Imagine: You’ve pedaled your mountain bike 10 miles into the backcountry on a trail barely wide enough for your handlebars. You’re huffing up a hill, grinding to that view, and someone comes by quietly, effortlessly, maybe even offering a hint of annoying encouragement.
How’s that possible, you wonder. Then you realize that person’s bike also has a battery. It’s an electric bike, or e-bike as they’re commonly known, and that bike’s presence on that trail signifies an at-times controversial shift in trail use in the West that just changed even more dramatically.
The thousands of miles of trails that snake through Wyoming and the West are generally divided into two categories: motorized uses for everything from 4-wheelers to motorcycles and nonmotorized, those restricted to, well, anything without a motor. Outside of wilderness areas, many nonmotorized trails also allow traditional mountain bikes. Electric bikes have been generally considered motorized. Until this year.
The Wyoming Legislature joined a number of other states that passed a bill this year legally establishing e-bikes as nonmotorized. Then on Aug. 29, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced a secretarial order requiring e-bikes be allowed on all nonmotorized trails where mountain bikes are also permitted on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Bureau of Reclamation and Fish and Wildlife Service.
The bike industry hailed the announcement as a step in the right direction, a way to get more people into the mountains and prairies and outside for much-needed exercise and fresh air. Conservation groups criticized the rash order saying it fundamentally changes the way trails can be used, and the order was done without a public comment period or ability to protest.
Ultimately, they worry, allowing some types of e-bikes in the backcountry will not only increase wildlife disturbance but also be the first step to permitting more motorized uses, eroding the a long-standing tradition of quiet in the woods.
First, for anyone who hasn’t seen or ridden an e-bike, here’s a quick primer.
They look much like traditional bicycles with a seat, two wheels and pedals, but they also have some form of battery attached to the back intended to augment human powered pedaling.
The bikes allow riders to pedal as much or as little as they want and cruise the rest of the time. The motors will only help up to 20 or 28 mph, after that, you’re on your own. They’re quiet, say e-bike users, and freeing.
“Most people are never going to know they’re even sharing a trail with an e-bike,” said Bruce Lamberson, owner of bike retailer Mountain Sports in Casper. “And it allows more people to ride bikes and get exercise. People who have given up riding a bike because it’s windy or hilly or gravely. They can get on a bike and get out and do it.”
Wyoming and the Interior specify three classes of e-bikes. The first provides motor assistance only when the rider is pedaling up to 20 mph; the second is a motor that can operate when the rider is not pedaling but won’t run faster than 20 mph; and the third is a motor that can assist when the rider is pedaling and will continue to assist up to 28 mph.
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That’s where the controversy comes in.
If not all e-bikes require users to pedal, outdoorsmen like Randy Rasmussen, director of Public Lands and Recreation for Backcountry Horsemen of America wonder how it can be considered nonmotorized.
“This directive is inclusive of all three classes and class two isn’t even pedal assist, it’s a throttle, so there’s not even any human power involved, you can start from a dead stop and the motor assist will go up to 20 mph,” he said. “That doesn’t sound like a lot, but on narrow trails where they appear out of nowhere, that’s a frightening prospect for horsemen.”
None of the conservation groups questioning the secretarial order argue against e-bikes. They can be great for commuting and even paved or gravel trails through scenic areas. But they don’t belong on nonmotorized backcountry trails, Rasmussen said.
Tim Brass, state policy and field operations director for sportsmen’s advocacy group Backcountry Hunters and Anglers agreed with Rasmussen’s concerns.
“The scary part to me is to look at all of these nonmotorized routes suddenly becoming open to e-bikes without any kind of scientific process or public process to take a look at what the impacts on wildlife might be or impact on other trail users,” he said.
E-bikes allow more riders to go places typically reserved for only the fittest mountain bikers. All those extra humans and bikes can take a toll on wildlife, he said, adding to mounting concerns that humans may be loving nature to death.
For Rasumussen and Brass, the issue is reminiscent of calls to allow mountain bikes into designated wilderness areas. It’s a way for more motorized uses to move further back into the wild.
But for Lamberson and other bike sellers and enthusiasts, e-bikes are simply a way to help people become healthier and more connected to the outside world. Most manufacturers are focusing on the first class of bikes that require pedaling, not the second that can function on motor alone. The impact of e-bikes on the backcountry, Lamberson said, will be limited by skill level.
“You still have to be able to ride a trail,” he said.