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E-bike controversy leaves the pavement

  • 8 min to read

The controversy surrounding the use of electric bicycles, or e-bikes, that raged last year on mostly paved turf administered by local city and county governments has now moved — as many people predicted it would — further into the backcountry.

On Aug. 29, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt issued Order No. 3376, which contained the subject line: “Increasing Recreational Opportunities through the Use of Electric Bikes.”

The order ostensibly looks to standardize regulations regarding e-bikes. In a nutshell, it states that e-bikes will henceforth be allowed anywhere on lands managed by the Department of the Interior where other types of bicycles are allowed.

The response from the environmental community was swift and, predictably, very much against Bernhardt’s order. The main reason for that opposition centered around that, only in the past few years, some trails in some national parks and monuments have been opened to mountain bikes, a reality that already had environmental and conservation groups suffering from apoplectic convulsions. Order No. 3376 takes that one step further: It opens those same trails to vehicles that are, even by the Department of the Interior’s own definition, motorized.

Lost in the reactive vitriol is that the administrative turf of the Department of the Interior is not limited to national parks and monuments. The DOI is also the umbrella agency for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which oversees national wildlife refuges, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bureau of Land Management, which administers more acres than any other federal entity.

While the Roaring Fork Valley does not have any national parks, monuments or wildlife refuges, it does have plenty of BLM land.

According to David Boyd, public affairs specialist with the BLM’s Colorado River Valley Field Office, numerous parcels in the Roaring Fork Valley might well be affected by Bernhardt’s edict, including the Crown, Prince Creek and, perhaps most notably, Red Hill — all places where mountain biking is currently allowed. Sooner rather than later, e-bikes might also become part of the recreational mix on those parcels.

Not everyone is happy with that thought.

But not everyone is unhappy either.

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Mountain bikers on the Crown, public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. A new federal order is calling for all agencies under the Department of the Interior to allow e-bikes wherever non-motorized bicycle can go. 

Amend or rescind where appropriate

Berhardt’s order mandates that the heads of each of the DOI’s member entities immediately begin the process of standardizing definitions of the three major e-bike categories, making them “consistent with governing laws and regulations.” The goal in this part of Order No. 3376 is to ­determine whether e-bikes falling into those three categories make them bicycles that happen to have small motors or motorized vehicles that happen to have pedals. (This is, of course, a gross generalization necessary for the sake of brevity. A link to the entire order will be placed at the end of this story.)

The managers of the respective agencies administered by the DOI have until Sept. 17 to make their administrative definitions of e-bikes consistent with applicable state laws and other federal regulations and to “amend or rescind any prior written policies as appropriate.” (Again, there is considerable additional fine print in the order.)

Bernhardt further mandates that the DOI’s member agencies, “Within 30 days of the date of this order, submit a report to the secretary including:

• A summary of policy changes enacted in response to this order.

• A summary of any laws or regulations that prohibit the full adoption of the policy described by this order.

• A timeline to seek public comment of changing any regulation described above.

The order does not include any specifics regarding how public comment will be solicited or integrated into whatever new management ­system may emerge from Order No. 3376.

The order also states that, within 30 days of its issuance, agency administrators “provide appropriate public guidance regarding the use of e-bikes on public lands within the units of the National Park System, National Wildlife Refuge System, lands managed by the BLM and lands managed by the BOR.”

Given the short time frame, local land managers are having to scramble to adhere to Bernhardt’s order.

“We are awaiting further guidance and direction as BLM works to implement this order, including about the public comment period mentioned in the order,” Boyd said. “I don’t have a time frame, but you see the deadlines in the order. This could potentially affect most BLM lands in the Roaring Fork Valley, including popular mountain biking areas like Red Hill and The Crown.

“As you know, BLM land is multiple use,” Boyd continued. “Special recreation management areas are areas with unique recreational experiences where we emphasize management for recreation.”

According to Boyd, The Crown SRMA is about 9,100 acres.

“We are working closely with the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association on the trail system there, and have recently made some changes — some new trails specifically designed for mountain bikes, some two-tracks closed, etc. There are approximately 60 miles of trails open to mountain bikes on The Crown.”

Those trails could soon also be open to e-bikes.

Boyd said that the Red Hill SRMA, across Highway 82 from Carbondale, is about 3,000 acres and has about 12 miles of trails open to mountain biking.

The management of Red Hill is something of an administrative hodgepodge.

“The Red Hill Council partners with BLM to manage the area,” Boyd said. “We acquired the adjacent 557-acre Sutey Ranch property directly east of the Red Hill SRMA in 2017 through the Sutey Ranch land exchange. The Sutey parcel is not part of the Red Hill SRMA, but it could also be affected by the order because we will be creating a trail open to bicycles there that will link to Red Hill.”

The main access to the BLM’s Red Hill SRMA at this juncture is via a 25-acre parcel purchased in Dec. 2017 by the Aspen Valley Land Trust, which has turned management of the parcel to the Carbondale Parks and Recreation Department. It would be up to Carbondale’s town government to determine whether e-bikes would be allowed on that parcel.

“We have not had any discussions on how this may impact the BLM portion of Red Hill,” said Carbondale Town Manager Jay Harrington. “The small portion of town-owned trails falls under a conservation easement with AVLT. I have not yet looked at if this would limit e-bikes and how our current management plan deals with them.”

Davis Farrar is president of the Red Hill Council, which was formed in 2000 to work with the BLM on building and maintaining trails on Red Hill.

