Skip to contents
Outdoors

E-bike rules for BLM, Forest Service trails both thrill and rile backcountry users

As federal land managers consider opening trails to electric bicycles, conversations about new opportunities for access to public lands mixes with concerns about impacts to wildlife and traditional non-motorized travelers.

Gene Simillion stands with his dogs looking out over the Gunnison Valley in the Signal Peak recreation area on Oct. 22, 2020. Signal Peak is a 14,000 acre parcel of BLM land adjacent to the town of Gunnison. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)
  • Credibility:

Their bikes — made by internationally dominant brands Specialized and Giant — look like high-end mountain bikes. Except the bikes pedaled by Dimitri Moursellas and his wife, Audre Engleman, take them to places they never could go on traditional bikes. 

With electric power that kicks in when they pedal, the pair of Vail septuagenarians every week venture up lonely trails that wind above treeline, like Resolution Creek Road above Camp Hale or Middle Creek Road up to Eiseman Hut. 

“With the e-bikes, we get all the way up and it is work. It is not like we are just sitting there. We sweat,” Moursellas said. “We get up high and have delightful views and really enjoy ourselves. It gives us such a feeling of accomplishment and fun. And we thought we would never get that feeling again on our old bikes.”

In August 2019, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt celebrated the promise of e-bikes with a secretarial order that said electric-powered bikes shall be allowed everywhere traditional bikes are allowed. The order gave land managers 30 days to craft new rules for opening trails to e-bikes. 

The order riled wilderness advocates and mountain bike groups that have long looked askance at the electric-powered bikes. The order didn’t really change much for National Parks and lands managed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, which have largely restricted bikes to paved trails. But the order posed complicated issues for the Bureau of Land Management, which has tens of thousands of miles of trails designated as specifically non-motorized. 

A Forest Service sign at the Cave’s Trail trailhead in the Cement Creek area near Crested Buttes forbids the use of battery powered mountain bikes, ebikes, on October 21, 2020. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

After a year of study and more than 24,000 comments, the Bureau of Land Management this month published its final rule on e-bikes. And the 69-page rule is not a blanket policy like the secretarial order. It does not allow e-bikes everywhere bikes are allowed. It gives local managers in each BLM field office final say on where e-bikes can go following environmental review — under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA — of impacts on certain trails. 

“If a previous decision was made that routes were non-motorized, they would continue to be non-motorized,” said Greg Wolfgang, the manager of the BLM’s Grand Junction Field Office, which manages 1 million acres of public land around Grand Junction, including hundreds of miles of the state’s most popular mountain bike trails. 

BLM officials are quick to point out that Bernhardt’s Secretarial Order #3376 is not “self-executing,” meaning it did not automatically go into effect without any further review or action. The new rule also is not self-executing. The approval of e-bikes on BLM land now will require field office managers like Wolfgang to initiate NEPA reviews and make changes to the office’s travel management plan. All that review means e-bike access will grow on a trail-by-trail basis following both administrative and public scrutiny.  

The U.S. Forest Service last month announced a proposed plan for managing e-bikes that mirrors the BLM plan by dividing e-bikes into different classes and giving local land managers the power “to more precisely designate trails for e-bike use” after review. But the Forest Service’s proposed directives diverge from the BLM rule, specifically defining e-bikes as a class of motor vehicles. That means if a trail is opened for e-bikes, it could also be open for all types of motor vehicles. And that worries mountain bikers, hikers and wilderness advocates.

The new Forest Service directives would guide district rangers as they go through the agency’s every-few-years Travel Management Planning Process that identifies trails as motorized or non-motorized on widely distributed maps. The Forest Service collected more than 8,500 comments on the proposed new directives. The public comment period ended Oct. 26.

Members of Western Colorado University’s Cheer team cross the path of a mountain biker on the Contour trail in the Signal Peak recreation area near Gunnison. The Signal Peak trail system is popular with locals for non-motorized recreation such as hiking, mountain biking and running. Under to a new BLM mandate, Signal Peak trails could be opened to e-bikes following environmental review. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

People For Bikes and hundreds of commenters on the Forest Service guidance suggest defining e-bikes as bicycles or even “devices,” (with up to three wheels), which would eliminate the need to change trail designations to accommodate e-bikes. 

