motorized trails.
As of the date of this newsletter’s publication, we have not received a formal response from either of the agencies. Then came Secretary Berhardt’s bombshell Order on August 29th. He wasted little time.
How Might this Play Out?
What does the Secretarial Order mean for the multi-use trails that horsemen and women currently enjoy? It’s hard to gauge at the moment.
National Parks: It could force National Park Service superintendents to declare, via updates to the “Superintendent’s Compendium,” that e-Bikes and eMTBs are authorized on trails where mountain biking is already allowed. That process does not require public input, but Superintendents would be wise to first do so if they don’t already reject the premise of the illogical Order.
The list of national park units that have mountain bikes trails is not long. But the policy change could represent a game-changer in park units like Mammoth Cave National Park; Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area; and the Chattahoochee River, Golden Gate, Santa Monica Mountains, and Whiskeytown national recreation areas. Only time, and the vigilance of BCHA and its partners, will tell.
BLM Lands: Conversely, there are many trails on which mountain bikes are allowed at present on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, which are extensive throughout the 11 Western States. Yet existing BLM policy would seem to prevent the instant authorization of motorized uses, like e-Bikes, on non-motorized trails. It appears the agency would first have to enter into a public decision-making process, like a trails or travel plan on a case-by-case and site-specific basis, with full public involvement. It’s too early to tell which direction the agency’s leadership will take this.
National Forests: Fortunately, the U.S. Forest Service resides within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and not within DOI. So the new Secretarial Order does not apply to the Forest Service. But don’t breathe a sigh of relief quite yet.
The U.S. Forest Service has received a similar level of lobbying by the same bike and electric motor lobbyists. Plus, the Secretary of Interior is leaning heavily on his counterpart in the Department of Agriculture to follow his lead and make the new e-Bike policy consistent among all federal land management agencies. Consequently, we’re bracing for the other shoe to drop. But we are not sitting by idly.
In early September, BCHA joined forces with TWS and their “legal muscle” to demand that the Tahoe National Forest rescind its recent action to allow Class 1 eMTBs on over 130 miles of non-motorized trails throughout the forest. The “decision” was announced quietly, largely among mountain bike magazines and online forums, and without any public scoping or public meetings. Even the local chapter of BCH California, the Mother Lode Unit, and another local equine trails organization, were left in the dark, despite maintaining good relations with Tahoe forest staff. Proponents of eMTBs hailed the Tahoe National Forest as a “pilot” project among national forests, with more to come.
BCHA Prepared to Litigate
The September 9 “demand” letter, submitted to the Tahoe National Forest by TWS, BCHA, BCH California, its Mother Lode Unit and two other local organizations, lays out a legal case for why the action to allow eMTBs on non-motorized trails was in violation of existing law and policy (a copy is posted on BCHA’s website, under ‘About Us,’ then ‘BCHA News’). It serves as a courtesy notice to our partners within the agency to do the right thing by rescinding the illegal action and cease advertising on its website this new regional, eMTB playground.
Yet litigation is the last thing we’d choose to do, particularly with a key partner like the Forest Service. It strains relationships, represents an enormous sink of time and money, and does not always yield the results we would want, or in the timeframe we would want, even if we were able to convince a federal judge of our claims.
Ideally, if there were to be public dialogue about the role e-Bikes and eMTBs might play on public lands, equestrians and all affected users would have a seat at the table in local decision-making processes. There would not be a top-down mandate from Washington DC in the form of a Secretarial Order or other change in agency policy that allows motorized uses on non-motorized trails. Electric bikes have their place on public lands. Moreover, they provide a segment of the public with opportunities to explore and enjoy public lands that might not otherwise have such an opportunity.
Hope for a Rational Solution
So why all the madness coming from Washington DC? What diminished role of oversight of our federal lands do citizens retain when manufacturer lobbyists can push agency leaders to redefine an electric bike as not really having a motor? This is crazy.
A motor is a motor is a motor. They have no place on non-motorized trails. The U.S. Forest Service alone has 60,300 miles of legally designated motorized trails on which e-Bikes and eMTBs are currently allowed (not roads, but actual trails). One can only hope for a rational solution. But if the craziness persists, the options for BCHA, our partners and of the affected public to be able to influence public lands policy will be limited.
A Motor is a Motor. Um, Right?