BCHA Public Lands Update On E-Bikes for 2021

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By Randy Rasmussen – BCHA Director of Public Lands and Recreation

Public debate is likely to intensify in 2021 regarding the appropriate role of motorized electric bicycle (e-bike) use in outdoor recreation, including the appropriate role of electric mountain bikes (e-MTBs) among backcountry trails. The issue is not going away any time soon. This Public Lands Update summarizes recent changes in policies by federal land management agencies on the e-bike topic and what BCH chapters can do when the e-bike debate comes to public lands in your backyard. 

Final Rules for E-bike Use Issued by DOI Agencies

The e-bike industry continued its aggressive push to open public land trails to e-bike use, driven primarily by an objective to increase e-bike sales across the nation. They chalked up one such success in 2020 via the Department of Interior (DOI), which in early October announced final regulations for e-bike use by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These new policies provide a green light to local agency managers who seek to authorize e-bike use on trails where traditional bicycle use is currently allowed (for details, see BCHA’s Summer 2020 newsletter). In short, the new policies treat e-bikes as a non-motorized trail use, akin to a regular bicycle—a reversal of policy that previously (and rightfully) recognized that e-bikes operate via an electric motor.

Draft Directives for E-bike Use on National Forests

Now the good news. It appears that the U.S. Forest Service is unlikely to match the fervor by which DOI agencies rushed to facilitate and expand access for e-bike use on non-motorized trails. In late September, the Forest Service issued “draft directives” that clarify how and by what criteria e-bikes are to be managed on national forests. The draft directives were circulated as part of a 30-day public review and comment period.

BCHA researched, prepared and submitted detailed public comments on the draft directives. Importantly, the draft directives appeared largely consistent with the position advocated by BCHA and others that e-bikes must be treated as a motorized trail use. Consequently, BCHA offered its support for the thrust of the draft directives and commended the Forest Service for its effort to “develop guidance that appears consistent with existing agency policy and that demonstrates an awareness and appreciation for all national forest stakeholders, including traditional trail enthusiasts such as BCHA’s membership.” We also recommended improvements that should be made in the final directives.

BCHA Position on the Use of E-bikes

BCHA has not issued a formal policy statement on e-bike use. In general, however, BCHA opposes attempts by federal land management agencies to superimpose motorized forms of travel on non-motorized trails shared by hikers, equestrians and others. It is our view that allowing motorized vehicles on trails that were neither designed nor previously managed for motorized use could have significant adverse impacts on the safety and enjoyment of non-motorized trail users.

BCHA understands that e-bikes have their place on public lands. The questions of where, and under what circumstances, should be addressed at the local level and include the involvement of affected stakeholders and environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). BCHA’s position has been to recognize the opportunity that e-bike use represents to people who would not otherwise have the means (like horses!) or the physical ability to explore and enjoy public lands without the motor assist provided by an e-bike. Yet BCHA supports the view that motorized recreational uses should occur only on routes or in areas that have been officially designated for motorized use.

In cases where a federal agency proposes to change the classification of a non-motorized trail (or trails) to allow e-bike use, BCHA chapters need to be prepared to roll up their sleeves to either change or negotiate the final outcome. Again, a federal agency doing so should follow public engagement and review requirements of NEPA; BCH chapters need to cry “foul” if the agency is not, or if they claim they can take a short-cut, like use of a “Categorical Exclusion” in lieu of more detailed NEPA analysis. This is important, as it’s only through the NEPA process where BCHA and BCH New Mexico recently convinced the U.S. Forest Service to withdraw a proposal that would have added e-bikes to a proposed non-motorized trail system.

E-bikes and the Lincoln National Forest

BCHA chalked up a significant victory in our efforts to ensure an open public process and rigorous environmental analysis under NEPA by the Lincoln National Forest, located in southern New Mexico. In September, the District Ranger issued a Draft Decision Notice withdrawing a portion of an otherwise good recreation management plan that would have authorized e-bike use alongside hiking and equestrian use on a new trail system. BCHA and BCH New Mexico submitted a detailed public comment letter in August on the agency’s draft Environmental Assessment (EA), documenting concerns over safety, user conflict and the potential to displace traditional non-motorized trail users. The District Ranger listened! Their decision rationale read:

To be responsive to public comments on the draft EA, which were largely supportive of the project, but which were also focused on the incompatibility of traditional uses such as horseback riding and hiking and E-bikes on the proposed single track trail area #1 mainly due to the potential speed discrepancy (~20-28 mph versus 3-10 mph) and ensuing safety issues, I have decided to eliminate the use of E-bikes in single-track area #1; only non-motorized uses (hiking, horseback riding, and regular mountain bikes) would be authorized.

