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popular vehicles are regulated on merits and impacts instead of being allowed by an executive order or prohibited by outdated transportation classifications.
Ride to the Tetons
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.
Pushed through under Trump
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.
Forest Service recognizes change
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% 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.’”
Thanks 4 the info. When I see the no E-bikes sign I read, You are handicapped, you cant ride here! Nice! I’m 80, 2 heart procedures, & veins in my legs don’t work right.
I have ridden the no E-bikes trails for 4 years now. Only 2 negative comments. I don’t ride on weekends, or holidays. I am courteous, ride safe speeds & talk 2 horses! Why can’t us handicapped folks have like 2 days a week to ride the trails?
Or, folks over 60, or 70?
Hello from ND Angus. Thank you for updating the latest rules governing ebikes. I am 79 with arthritis in my ankles and I bought an ebike last year. It gives me the ability to ride more miles than I can now on my conventional mt. bikes. However, here and I suspect elsewhere one element affecting many walking and biking trails I do not see mentioned is HORSEs. Here the horses are allowed to use the ND and National Park trails rain or shine. The horse prints that are deeply imprinted when horses walk the trails make the trails very rough and nearly unwalkable or rideable for ebikes and pedal bikes. I firmly believe that pedal bikes and ebikes can coexist without a problem. The environmental impact is very similiar. Horses are another matter entirely.
In ND we have a fabulous trail called “The Maah Daah Hey Trail” located in Medora, ND. It was constructed by mt. bike riders and the Park Service has decided that ebikes can’t ride the trail. Horses and walkers of course can. Illogical to the extreme in my opinion.
I’m going to be very brief, could write a whole article. I am a USFS Volunteer and mountain biker. The USFS (in Agriculture Department) took the right starting point, but should have transitioned to the proposed approach years ago. The Park Service’s and BLM’s (in Interior Department) approach was simplistic but was not as dumb as it seems at first glance because bikes of any sort were/are not allowed off-road in Parks. Where they are allowed are often paved paths sometimes not intended for horses or hikers, which limits the user conflicts. As others noted, no bikes in Wilderness, although there is some disagreement as to whether manual bikes were originally intended to be considered “mechanized”. Much BLM land is open to OHV (motorized) vehicles and of course bikes could always use those roads/trails and adding e-bikes could hardly be considered a change. Ideally, e-bikes off road and on trails would be limited to Class I but in practice, owners will ignore any rules and agencies lack the manpower to enforce. It should be understood that e-bikes are necessarily significantly heavier than manual bikes which both increases the wear on the trails and the danger to other trail users. Also, there is more danger of an e-bike user getting in over their abilities and running out of battery and needing a rescue. One thing I gotta credit the equestrians for is they are the least likely user group to speed or cut switchbacks. Cyclists, hikers, and trail runners are the usual suspects.
the usage of ebikes should be allowed on non motorized trails. even if it is just a class 1 to start. Unsure how environmental impacts will be studied if nothing is allowed to impact anything. And most of these bikes are pedal assisted, and even though they can run without pedaling they still are not a motorcycle. and most, like myself are not using these to bomb down mountains. I am simply wanting to use these to get back a little further on trails for hunting, camping and fishing purposes. in which i may run into 5 people at most. I think the biggest issue would be in areas where a lot of people congregate on easier type trails. it will take a certain type of person to ride these in the back country. which will still have less impact than a pack string of horses. heck,you have people that go hiking that can get themselves in a bind just as bad as someone unskilled on a ebike so that cant be used as an argument either. also, the other argument is the ebikes will be zooming !!! around and could hurt people on the trail “life lesson, pay attention dont be a jerk” an ebike is no different than any biker type riding like a jerk past someone. and has anyone been on back country trails or any other trails in national forest? more times than not trail systems get moved based on dead fall over trails that does not get taken care of from the forest service in which most of the trails are taken care of by hunters and other trail users. further more, allow it, monitor it and one decision shouldn’t cover all. in areas where I live we have minimal people and minimal impacts but yet i have to follow the same rules as highly populated and popular areas.
