Feds get new guidelines for e-bikes in national parks, forests


WYOMING -- Federal officials will operate under new guidelines as they struggle with how to regulate a growing number of fast-moving battery-assisted bicycles in national parks and national forests.

One new guideline emerged from a suit filed against the National Park Service that challenged its sweeping decision allowing e-bikes wherever conventional bicycles roll. Now, a judge ruled, the agency will have to rethink its policy regarding the battery-assisted cycles while weighing environmental and other factors it brushed aside in allowing them to zoom around the federal reserves.

The U.S. Forest Service proposed the second change when it decided to create a new class of vehicle — e-bikes — that will be allowed or disallowed on their own merits. Individual national forests can now designate routes for e-bikes that exclude other motorized vehicles, potentially opening a new range of recreational opportunities.

The sister agencies had approached e-bike regulations from opposite directions. The Department of the Interior, which includes the Park Service, in a 2019 order allowed e-bikes anywhere conventional bicycles were allowed, regardless of their potential impact to the landscape or other park users.

A lawsuit successfully challenged that snap decision, and now the agency must go back and determine the proper level of environmental review, document its reasoning and let people comment.

In contrast, the USFS considered e-bikes to be motorized vehicles from the get-go and restricted them to travel routes open to that class of transportation. The agency recently determined it would analyze e-bikes as the distinct vehicles they are and even consider creating routes primarily for them.

Differing policies across land-managing agencies can bewilder the public.

“There is clearly confusion out there,” said Linda Merigliano, recreation manager for the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Some riders think Park Service rules allowing e-bikes on cycle trails also clears them for travel on national forest bicycle trails.

“Nope,” Merigliano said. “Different process.”

The separate developments appear to move the different federal regulations of e-bikes toward a common ground where the relatively new but increasingly popular vehicles are regulated on merits and impacts instead of being allowed by an executive order or prohibited by outdated transportation classifications.

In front of sweeping views of the Teton Range, Tampa visitor Scott Sandberg and his family paused during an electricity-assisted ride from Jackson into Grand Teton National Park on Monday. The four had ridden some 20 miles to get to their rest stop, passing overflowing vehicle parking at the Taggart Lake Trailhead and finding stress-free bicycle parking at Jenny Lake, where cars overflowed from the full parking lot for hundreds of yards along the access road and highway.

“I think it’s great,” Sandberg said of the e-bikes he rented for his family of four. “It gives us the ability to cover a lot of terrain.”

The family would ride some 50 miles that day — all of it along paved bicycle paths separated from busy highways. The rentals allowed the family to enjoy the beauty of the park while zooming through the fresh air on a mild, sunny day.

Such excursions exhilarate. “What a blast,” one reviewer wrote about a rental e-bike trip she took along the same route as the Sandbergs. “10/10 recommended,” wrote another. “A fantastic experience,” said a third.

A dearth of statistics makes it hard to pin down exact industry trends, but e-bike imports last year reached almost 800,000, according to a trade group that predicts continued growth in sales, rentals and use.

A store that rents the type of e-bike Sandberg rode charges $89 a day, according to website advertising. Twenty-five dollars will get you one for an hour.

One popular brand, Rad Power Bikes, sells models priced between about $1,000 and $2,000.

The popularity of e-bikes got the Forest Service thinking that it shouldn’t be tied to the past. “This growing recreational activity is another opportunity to responsibly share the experience of the outdoors with other recreationists,” Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said in a statement announcing new agency guidelines.

There will be limits, however.

Unbridled zooming on an e-bike, some models of which can reach speeds of 28 mph, can affect the environment and other path users differently than a human-powered bicycle does. They can have different impacts on wildlife, soil and water.

“Differential speeds” allow e-bikes riders to overtake cyclists, sometimes with unsettling surprise, Merigliano said. Fast-moving e-bikes can startle the casual stroller or dog walker or have other effects, including putting more people farther into the backcountry.

In 2019 Interior Secretary David Bernhardt issued an order allowing e-bikes wherever conventional bicycles were allowed. The decree affected about 18,000 miles of Bureau of Land Management trails and 16,000 miles in national parks. 

Many people appreciate the boost e-bikes give and the expanded access they provide, according to court records. “As the parent of an adult child with significant stamina and physical limitations, the use of an e-bike is essential for her enjoyment of parks,” one person wrote. Others agreed: “I have bad knees”, “My father is older and not physically capable of biking with a regular bike”, “I have cancer and chronic fatigue syndrome.”

A consortium of conservation groups went to court to challenge the order, triggering a series of actions that were resolved by a judge’s May 24 order.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Wilderness Watch, the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, the Marin Conservation League, Save Our Seashore, Amy Meyer, Phyllis Koenig and David Perel brought the lawsuit against the federal agency.

U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras decided one element of the complaint to be valid, but he did not require the Department of the Interior to throw out its standing policy while it revisited the issue. His summary-judgment finding rested on elements of the National Environmental Policy Act that federal officials sidestepped in justifying their e-bike policy.

At issue was “the Smith Directive,” penned by a deputy director of the Park Service that added to the Bernhardt order and purported to meet legal requirements for environmental review. The Smith directive prohibited “exclusively using the electric motor to move an e-bike without pedaling for an extended period of time,” while on routes open to normal bicycles.

Many parks followed Smith’s instructions as the Interior Department used the directive to justify its approval of e-bike use. But Contreras found a problem with that.

“Basically, the Smith Directive attempted to avoid conducting any environmental analysis because the park units would do so,” Contreras wrote, “and the park units in turn largely declined to conduct additional analysis because the Smith Directive had already suggested that the [Smith Directive] change [to the Bernhardt order] was minimal.”

The Park Service did not respond to an email seeking an outline of its next steps or any schedule to take them. PEER outlined the results of its victory.

“National Parks will now need to take a hard look at how to avoid user conflicts with the heavier, faster moving e-bikes, the impacts e-bikes will have on wildlife along backcountry trails, and the potential damage from e-bike use on unpaved trails,” the group said in a statement.

Meantime the Forest Service acquired its new marching orders on March 31. That day the agency announced “internal guidance” for “expanding e-bike access at site-specific locations.”

What hasn’t changed, Merigliano said, is their classification. “They are still classified as motor vehicles under Forest Service directive,” Merigliano said. “E-bikes are clearly allowed any place where motor vehicles are allowed.”

That includes Forest Service roads and 60,000 miles of trails where motorcycles putt — fully 38 percent of all agency trails.

With appropriate analysis and public engagement, individual forests can now designate roads, trails and areas for e-bike use that would be off-limits to other motor vehicles. Travel maps will have a new symbol and designation for such routes. But with crushing visitation and other priorities, new e-bike routes on the Bridger-Teton may not be coming soon.

“The process to add e-bike routes and open up a non-motorized trail or close a road is no different than the process we used for travel management of other motorized vehicles,” Merigliano said.

“We’ve got to come up with a proposal,” she said, which would be developed with public input. Public comment would follow along with environmental reviews.

“Obviously, conflict between different kinds of uses would be a criteria,” she said of decisions to be made. Some users can’t wait.

“We’ve certainly had a bunch of violations,” she said of riders in Jackson Hole who zoom on non-motorized routes. Forest Service employees this winter visited e-bike rental outlets in the valley to remind them of the existing rules.

“There are really, really strong feelings on both sides of this issue,” Merigliano said. “There are some people who are just adamant — ‘We’ve got to get with the program and allow e-bikes where bikes are allowed,’” she said.

“Others — mostly cyclists — say ‘We want these areas to be human-powered. You’ve got to earn your ride.’”

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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