E-bikes on Public Lands: What Equestrians Should Know

Public debate is likely to intensify in 2021 regarding the appropriate role of motorized electric bicycle (e-bike) use in outdoor recreation, including the appropriate role of electric mountain bikes (e-MTBs) among backcountry trails. This is a condensed version of an article that appeared in the Winter 2020-21 news-letter of Back Country Horsemen of America (BCHA). To access the full version of this article, go to https://www.bcha.org/blog/2021/01/15/bcha-public-lands-update-on-e-bikes-for-2021


Final Rules for E-bike Use Issued by DOI Agencies

The e-bike industry continued its aggressive push to open public land trails to e-bike use, driven primarily by an objective to increase e-bike sales across the nation. They chalked up one such success in 2020 via the Department of Interior (DOI), which in early October announced final regulations for e-bike use by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These new policies provide a green light to local agency managers who seek to authorize e-bike use on trails where traditional bicycle use is currently allowed (for details, see BCHA’s Summer 2020 newsletter). In short, the new policies treat e-bikes as a non-motorized trail use, akin to a regular bicycle—a reversal of policy that previously (and rightfully) recognized that e-bikes operate via an electric motor.

Draft Directives for E-bike Use on National Forests

Now the good news. It appears that the U.S. Forest Service is unlikely to match the fervor by which DOI agencies rushed to facilitate and expand access for e-bike use on non-motorized trails. In late September, the Forest Service issued “draft directives” that clarify how and by what criteria e-bikes are to be managed on national forests. The draft directives were circulated as part of a 30-day public review and comment period. BCHA researched, prepared, and submitted detailed public comments on the draft directives.

E-bikes and the Lincoln National Forest

BCHA chalked up a significant victory in their efforts to ensure an open public process and rigorous environmental analysis under NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) by the Lincoln National Forest, located in southern New Mexico. BCHA and BCH New Mexico submitted a detailed public comment letter in August on the agency’s draft Environmental Assessment, documenting concerns over safety, user conflict and the potential to displace traditional non-motorized trail users. In September, the District Ranger issued a Draft Decision Notice withdrawing a portion of an otherwise good recreation management plan that would have authorized e-bike use alongside hiking and equestrian use on a new trail system. The detailed public comments BCH devel-oped for this proposal can be used as a template for other BCH chapters who might find themselves facing a similar situation.

E-bike Proposals Coming to a Forest (or Park, or BLM Lands) Near You?

Equestrians need to be prepared for the moment when their federal land management partners announce a proposal to authorize e-bike use on otherwise non-motorized trails. In many places, it will be assumed by agency trail planners that eques-trians will simply accept and learn to accommodate e-bikes on shared-use trails. In other places, agency planners will ask local equestrian representative what trails they might be willing to concede to e-bike use.

But in the short term, do not expect agency decision makers to fully understand concerns about safety and user conflict shared by traditional trail users like horsemen. We will need to make the case at the local level and be prepared to document those concerns.

To access the full version of this article or to learn what you can do to monitor developments by federal land managers in your area, go to https://www.bcha.org/blog/2021/01/15/bcha-public-lands-update-on-e-bikes-for-20215

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