On 29 August, the Secretary of the Interior in Washington, DC, issued order No 3376, Subject: Increasing Recreational Opportunities through the use of Electric Bikes.
That order directs that E-bikes shall be allowed wherever other types of bicycles are allowed. This order applies to public lands within units of the National Park System, National Wildlife Refuge System, lands managed by Bureau of Land Management, and lands managed by Bureau of Reclamation. This does not include National Forests which are under the Department of Agriculture.
This order resolves long standing and confusing arguments as to whether e-bikes are bicycles or motorized cycles, scooters or mopeds, legally treated and oft restricted or banned as motorized vehicles. On Department of Interior lands, they are bicycles. If the trail or area permits bicycles, then e-bikes will also be permitted.
Further into the details: "E-bikes" are "low-speed electric bicycle" as defined by 15 U.S.C. § 2085 and falling within one of the following classifications:
i) "Class 1 electric bicycle" shall mean an electric bicycle equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling, and that ceases to provide assistance when the bicycle reaches the speed of 20 miles per hour;
ii) "Class 2 electric bicycle" shall mean an electric bicycle equipped with a motor that may be used exclusively to propel the bicycle, and that is not capable of providing assistance when the bicycle reaches the speed of 20 miles per hour; and
iii) "Class 3 electric bicycle" shall mean an electric bicycle equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling, and that ceases to provide assistance when the bicycle reaches the speed of 28 miles per hour.
Before this order was issued, many organizations collectively claiming millions of members, supporters and public land users opposed it. I read one particular letter signed by over fifty such groups and organizations and summarize the key points below.
First is the contention that e-bikes are vehicles with motors and that this policy will eventually threaten management of all non-motorized trails.
Second is the contention that hikers, backpackers, hunters, horse packers, climbers, mountain bikers and many more, value non-motorized trails for recreation and opening such trails to motors would forever change the backcountry experience.
Third, recognizing that e-bikes have a place, they should be allowed where motorized vehicles are permitted, specifically the existing motorized trail systems.
Fourth, the various e-bike classification systems are confusing and the e-bikes themselves are difficult to distinguish from one another, and regardless, they are by definition motorized vehicles.
Fifth, any such e-bike policy is deemed a slippery slope to eventually opening other trails and potentially the entire backcountry to motorization.
Sixth, this order is contrary to long-standing laws and policies dating back to the Nixon Administration that confined all motorized recreational use of public lands to designated roads, trails and areas. Also, motorized trails must be located to minimize conflicts with other recreational users as well as damage to soil, water, other public land resources, and harassment of wildlife. Separately, agencies manage to preserve and protect wilderness characteristics. And National Scenic Trails specifically are required by law to be managed as non-motorized trails.
Seventh and finally, opening non-motorized trails to motorized bikes would effectively eliminate the non-motorized, primitive recreational opportunities.
I don’t buy any of these arguments as they are deliberate obfuscations. They refuse to accept that e-bikes are bicycles and just keep repeating the same point so many different ways.
Allowing bicycles does not lead to legal motor vehicle use and neither will allowing e-bikes. To the casual observer and trail user, the difference between a bicycle and an e-bike is that the e-bike will climb faster, making it easier for less-able people to ride farther and faster and enjoy adventures that they could otherwise not experience. To claim that mountain bikers specifically would disapprove is outrageous since they, as a class, are likely responsible for most negative attitudes against wilderness bicycles in the first place. But again, it’s individual people, not equipment that cause problems. Reckless downhill cycling is hazardous to self and others but that’s not specific to e-bikes, just as reckless downhill skiers crash into, maim and kill themselves and others on ski slopes without resorting to powered skis.
If e-bikes are restricted only to motorized trails, then why bother with them? A gas-powered scooter or dirt bike is actually cheaper. Not nearly as quiet but much faster with great fuel economy and range, just ignore the exhaust. Restricting e-bikes could actually encourage more motorized vehicle use in wilderness areas.
Any confusion concerning the various e-bike classifications is moot since there is no distinction here; all classes are allowed. We don’t ban faster cars from roadways but instead impose speed limits and enforce compliance. The same applies to e-bikes and bicycles.
Let’s cut to the chase. Opposing e-bikes, and regular bicycles for that matter, is about keeping out typical tourists, the short-term recreational users, especially the less-abled. It’s about maintaining exclusivity for elites with time and money to go all-in on their leisure activities. They want to restrict e-bikes to motor roadways with all the other tourists.
Pro-wilderness adventure groups should be encouraging “common folk” to share the experience and joy of the great outdoors. Walking and hiking is impractical for many with limited time and abilities. With bicycles, they can wander far and wide while e-bikes further extend their options. E-bike riders should be welcomed into wilderness areas. Once people accept e-bikes as bicycles and obey the rules, everyone comes out ahead.
I hope that I’ve dispelled some concerns and encouraged others to give bicycle riding a try. Perhaps we’ll meet soon. I’ll ring my bell!