Ebike regulation should go by speed limit and not by rating or classification of the ebike. If you follow this proposal, cars that can exceed 65 or 70mph would not be allowed on public highways. It’s the driver/rider that should use their bikes responsibly. Even bikers on conventional bikes can cause safety concerns for walkers. I was walking the carriage trails in Acadia National Park when kids on regular bikes strafed me coming way too close for my safety and comfort level. Ebikes provide the opportunity for aging or physically compromised people to enjoy the parks and of this group of people, are most likely to use their ebike responsibly.
This is an important conversation. I agree that the USFS should consider NEPA guidelines yet be flexible in evaluating the use of eBikes. I believe only pedal assist EBikes should be allowed on specific trails. Those in a different class have a throttle and should be restricted to roads that are approved for other motorized vehicles. All classes of bicycles should have speed limits and limitations for protection of wildlife. I have read about the speed that even a human powered bike can have on wildlife. Thus all bikes need to be banned from sensitive areas. Having said that, I have ridden bicycles since I was 6 years old. At 75 I have had a variety of eBikes for 5 years. EBikes have extended my love of cycling for many years. My husband is older and has biked his whole life. We ride responsibly. Currently, as I understand, there are 3 classes of EBikes based on the motors and speed and pedal assist or not. Because there is a huge surge in use, Federal agencies do need to understand this and create regulations that allow the enjoyment of our public lands while protecting wildlife and sensitive areas. Education, clear signage, separation of different users whenever possible and perhaps hosts to monitor certain areas would be of import. Thanks for this opportunity to comment. I look forward to the conversation.
Three years ago, my 20-something son suffered spinal cord injury and is now paraplegic. Previously, he’d hiked and backpacked all over our wonderful parks and beyond. The biggest loss for him with paralysis and loss of sensation, believe it or not, was being cut off from beautiful, wild areas. Now he has an e-assist mountain trike, which has opened so many trails to him. I’d hate to see new restrictions apply to him and other respectful nature lovers who can’t fully propel themselves.
Not on horse trails – it will kill /injure riders & horses! and then you will have loose horse too
Agree that horses and any bike don’t mix. One trail in the Inyo National Forest allows horses one or two days a week, Ike’s a couple of others and hikers on different days. I believe this is working.
I think e-bikes are great. I’m seriously considering getting one. However, I own horses and trail ride in State Parks, the Backcountry, and the National Wilderness. I had a difficult time getting used to bicycles on trails on Mt Hood around Timothy Lake; at first they startled my horse. The first time seeing a bicycle on the trail, he spun and reared as if to defend himself from a predator. I’m not so sure I want a faster moving e-bike coming up behind me on an unpaved narrow trail. Bicycle mentality seems to be to just pass anything moving slower than you are going. This is disconcerting to a live animal going peacefully along on a trail. This creates an unsafe situation for horse, rider, and cyclist. Bicycles are not allowed in the designated Wilderness, but some people think rules are not for them. I’m also wondering just how many separate trails across the nation would be needed to keep equestrians & hikers separate from bicycles, separated from e-bikes. Bicycles tend to push equestrians out of an area, due to excessive bike use and dangerous interactions. An e-bike could increase that danger. My one solace was that I could ride my horse into the National Forrest or Backcountry Wilderness areas and not be pushed out by Bicycles or e-bikes. Please don’t allow equestrian pleasure riders to become a thing of the past, forced into oblivion for the use of new technologies. Please don’t chase the wildlife out of an area due to fast moving e-bikes, perceived as predators by animals. Another danger from the environment for bicyclists is the perception by wild animals that the rider is a fast moving prey item… or cougar bait. Cougars love to hunt and chase! Whereas a four legged stock animal is more likely to hold their ground. I love e-bikes, but not “where Bicycles go”. Thank you.
It depends what the specific issues are:
1. Maximum speed on trails?
If speed is the issue on unpaved trails, electric assist is not the issue it is suspension. If you want to slow bicyclists down, ban bikes with suspension.
