Threatening to bring motorized vehicles on prohibited trails and public lands

UPDATED DEC 2020: Pursuant to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s Secretarial Order No. 3376, the agencies in the Department of Interior, including the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management, finalized new rules related to e-bikes.  These rules direct local land managers to allow e-bikes on all non-motorized trails unless the land managers provide specific reasons why that would be inappropriate. This includes motorized e-bikes that require no pedaling at all.  The new rules also add e-bikes to the list of exclusions to the definition of “off-road vehicle”.  Unfortunately, this will greatly increase the number of e-bikes on non-motorized trails, many of which are multiple-use trails (with hikers and equestrians) and will likely result in a significant increase in user conflicts as well as wildlife and habitat destruction.  The U.S. Forest Service, which is a Department of Agriculture agency, has decided to consider e-bike usage on a case-by-case basis whenever a forest prepares a travel management plan.

ORIGINAL POST: There is a new, quickly rising issue for all public lands users: e-bikes. CalWild has worked with mountain bikers for years in our efforts to build conservation bills that include wilderness and wild and scenic rivers, but also try to address the needs of other user groups. For most of the bills we work on that includes negotiations with mountain bikers.

The emergence of e-bikes (bicycles assisted by an electronic motor) has been meteoric. For those in urban areas they have been a staple of the bike landscape for a number of years. More recently bike companies and others have seen the potential of taking these e-motors and putting them on mountain bikes. Equating mountain bikes directly with e-mountain bikes is something that divides even the mountain biking community.

However, the bike industry sees the e-bike’s growing popularity and is already pushing for increased usage and growing the number of available trails. New trade groups or non-profits supported by industry have pushed the opening up of areas for these motorized bikes. The groups see e-mountain bikes as an essential area of growth and have pushed in ways to expedite that growth.

Until recently, the land management agencies recognize that e-bikes by definition have motors and are thus regulated and restricted as part of their travel management plans. Exempting e-bikes from those requirements without study or public input could severely increase the motorized footprint on our public lands.

Secretary David Bernhardt and the Department of the Interior have apparently decided to bypass the regular planning process and NEPA analysis. On August 29th, Secretary Bernhardt issued Secretarial Order (SO) No 3376. In this SO he outlined his desire for all Interior Department agencies including BLM, U.S.Fish and Wildlife, and National Park Service to allow “Class 1”, the least motor assisted, e-bike use on any trail or road where non-motorized mountain bikes are currently allowed.

As a result, BLM offices have begun to implement e-bike usage in various ways. Most are still unclear about how they are supposed to put this policy into practice as it is not supposed to supersede other relevant laws including NEPA and travel management planning requirements which would require a public process for a new policy such as this. In discussion with partners across the west, different BLM offices are engaging with this in different ways. Some have simply complied with the order and others have taken a “wait and see” approach. Nothing cohesive has emerged yet.

The U.S. Forest Service while not covered by the SO, since it is under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has also been dealing with the e-bike issue in a haphazard way. The Forest Service has a letter from 2016 clarifying their management of e-bikes. In that letter they clearly state that currently e-bikes are considered motor vehicles. That means that they are not allowed on any non-motorized trails. Despite that clarity, the Supervisor of the Tahoe National Forest recently opened nearly three dozen trails to Class 1 e-bikes. In response, a number of groups filed suit and have asked for a judge to suspend the decision and close any opened trails. The rumors are that the effort by the Tahoe NF is a test to gauge reaction. Regardless, it is likely to pop up again on other national forests.

Conservation groups are mobilizing and trying to determine our strategy to combat this unexpected and irregular Secretarial Order. For now, at a minimum, CalWild is working with our partners at the local and state levels to monitor new openings of non-motorized trails. CalWild welcomes those who want to use e-bikes on the thousands of miles of motorized roads and trails on public lands. We will continue to support national efforts to clarify this new policy and ensure that any adoption of a new policy adheres to existing laws of public participation and environmental study (as well as basic engineering).