“Changing a trail from non-motorized to motorized just to allow e-bikes could be pretty damaging for hikers and mountain bikers on trails built for non-motorized experiences,” said Morgan Lommele, the director of state and local policy for Boulder’s People For Bikes who wrote the group’s detailed comment on the proposed Forest Service directives

Lommele and People For Bikes appreciate that the Forest Service, like the BLM, divides e-bikes into three classifications and enables local district rangers to make access decisions. But there is concern that the revised directives could invite motorcycles and off-highway vehicles onto trails designed for human-powered recreation. 

Lommele says e-bike riders do not necessarily want to share a trail with motorized users.  

“We believe Class 1 e-bikers are looking for a non-motorized, bicycle-like experience,” she said. “The inventory of non-motorized trails is cherished by the non-motorized community and opening it up to motorized use just to allow e-bikes is not a good long-term management strategy.”

Read more outdoors stories from The Colorado Sun.

Wilderness advocates are not happy with the new BLM rule, fearing the impact of motorized vehicles in areas that were set aside for non-motorized recreation like hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking.

“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,” said Juli Slivka, conservation director with Carbondale’s Wilderness Workshop. “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.”

Sales figures show that people like e-bikes

The public seems to be coming around to e-bikes. People certainly are buying them: sales of e-bikes in 2020 through August reached $392.9 million, up 142% from the same period of 2019, according to market research giant The NPD Group. And in an especially bright spot in an already booming bike market during the pandemic, sales of e-bikes so far this year are already 10-times the total sales reported in 2016.

Tom Fiorentino of Edwards poses on May 1 with his just-purchased QuietKat e-bike. The bike makes it practical for him to go to work up a significant hill without getting exhausted, run errands without a car, and easily tow cargo in a trailer. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The first-ever BLM environmental reviews of e-bikes on trails in Colorado are differentiating between the classes of e-bikes, which was a sticky issue for mountain bike groups that have spent decades carving trails specifically for human-powered travel. Mountain bikers don’t seem to mind the pedal-assist, throttleless Class 1 e-bikes, which have electric motors that kick in when pedaling and have a limited top powered speed around 20 mph. The Class 2 rides have throttles and Class 3 rides have more power with a top powered speed of 28 mph. 

The BLM’s Gunnison Field Office is preparing an environmental study of Class 1 e-bikes on trails around Signal Peak northeast of Gunnison. The same office has approved about 30 miles of new trails in Bakers Park above Silverton that will be open to hiking, biking and Class 1 e-bikes. The agency earlier this spring approved new trails in Garfield County after an environmental review that opened all hiking trails — except Rifle Arch — in the Grand Hogback area to Class 1 e-bikes. The BLM’s Colorado River Valley Office is preparing a study of Class 1 e-bikes on the popular mountain trails in the North Fruita Desert. 

“Even if we wanted to try to fight e-bikes, it’s a losing battle. They are coming. I figure it’s better to figure out how to manage them rather than try to fight them,” said Klem Branner, whose Silverton Singletrack Society is working to build the new trails above Silverton that will be open to e-bikes. “A large part of my personal motivation into putting in all this work for more trails was to get some economic development benefits for my town. Just get people to come here and ride their bikes. Pedaling at altitude is rough for people who don’t live here, so giving them a slight boost could make it more attractive for them to come on up and ride.”

QuietKat co-owner Jake Roach has built a new 10,000 square-foot logistics center in Eagle. (Steve Peterson, Special to the Colorado Sun)

E-bike maker Jake Roach said the new rules are “a great step in the right direction.”

Roach, whose Eagle-based QuietKat e-bikes are designed for hunters, anglers and adventurers seeking easier access to remote areas, said his bikes aren’t necessarily built to help mountain bikers more easily climb up trails, he said. He doesn’t think e-bikes in the North Fruita Desert — and on the trails that are popular with mountain bikers near 18 Mile Road — are a good idea.

