Recreators enjoy public lands by riding e-bikes. [Photo credit Eric Coulter/BLM]

“No more cars in national parks,” wrote Edward Abbey in “Desert Solitaire,” his well-known ode to the deserts of southeast Utah. “Let the people walk. Or ride horses, bicycles, mules, wild pigs – anything – but keep the automobiles and the motorcycles and all their motorized relatives out.”

Where would e-bikes, which look like traditional pedal bikes but have a small electric motor, fall in Abbey’s evaluation? Are they welcomed along with bicycles, or are they the terrible “motorized relatives?” Should they be allowed on trails designated as non-motorized?

Public land managers are trying to answer that question.

On Aug. 29, the Secretary of the Department of the Interior (DOI) David Bernhardt issued an order directing agencies within the department, including the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management, to clarify their e-bike policies.

The order refers to federal code to define what is to be considered an e-bike, or a “low-speed electric bicycle.” It must have less than 750 watts of power and a maximum independent speed (without pedal assist) of no more than 20 miles per hour. The order goes on to define three classes within that designation, distinguished by whether the motor can be operated without pedaling and the maximum speed to which the motor will assist a rider.

The order does not directly command agencies to adopt a specific policy, but it does create firm guidelines.

“Consistent with governing laws and regulations… E-bikes shall be allowed where other types of bicycles are allowed, and E-bikes shall not be allowed where other types of bicycles are prohibited,” the document says.

Park service and BLM Policies Adjust to New Directive

Agencies were given thirty days to develop policies consistent with the order and to provide public guidance on those policies.

For national parks in the Moab area, implementation of the order has been fairly straight-forward, as the existing policy allows bicycles of any kind only on paved or unpaved roads and not on trails. The Southeast Utah Group (Arches, Canyonlands, Hovenweep, and Natural Bridges) enacted a policy allowing e-bikes where pedal-only bikes are allowed, which went into effect on Oct. 1.

“It hasn’t been a huge change for us—we don’t anticipate a lot of major impacts,” said Scott Brown, Chief Ranger for the Southeast Utah Group of Parks.

However, for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and their partners, the issue is more complex.

The BLM hosts over a hundred miles of mountain bike trails in the Moab area, and partners with local governments and volunteer groups in the maintenance and management of those trails. As e-bikes have gained popularity in the past few years, the BLM has thus far been treating them as motorized vehicles, barring them from trails that are closed to motorcycles, dirt-bikes and UTVs.

On Oct. 22, the Washington office of the BLM issued an “Information Bulletin,” replacing the previous definition of e-bikes as motor-vehicles with a definition in line with the order from the DOI. The new bulletin establishes that “low-speed electric bicycles, as defined by federal law and SO 3376, operated in the pedal-assist mode, should generally be given the same access as traditional bicycles.”

The bulletin acknowledges that specific consideration must be given to each trail before it is opened to new users. However, district or field managers must justify any closures.

“In the event that a District or Field Manager is considering denying the use of low-speed electric bicycles in a specific location, a written explanation must be submitted to and approved by the State Director,” says the Oct. 22 BLM information bulletin.

Confusion Impacts Local Trail Organizations

One of the BLM’s partners in the Moab area is Grand County Trail Mix, a volunteer advisory committee that helps in planning and creating trails around Moab. The group, along with the Grand County Division of Active Transportation and Trails, has aided the BLM in designing, building, and improving trails, obtaining grant funding, and in conducting public outreach and collecting public input.

County employees and volunteers have had difficulty fielding questions from trail users while waiting for the local BLM office to provide specific guidance on the new policy. Trail Mix posted a statement on their Facebook page entreating trail users to abide by the posted existing regulations until the policies are explicitly changed, if they are to be changed at all.

“Please respect the rules that govern trail use in our area while the local BLM district field office continues to work through multiple aspects of the secretarial order,” the Facebook statement says. “Persistent abuse is not good for any user group and could result in access changes for everyone.”

County Supports Existing Ban

In a special meeting held on Oct. 29, Zacharia Levine, director of the County Department of Community and Economic Development, advised the Grand County Council to make a formal statement on the issue.

“I think that we need to get to a point where there is one very clear position, and Grand County’s voice is strong within that conversation,” he said.

The Grand County Council voted four to one to approve a joint letter with the Trail Mix Committee addressed to the BLM Canyon Country District Manager Lance Porter, requesting that the district keep the policy barring e-bikes from non-motorized trails.

Councilmember Jaylyn Hawks was in opposition and Councilmembers Curtis Wells and Rory Paxman were absent.

The letter points out that there are already about 100 miles of motorized single-track trail in Grand County where e-bikers can ride, and that separating motorized and non-motorized user groups has helped land managers and bikers avoid conflict up to this point.