BCH New Mexico followed up by conveying their appreciation to staff of the Lincoln National Forest. They also offered to help defend and publicly support the agency’s decision should e-bike interests push back. In a reversal of fortune, BCH New Mexico ended up strengthening its relationship with this Forest—when we initially worried about straining this relationship by documenting and voicing our opposition to the original proposal. Moreover, the detailed public comments we developed for this proposal can be used as a template for other BCH chapters who might find themselves facing a similar situation.

E-bike Proposals Coming to a Forest (or Park, or BLM Lands) Near You?

BCHA chapters and equestrians, in general, need to be prepared for the moment when their federal land management partners announce a proposal to authorize e-bike use on otherwise non-motorized trails. In many places, it will be assumed by agency trail planners that equestrians will simply accept and learn to accommodate e-bikes on shared-use trails. In other places, agency planners will ask local equestrian representative what trails they might be willing to concede to e-bike use.

In an ideal world, federal agencies would require e-bike advocates to design, construct and maintain their own set of trails for their specific use. Or they might insist that e-bike use is appropriate only on trails authorized for motorized use, like motorcycle or ATV trails, in recognition of the fact that e-bikes are propelled in part by motors. But in the short term, don’t expect agency decision makers to fully understand concerns about safety and user conflict shared by traditional trail users like horsemen. We’ll need to make the case at the local level, and be prepared to document those concerns.

In the meantime, here are a few things you can do to monitor developments by federal land managers in your area:

  1. Engage in local trail coalitions (if they exist in your area) and keep your ears open within the trails community about pending trail proposals and developments.
  2. Forge alliances with other trail groups, like hikers, bird watchers and others in order to expand your network. For example, American Hiking Society maintains a list of local allied hiking groups that can be searched by state https://americanhiking.org/hiking-resources/#hiking-alliance
  3. Call agency offices to ask that you be placed on their (email) mailing list for announcements about all recreation- and trails-related projects in locations of interest to your chapter.
  4. Monitor the list of pending projects of local land management agencies. The US Forest Service maintains a website https://www.fs.fed.us/sopa/ with quarterly updates for your national forest. The BLM maintains a register of planning projects that allows you look up recreation projects by BLM state and district https://www.blm.gov/programs/planning-and-nepa/eplanning
  5. Meet occasionally, have phone calls or zoom meetings, with agency trail managers to discuss potential work projects and any specific concerns you have about e-bike use on non-motorized trails.
  6. Volunteer to post “No e-bike” signs at non-motorized trailheads before e-bike trespass becomes a significant problem and encourage agency law enforcement to enforce the rules.
  7. Become proficient in spotting an e-bike (e-MTB) on the trail. You can educate yourself at this website https://peopleforbikes.org/tag/e-bikes/ or do a simple search for photos and videos of e-bikes (and, importantly e-MTBs) online.
  8. Document cases of e-bike trespass on non-motorized trails and document any accidents or unpleasant run-ins with people using e-bikes on non-motorized trails. Share any such documentation with BCHA and agency law enforcement personnel. Such documentation may prove critical in making the case against shared-use trails with motorized e-bikes.
  9. Be courteous yet firm in any encounters with e-bike riders on non-motorized trails. Educate them about the rules. More often than not, the agencies have not adequately posted e-bike prohibitions or directed e-bike riders to trails they can enjoy without posing hazards to equestrians. Again, document any such encounters and share the documentation with the relevant law enforcement officer(s) and your BCH state public lands officer.
  10. You might consider renting an e-bike for a day from your local bike shop (seriously!). Take it out for a spin on (paved) trails or dirt roads to get a feel for this new technology. An opening line by e-bikes advocates is sometimes “You’ve probably never even seen or ridden an e-bike.” Prove them wrong by describing the model you tried out. I did. And now I can describe how e-bike technology, in the hands of young thrill-seekers on the trail, frightens me as a horseman.