2. Delta in speed between slowest trail users and the fastest.
There are trail etiquette rules and speed limits. Possibly the problem here is lack of resources to enforce existing rules. Some people will always break the rules for them, we have enforcement.
Bike Rental outfitters should only rent Class 1 eBikes if the real concern is mixing motorized bikes with human powered only bikes.
3. Ignoring the classification of e-bikes that already exist. Class 1 exists to have e-bikes that are very similar to acoustic or human powered only bikes. No throttle and the power cuts out at 20 mph. Most of the buyers of these bikes want some assist but do not want a motorcycle.
4. A general hatred of bicyclists anywhere.
If this is the case, bike industry leaders must stay on the message that without e-bike sales/service, many bike shops would not survive.
I have owned an electric assist tandem for 7 years. I now ride a Class 1 eMTN bike. I have been a trail ambassador for 20+ years. Most people that I interact with on trails are happy to see me and appreciate the assistance I often provide. Any bike can be ridden rudely or dangerously. Imagine banning cars or trucks with more than 250 horsepower from roads because some people believe they accelerate too quickly or travel too fast.
Thanks, you nailed it!
Why don’t they just put speed limits on the trails?
When the Lance Armstrong types say, ‘We want these areas to be human-powered. You’ve got to earn your ride.’ What they actually mean is that they don’t want old folks and those with disabilities on ‘their’ trails. Really sad.
My gawd, I’m old enough to remember when the phone was a three piece thing wall/table unit, cord and handset – and you left it on a wall or a table at home. Now we’re talking about bicycles going 28 mph – and you can bet – just like every other VEHICLE, the operators of these stealth bikes will be talking on their #&*%$#*!@ phone. Damn! I glad I’m old and got to see WY and MT before the rest of the world finishes ruining it.
What I’ve missed in this article is who filed the suit. That information could shed a bit of light on this.
ebike riders could jingle their handlebar bell when they are coming up behind a walker or biker. Formerly known as politeness. Practiced in many areas around the world.
I think you could cut down on the ‘zoom’ word. Not everyone will be zooming. It all comes down to education and courtesy. I agree there needs to be a strict limit on the power of e bikes on trails. It seems to me that a low power e bike would have virtually the same environmental impact as any mountain bike. It uses the same tires and creates an almost imperceptible noise. People opposed will undoubtedly latch on to the ‘zooming’ comments. Trail etiquette should obviously be a priority.
A kind and gentler approach should make allowances for the old and or disabled.
In response to Rick Slather’s comment: No one is suggesting e bike use in Wilderness.
Indeed. There are currently 3 “classes” of ebikes and municipalities throughout the U.S. have regulations for their trails and byways that recognize these classes. Really no need to reinvent the wheel here.
I am a lifetime outdoor recreationalist hunting, fishing, and hiking in Wyoming’s abundance of BLM, USFS, and wilderness. I’m 10 years into retirement and about 6 years into insidiously progressing advanced degenerative arthritis chiefly affecting my feet. Having had a total hip replacement several years before my retirement I’m not looking forward to forced retirement from the soul soothing activities that has sustained me through my life in Wyoming. The callousness of remarks like “you’ve got to earn your ride” are hurtful and reflect the ageism that is so prevalent in those who would make our laws, rules and regulations. Don’t get me wrong. I completely support keeping wilderness free of motorized/motor assisted devices. But, keeping ebikes off of bike trails because SOME riders could go up to 28 mph I believe is completely wrong headed. I’ve seen plenty of pedal only bicyclists riding faster than that. Would they do it on a crowded trail? No. Would an ebike rider do this on a crowded trail? No. I truly hope those who will make the rules and regulations will take the initiative to look at the average age of visitors in our parks and forests that utilize this ecologically sound mode of transport in these settings and make forward looking decisions.
