This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
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EAGLE — The cyclist climbing Boneyard zoomed up the steepest section of the singletrack trail with an effortless ease, passing a panting pedaler in a blink.
Here they come.
Electric bikes, propelled by both pedal and throttle, will be more common on Colorado’s Bureau of Land Management trails after an order issued by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. The game-changing order issued Aug. 29 gave BLM and National Park Service managers 30 days to craft new trail rules that no longer classify e-bikes as motorized and eliminate rules that ban them from nonmotorized trails.
“Reducing the physical demand to operate a bicycle has expanded access to recreational opportunities,” Bernhardt wrote, ruling that “e-bikes shall be allowed where other types of bicycles are allowed” on the Interior Department’s BLM and Park Service lands.
Wilderness groups are worried about the experiential impact from the sudden introduction of motors to the backcountry, and trailbuilders on the Western Slope who have spent decades carving trails for human-powered travel lament the lack of public involvement in the decision.
The order allows e-bike access to trails in Fruita’s North Desert and Kokopelli networks, Phil’s World in Cortez, the Palisade Rim, Grand Junction’s Lunch Loops and hundreds of miles of other Western Slope trails in Eagle, Glenwood Springs, Delta and Montrose.
Bernhardt’s order “will have a huge, huge impact” on the Western Slope, said Scott Winans, president of the five-chapter Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association.
“Everything we have been building and advocating for and maintaining since 1989 is nonmotorized,” he said. “This designation alters that at the foundation. This is such a fundamental, foundational change, with no initial public input, that is just astounding to us at COPMOBA. This is such a big wave that just hit the beach and we are just sitting here soaked, trying to understand what happened. There should have been substantial public involvement and outreach before an action like this is taken from the top down.”
In the order, Bernhardt cited a desire to reduce management burdens and clarify “regulatory uncertainty” around e-bike rules on public land. No one can argue with that. State and federal regulations governing e-bikes do not always align in Colorado.
e-bikes used to be considered off-road vehicles
Colorado lawmakers in 2017 embraced a national standard, establishing three-classes of pedal-equipped e-bikes, based on speed and how the rider engages an electric motor no larger than 750 watts, or roughly one horsepower.
- Class 1 e-bikes engage only when the rider is pedaling and have a top speed of 20 mph.
- Class 2 e-bikes engage with a throttle and have a top speed of 20 mph.
- Class 3 e-bikes engage when pedaled and have a top speed of 28 mph.
The 2017 state law allows Class 1 and Class 2 e-bikes on paths where bikes are allowed to travel and gives local jurisdictions the ability to prohibit e-bikes.
Federal land managers have regulated e-bikes as motorized vehicles. The BLM, prior to Bernhardt’s order, classified e-bikes as “off-road vehicles.” The Forest Service in 2015 and again in 2017 defined e-bikes as “motorized bicycles.” Both those designations emphasized the motor in e-bikes and kept e-bikes off trails designated for nonmotorized activity.
But at local levels, regulation of e-bikes has been more varied. Jefferson County, after a pilot program in 2018, allows Class 1 e-bikes on its collection of singletrack open for mountain bikes and both Class 1 and Class 2 e-bikes on its parks’ paved trails. Durango also studied e-bikes for a year before allowing Class 1 e-bikes on the city’s paved recreation paths. Colorado Parks and Wildlife allows e-bikes on paths where traditional bikes are allowed. The Town of Vail in 2018 allowed e-bikes on rec trails with some banned areas. Summit County allows e-bikes on paved recreation paths but not natural-surface trails. Snowmass Village has banned them on dirt trails. Aspen and Glenwood Springs are studying e-bikes as a way to reduce car traffic.
“It’s really a question of speed,” said Jon Stavney, the executive director of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, which last year surveyed more than 15 mountain town administrators about e-bike regulations and concerns.
That survey showed 10 of those jurisdictions in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah have rules for e-bikes and a majority of the administrators reported they were not fielding negative reports about e-bikes. Most said they felt e-bikes were not a significant safety concern.
“We did all this public engagement and at the end of the day, we heard it was a non-issue,” Stavney said. “It seems like the real question is about speed and respect and reading the situation when you are a rec path.”
There isn’t a whole lot of controversy surrounding e-bikes on paved paths. But things get messy when it comes to dirt and backcountry singletrack.
The Wilderness Society in July sent a letter to the heads of the Forest Service, Park Service and BLM objecting to any attempt to legalize e-bikes on trails set aside for just hiking, biking and horseback riding.
The letter, signed by more than 50 trail-user and conservation groups, argued that a rule allowing “motorized electric bikes” on trails designated for horse-or-human-powered travel “would create an unmanageable slippery slope and threaten the future management of all nonmotorized trails and area on public lands.”
The Wilderness Society group agreed that the three classifications of e-bikes are confusing for land managers and lawmakers, arguing that all e-bikes are motorized “regardless of the size of the motor or how it is turned on.” Federal land managers do not have the resources to police different kinds of e-bikes on trails, the group said, so all e-bikes should be banned on nonmotorized trails.
Bernhardt agreed that e-bikes posed a challenge for land managers, but leaned the opposite way of the Wilderness Society group, opting for an end to e-bike prohibition in a decision that “simplifies and unifies regulation of electric bicycles … and decrease(s) the regulatory burden.”
