By Russ Ehnes and Carl Siroky
e-bike [NOUN]: a bicycle that can be run on electric power as well as by pedaling.
An e-bike is a bicycle with an electric motor that can help the rider to traverse the road or the trail. You ride an e-bike much like you ride a normal bicycle, but with much less effort.
In the last few years nearly every bicycle manufacturer has entered the e-bike market, making them available and more affordable for many people. With this increase in ownership of e-bikes their use on public land trails has become the latest opportunity for public land management and a hot topic in user debates.
This past summer I saw my first “No E-Bikes” sign on a non-motorized trail in the Custer-Gallatin National Forest. Until I saw this sign, I was operating under the assumption that an e-bike was just another type of mountain bike and as such could be used on any trail that a mountain bike can be used on. I posted this picture on the left on Facebook with a comment about how surprised I was to see that e-bikes are being managed as “Motorized”. I got plenty of informative feedback from other folks, showing me that this is a hot topic in the outdoor recreation community.
I did a little research, to see what is going on with e-bikes on public land. What I discovered is that the BLM has a final e-bike rule but there is not yet final travel plan regulations written for e-bike management on Forest Service lands. I found out that the public land managers consider e-bikes to be “Motorized vehicles” and with a few notable exceptions, are managing their use as just that.
The Forest Service Statement on E-Bike Use:
Here is the official statement from the US Forest Service from their website at this address: https://www.fs.usda.gov/visit/e-bikes
Emerging technologies such as e-bikes are changing the way people enjoy their visits to national forests and grasslands. Today, more than 60,000 miles of trails and roads on national forests and grasslands are currently open to e-bike use. As use trends change with time and new technologies, the way we manage lands to ensure their long-term health and resilience must change as well. This is why we are closely examining our policy to identify ways to expand access for American’s to enjoy these recreation opportunities on our forests and grasslands in ways that meet user needs while continuing to protect forest resources.
On September 24, 2020 the US Department of Agriculture published a notice of availability for public comment on proposed changes to the Forest Service Manual 7700 regarding travel management. The comment period closed on October 26th. The Forest Service proposed changes included recognizing the three classes of e-bikes that 27 states have recognized and allowing managers to designate trail use on USFS trails by class and season. It appears likely these changes will be made to the USFS Manual.
On December 2 2020 the BLM Final E-bike Rule went into effect. Much like the proposed USFS Rule, the BLM recognizes the three classes of e-bikes, gives managers the authority to designate e-bike use on routes and areas but it differs from the USFS Proposed Rule in one major way. The BLM Final E-bike Rule gives managers the authority to recognize e-bikes as non-motorized vehicles on a route-by-route basis.
So, what does all this mean to OHV riders and e-bike riders right now?
In the immediate future, it means e-bikes are only allowed on trails open to OHV’s until land managers go through the necessary public planning processes to designate which trails will be open to e-bikes, which classes of e-bikes can be ridden, and when they may be ridden.
In the longer term it could affect OHV riders in several ways. First, it means more use on motorized trails. It could mean trails that have been closed to motorized use in the past could be open to e-bikes but remain closed to motorized vehicles. As someone who has lived through many closures, it is encouraging that I may be able to visit those trails again with electrically powered assistance without relying only on human or equine power.
Unfortunately, it also means trails I enjoy on my motorcycle could also be restricted to e-bikes only in the future so we will have to remain vigilant and engaged to protect our current access and expand motorized and e-bike access in the future.
The new rules could also present opportunities for OHV clubs in the future. Interestingly, most mountain bike organizations oppose the use of e-bikes on non-motorized trails and wilderness advocates are dead-set against e-bikes on non-motorized trails, so e-bike riders are mostly unrepresented at this time. Since OHV riders and e-bike riders use the same trails, e-bike riders could join OHV clubs so they can engage in trail maintenance and advocacy. In the long run this could help us maintain motorized access and prevent limitation of open motorized trails to e-bikes only.