The letter also brings up the private donations, grant money and hundreds of volunteer hours that have contributed to trail construction and maintenance with the understanding that the trails would be designated as non-motorized. The letter also asks that the BLM conduct new environmental reviews before changing the policy on any trail.

Finally, the letter asserts that e-bikes will have a greater impact than pedal bikes on trails, and thus will make trail maintenance more expensive—and much of that cost would fall on the county.

“Our trails have been designed and built specifically for non-motorized use; the higher power, higher weight, and higher speed of electrically assisted bikes will create increased trail damage,” the letter says. “If the Moab BLM Field Office changes its policy on e-bikes, Grand County residents will bear the financial and experiential costs of such a change.”

Groups oppose opening non-motorized trails.

Even before this order was issued, conservation organizations, recreation advocacy groups and land management agencies were debating how to handle emerging e-bike technologies. In July, over fifty non-profit advocacy groups, including The Wilderness Society and the National Parks Conservation Association, signed a letter addressed to the directors of the Forest Service, the BLM, and the National Park Service, opposing opening non-motorized trails to e-bikes.

The letter argues that e-bikes could belong on trails already open to motorized use, but that allowing them on non-motorized trails will negatively affect the experience of hikers, backpackers, hunters, horse packers, climbers, and mountain bikers. The groups fear that an exception for one form of motorized use will begin a “slippery slope” of deteriorating regulations against other motorized vehicles.

The groups assert that differentiating the classes of e-bikes identified in the DOI memo is confusing and poses unnecessary enforcement challenges for land managers, and that opening non-motorized trails to e-bikes is contrary to decades of existing regulations and management planning.

Dale Parriott is a long-time Moab local and founder of the non-profit organization Ride With Respect, which promotes trail stewardship and cooperation between different user groups. He agrees that there needs to be deeper consideration of the potential impacts of e-bikes before they are allowed on non-motorized trails.

“Off-road, there are certain places where an e-bike may not be as acceptable as a pedal bike,” he said, explaining that the torque on e-bikes could have a more serious impact on the sandy trails around Moab than on other types of soil.

Parriott has nothing against e-bikes, though. “I still think that e-bikes are just awesome, and I wish I had one,” Parriott said.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a non-profit public lands advocacy group, did not sign the July letter but told the Moab Sun News that the organization agrees with its message.

“Motorized bikes have no place on non-motorized trails, as those trails are intended to give users a place that’s free from the ever-growing motorization of public lands,” said Neal Clark, a Moab local and the wildlands program director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) in an emailed statement.

Popularity of E-bikes

While controversy has not stopped the rise of e-bikes, there is hardly a frenzy of electric bike riders in Moab. Local bike shops and bike tour guides report there is a moderate demand for the new technology.

Brown says concessionaires who hold permits to guide bike trips in the parks had been asking if and when the park service will allow e-bikes within their boundaries.

“I think they see a market there to try to get more people out on bikes, and for a lot of people, the only way they really can get out and enjoy a bicycle in the park is if they have a little bit of help with it,” Brown said. “But I wouldn’t say we’ve had a huge rush of concessionaires asking about it.”

Kelby Groff, who runs Rim Cyclery in Moab, stocks e-bikes to rent and sell from his shop.

“I’m just getting into them, but a lot of people have asked for them,” Groff said. He hasn’t been closely following the developments on e-bike policy, and until there are clear status changes on local trails, he’s happy directing e-bike users to trails already open to motor vehicles.

“There’s a lot of places you can ride here that aren’t closed off to motorized vehicles,” Groff said. “There’s a lot of motorized trails, and that’s where we send people—not on the non-motorized stuff.”

Ashley Korenblat is the owner of Western Spirit, a bike touring company based in Moab, and is also the managing director of the non-profit Public Lands Solutions. Korenblat said Western Spirit has a few e-bikes available for rent and has guided a few custom private trips using e-bikes in places around Moab where they’re currently allowed.

She says she hasn’t witnessed conflicts between non-motorized users and e-bikes of the kind described in the letter from conservation groups to land management agency directors.

“We’re not seeing a lot of crashes on bike paths, we’re just seeing a lot more use,” she said, adding that e-bikes are widespread in Europe and managers there have been able to enact effective policies.

She thinks land managers will be able to successfully integrate e-bikes into management plans and policies.

“We’re successfully managing lots of multiple uses in Moab, so I think we can continue to do that for this additional category,” Korenblat said, commenting that e-bikes could ultimately be a good thing for the environment.

“I think if we can get more people out of their cars, and more people cycling, it’s a good thing,” she said.

“No vehicle is appropriate everywhere, but if we do the work to figure out where is right, it could be a good thing.”

New federal policy expands access for e-bikes, but details are uncertain

“No vehicle is appropriate everywhere, but if we do the work to figure out where is right, it could be a good thing.”

– Ashley Korenblat