The group also said the inclusion of e-bikes on nonmotorized trails would go against travel-management laws dating back decades that confined motorized travel to specific areas.
BLM spokesman Jayson Barangan said the agency in Colorado “is waiting on further guidance and direction on how to implement the order on the ground.” He did not know when that guidance might come.
The National Parks Conservation Association said Bernhardt’s order “may signal the beginning of the end for nonmotorized backcountry trails, all while not including the public in the decision-making process.”
The Colorado-based International Mountain Bicycling Association, or IMBA, heard this summer that an e-bike rule for the BLM and NPS was pending.
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What surprised the group was the lack of differentiation between the three classes of e-bikes, essentially lumping in throttle-charged bikes with bikes that deliver power only when pedaled.
IMBA has supported Class 1 e-bikes on trails, as long as local land managers and mountain bikers are involved in the process of reviewing and approving that access, said IMBA’s executive director and legendary mountain biker David Wiens.
But most important, Wiens said, “is we don’t want to see access threatened by the introduction of Class 1 bikes on trails. As soon as access becomes an issue, we are no longer supportive.”
IMBA, while supporting a public process for allowing pedal-assisted e-bikes on trails, thinks they should be officially designated differently than mountain bikes. So those signs with the icons for bikes, hikers, horses, motorbikes and Jeeps should include an e-bike icon.
“We don’t want to see traditional nonmotorized mountain bikes and Class 1 e-bikes combined into a single category,” Wiens said. “We want them to remain distinct. That gives land managers options to exclude them in some places.”
Motor assist has its place, but not on trails designed for horses, hiking
Juli Slivka, the conservation director for Carbondale’s Wilderness Workshop, said in a statement that while e-bikes are a “great form of transportation” and should have a place on public lands, her group opposes e-bikes on backcountry trails designed for hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking.
“We’ll be working with our recreation and conservation partners to ensure that motorized e-bikes are not permitted on nonmotorized trails and that appropriate trails for e-bikes are developed in a way that protects backcountry recreation experiences and public lands resources,” she said.
Winans and his crew have been building trails for bikes on the Western Slope for 30 years. Those trails are meant for travel at a certain speed. They have sight lines and berms built for that speed. The trails are not meant to accommodate cyclists moving at a wide range of speeds. Years-long federal and local planning as well as public scrutiny of many Western Slope bike trails has been conducted under the premise of nonmotorized use, Winans said.
“None of these concerns were even considered,” Winans said. “Perhaps there should be a category for e-bikes … but lumping them into with all nonmotorized trails needs to be closely studied. And the timeline of 30 days is comically short for that review. A 30-day period is in no way adequate to implement such a sweeping change.”
Winans fears a similar ruling from the Forest Service may follow. With federal land management agencies struggling under emaciated budgets, enforcement of regulations often relies on signage, messaging and visitors choosing to follow the rules.
E-bikes are the fastest-growing segment of the country’s $5.9 billion cycling industry, with sales in 2017 up eightfold over 2014, according to retail-tracking NPD Group.
“These bikes also enable riders to feel young, regardless of generation; mountain bikes open doors to adventure, and e-bikes with higher price points are largely being purchased by Boomers wanting a new ride experience,” said NPD Group’s Matt Powell in a 2018 statement detailing cycling retail trends.
That explosive growth in e-mountain bikes — with technology leading them to look exactly like regular mountain bikes with power buried in slightly fattened downtubes and water-bottle cages — has prepared land managers and mountain bike groups for their arrival on singletrack and other nonmotorized trails. But those mountain bikers and planners were hoping to sculpt new rules over time.
“This order just steamrolls the public process,” Winans said. “It takes the public out of public lands.”
There is not much bike-friendly singletrack in National Parks, meaning the inclusion of e-bikes will likely be contained to roads where bikes are already allowed. A 2-mile stretch of Rocky Mountain National Park’s East Shore Trail near Grand Lake, in a region that is excluded from the park’s designated wilderness will be open to bikes once trail work is completed next spring. But East Shore will not be open to e-bikes, park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson said, noting that only nonmotorized use was authorized on the trail in the federal 2009 legislation that allowed bikes on that section of trail.
“The policy memo cannot override that legislation from Congress,” said Patterson, quoting Bernhardt’s memo that required compliance with “all applicable laws implicated by the compendium action.” “Which for Rocky Mountain National Park includes the statute limiting the East Shore trail to nonmotorized bicycles.”
Dave Ochs, the executive director of the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association, said the ruling has spurred a busy couple weeks in his valley.
His group, like IMBA, was expecting a federal rule allowing Class 1 e-bikes on BLM trails around Crested Butte, which include easily accessible sections of beginner-friendly singletrack close to downtown.
“The Class 2 and Class 3 inclusion is absolutely abhorrent and the fact there was no public process is stunning,” Ochs said. “Allowing people with throttles to be on the Lower Loop around town? No way. That is a major, major problem. I’m expecting lawsuits from national groups or somebody because the public was not involved and this order just blindsided everyone. If the USDA follows suit, then we are screwed. We spent half the summer helping the Forest Service put up ‘no e-bike’ signs.”