The cyclists looked strange even from a distance.
Josh Metten spotted them two weeks ago while peddling Munger Mountain in the Bridger-Teton National Forest — a group of fellow riders, on fatbikes in full body armor. It wasn’t until he stopped to talk to the bikers though that he realized they were on electric bikes, not classic mountain bikes.
E-bikes have motors and aren’t allowed on non-motorized forest trails such as the one Metten was riding on Munger Mountain. It was the first time he’d run into riders on e-bikes, but he’d heard they’d been seen on the mountain trails.
E-bikes on non-motorized trails are a new and growing problem on the Bridger-Teton, said Linda Merigliano, forest recreation and program manager. E-bikes started appearing a year ago in areas like Munger Mountain, Teton Pass and on the Cache-Game trail near Jackson, and they’ve become a growing concern this summer — due both to their increased popularity and their beefed-up, almost motorcycle-like capabilities. Merigliano fielded two complaints in one weekend from trail users running into e-bike riders.
Most users don’t think of e-bikes as motorized and aren’t trying to break rules, Merigliano said. So the Forest Service is working to educate the rapidly growing new group of recreationists on the regulations and where they can legally ride.
The Forest Service classifies e-bikes as motorized vehicles, and just like with OHVs and motorcycles, riders are subject to stiff penalties for misuse — a $225 fine for using an e-bike in non-motorized areas. “There’s a slippery slope when you have an electric powered motor on the bike, it does become a motor vehicle,” Merigliano said. “You just have to draw the line somewhere.”
E-bikes and motorcycles are permitted on Munger Mountain July 1 through Sept. 9 and on many other trails throughout the forest.
The prohibition of e-bikes and other motorized vehicles in some areas is primarily a safety issue. Some electric bikes can go up to 45 mph — dangerous speeds when trails are also used by hikers, traditional mountain bikers and horseback riders.
“It’s a black-and-white issue,” said Kevin Kavanagh, president of the mountain biking advocacy group Teton Freedom Riders.
Kavanagh hasn’t personally run into any e-bikes on non-motorized trails, but he also can go an entire year without running into friends he knows ride the mountain regularly. The Teton Freedom Riders aren’t rangers and don’t police the trails, but do respect forest service rules. The prohibition of e-bikes makes sense, he said. They are more like motorized vehicles than bicycles, in his mind, even if they don’t use fuel.
“It’s one of those activities that’s ahead of regulation,” Kavanagh said. “There’s all sorts of wonderful applications for them, but as far as in the non-motorized sections, no, they are motorized.”
Most people agree e-bikes do serve an important purpose as an alternative to cars, said Jack Kohler, program director at Friends of Pathways in Jackson. Right now nothing prevents people from riding e-bikes on pathways managed by the town, though they aren’t allowed on the pathways by the National Elk Refuge or in Grand Teton National Park. Used on the road, they alleviate traffic congestion, but on a pathway with pedestrians and traditional cyclists they become dangerous.
While several bike stores in Jackson do rent and sell e-bikes, David Hunger, an owner of Teton Mountain Bike Tours, opted not to for now. There are too many places people aren’t allowed to ride and he worries people don’t know the rules and will take them places they shouldn’t, reflecting poorly on his business and mountain biking in general. They are, however, a growing trend in Jackson, he said.
Metten sees the benefits of e-bikes in urban areas and hopes more people will use them as transportation on the streets.
“The whole issue I have as a mountain biker is, as a cross-country mountain biker, I work really hard to cover terrain and get to places that other bikes aren’t getting,” he said.
Munger Mountain is also important raptor nesting habitat and an important calving area for deer and elk and therefore incompatible with motorized transportation, said Metten, who is a naturalist and former Wyoming Wilderness Association staffer.
The e-bike riders Metten met on Munger Mountain were friendly. When asked if they were on motorized bikes, they said no, they were on e-bikes.
That’s the problem, Metten said. People are still confused as to what e-bikes are and where they are allowed.