There needs to be understanding on all sides here. There are common courtesies that go with any trail use that need to be recognized by all. It’s disingenuous to call out e-bikes uniquely. Just put a speed limit on everything and call it a day. At max throttle on my e-bike I was passed not by 1 but a whole team of HUMAN POWERED cyclists. Why isn’t that called out? Because it doesn’t happen every day BUT a speed limit would fix that problem too. Yes there are e-bikes that are made to be like motorcycles but they are a very small minority. Again speed limit addresses these cases too. What is clear to me by the comments from these well-funded groups is that they come off as a bunch of massively entitled trail users that “want it for themselves” and/or “want everyone to earn it”. Sorry but they soon will grow old, feel the pain in their joints, and see the errors in their judgement. Just post common courtesies, post speed limits, post how to report infractions, and we can move on.
Albeit slowly, both the Park and Forest Service and other Federal agencies will have to implement visitor capacity limits nationwide in high use areas such as the Greater Yellowstone Area (GYA). It’s coming, get use to the idea. There is simply no other option to protect the natural resources. It’s already obvious that the agencies in the GYA should have begun limiting visitation about 10 years. Wyoming’s only permanent year-round traffic jam exist between the Jackson airport and the town. Keeping the airport in the park was a historic tragedy, thanks to the Wyoming congressional delegation and the Regan Administration that allowed Jim Wyatt to make that decision.
As for wilderness areas, the Wilderness Act prohibits the following, “no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport”. E-bikes (or standard bikes) whether they are considered motorize or not, are a mechanical transport device, and by law, not authorized in wilderness area. Just as it should be. These provisions probably upset Liz and her quest to allow helicopters to transport skiers throughout wilderness mountains. Over the last few years there has been attempts by the biking interest to allow bikes in wilderness. Those interest will continue to push hard for no limits on where they can ride.
On a final note, the business community in GYA will have to give way to fewer visitors or perhaps more timely visitors who have a pass that says when they can visit the Federal lands.
There is no mention here of classes of e-bikes. Class 1 is limited to 20 mph and pedal assist only. It should be compatible with pedal bikes and other trail uses. I can program my e-bike to limit it to Class 1, but I don’t know how I would prove it to law enforcement if they didn’t know much about e-bikes. If I leave the battery off, my bike is no longer an e-bike, but I don’t know if law enforcement would understand that.
I’ve know about the increase of use of e-bikes, but hadn’t really thought about how their use would impact National Parks and Forest land. Interesting article. I’ve loved mountain biking in the past, but now I’m one of those “bad knees” people and have considered getting an e-bike so I could keep doing what I enjoy. Thanks for covering this topic!
“ “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…” aw gee. This is what equestrians experience every day.
Growing up I had a tote goat with a Briggs and Staton. It could go about anywhere a horse could go. I used it to pack out elk. They are not legal to use in wilderness areas where I believe it is legal to use a human-powered bike or single-wheeled carriers to pack out your elk. I hope electric-powered bikes are not allowed in wilderness areas. I applied for pioneer licenses this year for the first time at a reduced price. You have to be seventy-five years or older to get those licenses. I have hunted since I was old enough to shoot rabbits legally and have enjoyed camping and walking in the wilderness without a motorized vehicle. I can no longer hunt like I used to and pack out hundred-pound packs of meat on my back. I hunt hunter management areas. To get to hunt those areas there is a draw because there is an overabundant number of hunters. Things aren’t like they were when I was growing up. Back then I when I was twelve years old I could walk and hunt cottontails and jackrabbits by myself. You could sell jackrabbits for a quarter and that is how I made my spending money. Cottontails are a very tasty meal. My how things have changed. Today you can’t even take a pocket knife to school. Pocket knives and guns back then were tools, not weapons. I had a pocket knife when I was a cub scout and have carried one ever since. I hope the forest service and BLM will not allow motorized vehicles in wilderness areas. I worked on trail maintenance for the forest service for a couple of years. On a ten four there were times you didn’t see another human for ten days. Those days are gone.
Bicycles are not allowed in wilderness areas.