Interior moves to allow e-bikes in parks

09/05/2019

Biking in the Point Reyes National Seashore may soon get a lot easier—and faster. United States Interior Secretary David Bernhardt last week ordered the National Park Service and other federal land management agencies to permit the use of electric bicycles on all trails currently designated for non-motorized bikes.   

In response, the park service has directed superintendents to adopt a new policy that follows these guidelines within 30 days, though they also retain some discretion.  

“We are currently evaluating how to adopt this directive, and we are consulting with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area for a consistent approach,” seashore spokeswoman Jennifer Stock said, adding that there likely would not be a public process. 

A memorandum released on Aug. 30 by the park service’s deputy director, Dan Smith, specifies that superintendents should insert new language into each park’s compendium, including a standard definition of electric bikes as a “low-speed electric bicycle” with up to 750 watts of power. 

That definition permits the three classifications of electric bikes regulated in California today, including those with pedal assistance up to 20 miles per hour and up to 28 miles per hour. Another class—which provides throttle assistance up to 20 miles per hour—is also allowed, though the memorandum stipulates operators must use the pedals unless they are on a park road that already allows motor vehicles.

Superintendents have some flexibility, however. “Superintendents may limit or restrict or impose conditions on bicycle use, including specific limitations on e-bike use, or may close any park road, parking area, administrative road, trail, or portion thereof to such bicycle use and/or e-bike use,” the memorandum states. However, it adds that, “to the extent possible,” superintendents should not make e-bike rules on federal lands more restricted than those in adjacent jurisdictions.  

In California, the two classes of e-bikes that take riders up to 20 miles per hour are permitted on the paved surfaces where old-school bikes are permitted, but e-bikes that take riders up to 28 miles per hour are prohibited from multi-use bike paths unless otherwise permitted by a local ordinance.

In Marin, all electric bikes are currently prohibited in county open space preserves and parks, and on lands managed by the Marin Municipal Water District. (On Sept. 17, however, the county parks department will bring a proposal before the supervisors to allow the two slower e-bikes on paved surfaces, and MMWD has formed a working group to look at lifting its ban.)

Last week’s order from the secretary addressed not only the National Park Service but also Fish and Wildlife and the Bureaus of Land Management and Land Reclamation.

“This order is intended to increase recreational opportunities for all Americans, especially those with physical limitations, and to encourage the enjoyment of lands and waters managed by the Department of the Interior,” Sec. Bernhardt wrote. “This order simplifies and unifies regulation of electric bicycles on federal lands managed by the department and also decreases regulatory burden.” 

The idea of electric bikes on federal lands has raised ire among hikers, conservationists and equestrians. In a July letter to the park service, more than 50 groups protested the allowance, saying it “would undermine nearly a half-century of management precedents and practices.”

“Allowing e-bikes on non-motorized trails would be unmanageable and send agencies down a slippery slope towards allowing further motorization of trails and potentially the entire backcountry,” the letter states. “Federal land managers simply do not have the resources to police e-bikes on trails.”  

The letter went on to flag likely conflicts with other recreational users of public lands, damages to soil, water and other resources, and the potential harassment of wildlife.

E-bikes are the fastest-growing segment of the bicycle industry, with sales in the United States rising 72 percent to $144 million last year, according to the NPD Group, which monitors bike sales. The bikes, which typically start at $2,000, combine the frame of a regular bike with lightweight batteries and electric motors.

The bikes could bring a new dimension to disputes between different trail users—bikers, hikers and equestrians—which in the past have centered around environmental impacts, safety and personal experience in the seashore.  

Mountain biking, a sport born in Marin County, has relatively little access in the seashore, where just 15 miles of dirt trails are open to bikers—including the Estero Trail, the Olema Valley Trail and the Inverness Ridge Trail—along with 14 miles of fire roads. None of these are loops, a complaint voiced by the mountain biking community. By comparison, equestrians have access to over 115 miles of trails in the park. 

Last year, Marin bikers advocated for a proposed amendment to the 1964 Wilderness Act that would open up the possibility of bike access to the 33,373-acre Phillip Burton Wilderness. A bill that would have accomplished this died last year, though this summer Utah Senator Mike Lee introduced another.

Vernon Huffman, the president of Access4Bikes Foundation who commutes on an e-bike daily from his home in Woodacre to his job in San Rafael, supports that proposed legislation but takes a more nuanced stance on the secretary’s order.

“For most traditional mountain bikers, there is a general level of acceptance for [pedal-assist] e-bikes. Especially for those who are elderly and less capable, it does help to prolong their mountain biking life,” he said. “But [bikes with throttles] have no place on our non-motorized trails.” 

Mr. Huffman, who will also soon serve as the vice president of a new California mountain biking coalition, said that he also disapproved of allowing pedal-assist bikes that go up to 28 miles per hour in the seashore, considering the speed limit for bikes in Marin is typically 15 miles per hour. 

“This is not something that should be decided in Washington, but rather put in the hands of local land managers and assessed with public input,” he added.