Farrar is open-minded when it comes to the notion of e-bikes being added to a recreational mix on those trails that, according to Boyd, already numbers some 55,000 user days each year — a user day being one person using the area on one day.

“I have read Bernhardt’s order,” Farrar said. “I personally don’t have a big problem with e-bikes. They are quiet and they don’t do any additional damage to trails. I think the dialogue about e-bikes is almost like the early discussions regarding snowboards at ski areas. I think there is a place for e-bikes for people who are experiencing physical problems. I have a friend who had two major lung surgeries. E-bikes allow him to get out on the trails.”

Farrar said the Red Hill Council board of directors will discuss Bernhardt’s order at its regular meeting on Wednesday.

“I don’t know what will come of it,” he said. “We will probably respond in some way, but, if it’s the new rule, then it’s the new rule.”

A tranquil backcountry experience

Not everyone is as accommodating as Farrar.

“The Department of the Interior’s new e-bike policy opens the door to motorized use on non-motorized trails across our public lands, including national parks, wildlife refuges and specially protected BLM lands,” said Juli Slivka, conservation director for Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop. “E-bikes are a great form of transportation and certainly this new type of recreation has a place on our public lands along with other motorized uses. Like all recreation uses on our public lands, motorized e-bikes impact trail experiences and wildlife and should be thoughtfully managed and balanced with other uses and resources.

“Yet this blanket policy would allow e-bikes on backcountry trails that have been designed and designated for non-motorized activities such as hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking,” she continued. “We’ll be working with our recreation and conservation partners to ensure that motorized e-bikes are not permitted on non-motorized trails and that appropriate trails for e-bikes are developed in a way that protects backcountry recreation experiences and public lands resources.”

Those sentiments are echoed by several national groups.

“Sportsmen and women are opposing an Interior Department decision to open millions of acres of public land trails to motorized e-bikes, threatening intact fish and wildlife habitat and undermining science-based land management strategies,” reads a press release from Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, a Montana-based organization that claims 23,000 members.

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“The new policy benefits primarily the makers of electric mountain bikes, whose website encourage riders to blast throughout our backcountry trails and set new speed records,” said Darrell Wallace, chairman of the Back Country Horsemen of America. 

“Of course people want to get out onto the landscape and enjoy it in as many ways as possible,” said Aaron Kindle, senior manager of western sporting campaigns for the National Wildlife Federation, who was quoted in the Backcountry Hunters & Anglers press release. “But we risk loving places to death and further overwhelming wildlife every time technology advances. Management that treats non-motorized and motorized recreation differently has worked well for quite some time. Let’s call it like it is. E-bikes are motorized vehicles and should be managed as such.”

The press release also quotes Darrell Wallace, chairman of the Back Country Horsemen of America, who said, “The new policy benefits primarily the makers of electric mountain bikes, whose websites encourage riders to blast throughout our backcountry trails and set new speed records. Since land managers lack sufficient resources to limit speeds on trails, how can backcountry users expect to continue to enjoy a tranquil backcountry experience?”

California-based Sustainable Trails Coalition is using Bernhardt’s order to further its agenda of getting the Wilderness Act modified to allow mountain bikes into federally designated Wilderness areas.

In a Sept. 4 press release, the STC states, “The DOI order has drawn complaints that the secretary’s order (1) was implemented without a formal public process and (2) does not give local National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management units discretion to disallow e-bikes. STC notes, however, that some of the same objectors (1) oppose a public process to re-evaluate human-powered travel in wilderness and (2) oppose letting any NPS, BLM or Forest Service wilderness unit allow human-powered mountain biking.

“STC urges those who claim an interest in protecting public lands, including environmental and outdoor recreation interest groups, bicycle manufacturers, nonprofit bicycle trade associations and bicycle touring groups, to take a consistent, congruent and coherent stance on trail-access issues, always putting the integrity of our public lands and the legitimate pursuits of outdoor recreationists ahead of self-interest, whether financial or unduly exclusionary,” the STC press release continued.

That same press release states, “The STC takes no position on federal management of e-bikes and is not seeking e-bike access in wilderness or managed-as-wilderness areas.”

As for concerns that Bernhardt’s e-bike order might bleed into the Forest Service, which is managed by the federal Department of Agriculture and oversees most of the public land in the Roaring Fork Valley, at least for now, there is no movement in that direction.

According to William Jackson, district ranger for the Dillon Ranger District of the White River National Forest, “E-bikes are allowed on USFS roads and trails that are designated open to motorized uses. This includes the entirety of the FS road system as well as motorcycle and OHV trails. They are not allowed on USFS trails that are designated for non-motorized uses only. Areas of the national forest that operate under a special use permit, like ski areas and Nordic centers, may request that e-bikes be allowed on non-motorized trails within their special use permit area.

“Under the current FS Travel Management Rule, e-bikes are considered to be motorized vehicles,” Jackson continued. “Individual forests and/or districts can revisit their Travel Management Plan to designate e-bikes for use on non-motorized trails as long as natural resource and social impacts are considered under NEPA.”

According to the wording and the tone of Bernhardt’s Order No. 3376, the exhaustive public-scoping requirements of NEPA — the National Environmental Policy Act — will not necessarily be part of the equation regarding e-bikes on trails currently open to other forms of bicycling.

But maybe the precepts of NEPA will be invoked by local-level land managers when they issue their reports to Bernhardt. It is too early to tell.

To read the entirety of Bernhardt’s Order No. 3376, go to: https://www.doi.gov/sites/doi.gov/files/elips/documents/so_3376_-_increasing_recreational_opportunities_through_the_use_of_electric_bikes_-508_0.pdf