“I’m more about outdoor recreational access,” Roach said. “Let’s work on reducing crowds on that first mile of a trail. Let’s get further back in there and access more of our public lands. We’ve seen it all summer. That first mile and all the spots right off the road are just packed with people. What can we do to better fragment those out and better utilize our public lands?”

That improved access — enabling people to go faster and deeper into public lands — is exactly what worries wilderness champions like Slivka, who said e-bikes are “vastly expanding our recreation footprint on our public lands.”

“This can have significant impacts on wildlife habitat, at a time when areas where wildlife can roam free from human disturbance are shrinking at an alarming rate,” Slivka said, noting that the Wilderness Workshop acknowledges the final BLM rule is better than Bernhardt’s secretarial order. “Overall we completely disagree with the BLM providing loopholes for the agency to manage motorized e-bikes as non-motorized vehicles. The BLM should be taking a much more thoughtful approach to recreation management that appropriately analyzes the impacts of all recreation uses, including e-bikes which are, by definition, motorized vehicles.”

Backcountry Hunters and Anglers also has concerns about e-bikes disturbing wildlife and impacting traditional human-powered access in areas that were established decades ago to prevent motorized access. The group, with more than 40,000 members, supported previous policies that restricted e-bikes to motorized routes and trails. But the group appreciates the chance to voice its concerns on a local level as land managers study e-bike access, said Tim Brass, the group’s director of state policy. 

“I hope that means that traditional users and wildlife are a big part of any sort of decision-making process,” said Brass, whose group has issues with the top-down BLM rule-making process that initially proposed e-bikes everywhere bikes are allowed. “It looks like the Forest Service is using a more surgical way of addressing e-bikes than what the Department of Interior has done.”

Gunnison Trails, which formed in 2006 to help guide the development of trails around Gunnison County, is OK with e-bikes around Signal Peak. 

Until recently, traditional mountain bikers expressed some angst over e-bikes. That is fading, said Gunnison Trails director Tim Kugler.   

“Signal Peak is a great area for e-bikes to get transitioned into the trail system,” said Kugler, describing long climbs on trails around Signal Peak. “I think the impacts we are going to see from e-bikes probably won’t be much more than traditional bikes.”

The town of Gunnison, Colorado as seen from the Contour trail in the Signal Peak recreation area. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The BLM’s new rule creates a new class of motorized vehicles beyond motorcycles and off-highway-vehicles. That means field managers for the agency can approve the new use on trails without approving other motorized travel. The rule also separates traditional bikes from e-bikes.

“Which, given the nature of technology and how fast things are evolving, I think that sets the tone for future decisions,” Kugler said. “I mean we are going to see more and more of these types of electric vehicles in the future. E-scooters. E-hovercrafts. So it’s good to have a different classification than simply calling everything a bike, you know.”

(The People For Bikes’ comment to the U.S. Forest Service actually recommends that formal definitions of e-bikes include use of a seat or saddle “so that electric bicycles remain easily separable from other types of electric mobility devices.” Specifying that e-bikes have seats like traditional bikes “could serve the agency in later rulemaking iterations to access, or to update regulations pertaining to electric scooters, Segways, hoverboards or other devices,” the comment reads.)

Roach envisions local land managers making decisions that allow outfitters and adventure companies and maybe even ski resorts to offer e-bikes so people can better explore federal wildlands. Those decisions can help local economies and rural businesses that thrive when people visit public lands, he said. 

“These new rules are paving the way for locals to make better, more conscientious decisions based on science and facts, not just personal opinions on e-bikes,” Roach said. “My guess is that within five years, wherever you can ride a bike, you will be allowed to ride an e-bike.”

The Colorado Sun has no paywall, meaning readers do not have to pay to access stories. We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable.

This reporting depends on support from readers like you. For just $5/month, you can invest in an informed community.