PUBLIC COMMENTING OPEN: Forest Service Plans to Open Non-Motorized Trails to Electric Bicycles

by | Oct 24, 2020

The Forest Service has proposed changes to its directives on Travel Management and Planning in the Federal Register to promote the use of electric bicycles (e-bikes) and open non-motorized trails to them.

 

** SUBMIT YOUR COMMENT HERE

BY MONDAY OCTOBER 26th **

A summary of concerns and another link to the public comment form is at the end of this article.

Too wordy? Read the Short Cut here!

Current Status

More than 60,000 miles of trails (nearly 40% of all trails) and thousands more miles of roads are open to all classes of e-bikes on our National Forests and Grasslands.

Background

In October 2019, the Interior Department issued an order mandating that e-bikes are to be considered ‘low-speed electric bicycle[s],’ ‘shall be allowed where other types of bicycles are allowed,’ and are to be ‘expressly exempt ..from the definition of motor vehicles.’ This order applies to all Interior areas, including: National Park Service (NPS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), and the Bureau of Reclamation, together comprising more than 450 million acres of federal public lands.

Despite offering no official opportunity for public input or comment prior to the issuance of this order, a letter from a conglomeration of outdoors groups representing MILLIONS of outdoor recreationists (including mountain biking organizations, the American Hiking Society and all three major trail associations, and all 30 states and 196 chapters of the Back Country Horsemen of America) was sent in July 2019 to the heads of NPS, United States Forest Service (USFS), and the acting head of BLM adamantly opposing exactly what this order mandated – the allowance of e-bikes on non-motorized trails. In December 2019, PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) and several other groups filed a lawsuit to restore the ban on e-bikes in National Parks on the grounds that allowing them pursuant to the Interior order violated existing NPS regulations and skipped environmental reviews required by law. This case is pending in a District of Columbia District Court.

In March 2016, a memo sent to all Regional Foresters at USFS (which operates under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture) regarding ‘Electric Bikes and Trail Management’ clarified that ‘e-bikes are motor vehicles’ that do not meet the criteria of being mobility devices, and as such an ‘e-bike remains a motor vehicle regardless of who is using it.’ The memo states that ‘new trail riding opportunities for e-bikes on existing non-motorized trails may be considered,’ but that such designations would require ‘appropriate environmental analysis [and] public participation.’

In October 2019, the Back Country Horsemen of America and other groups filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service in a California District Court after Tahoe National Forest opened more than 130 miles of non-motorized trail to e-bikes. Tahoe NF did neither the environmental impact survey nor the period of public comment (both required) before re-classifying previously non-motorized trails and inviting e-bike riders via its website to use them. That case was settled in April 2020 and resulted in Tahoe NF rescinding e-bike access to designated non-motorized trails.

Proposed Changes to USFS E-Bike Travel Management and Planning

On September 24, 2020, the Forest Service published a notice of availability for public comment on multiple proposed changes to the Forest Service Manual on Travel Management and Planning, primarily intended to ‘establish promotion of e-bike use on NFS lands as an objective,’ and ‘add a category for designating e-bike use on NFS trails.’

Following are issues related to the proposed changes:

FSM 7700 – Travel Management

7702 – Objectives

Adds Paragraph 8: ‘To consider emerging technologies (such as e-bikes) that are changing the way people access and recreate on NFS lands. For example, where suitable for use, e-bikes may provide new opportunities for individuals who might otherwise be prevented from experiencing an NFS trail without assistance from an electrical motor.’

Issues

  1. Lack of transparency. The proposed paragraph uses e-bikes as an ‘example’ of an emerging technology, but the wording published in the Federal Register specifically states that this paragraph is intended ‘to establish promotion of e-bike use on NFS lands as an objective.’
  2. Codified preferentialism toward e-bikes. Currently, there are seven (7) categories or classifications of vehicles used by the USFS for management and planning purposes (FSM 7711.3 Paragraph 6). This objective would make e-bikes the ONLY category or class of motor vehicle to be ‘consider[ed]’ when making travel management decisions. Not OHVs, not snowmobiles, not off-road motorcycles, just e-bikes. This is unprecedented and inappropriate. The number of e-bike users is exceptionally small, especially as compared to other types of motorized vehicle users.
  3. Lack of measurability. Currently, there are seven (7) objectives guiding travel management decisions and policy-making. Each of the existing objectives is measurable and thus evaluable, due to usage of verbs indicating quantifiable action: ‘provide,’ ‘manage,’ coordinate,’ ‘designate.’ There is no reliable manner to measure whether something was considered or not, as consideration is typically a non-tangible cerebral process. As such, there is no means to objectively, consistently, and reliably evaluate whether or not this objective has been achieved.

7703.13 – Considerations in Designating Trails for Motor Vehicle Use or OSV Use

7703.14 – Considerations in Designating Areas for Motor Vehicle Use or OSV Use

Adds as preface to numbered paragraphs: ‘See FSM 7715.5 and FSM 7715.6 for specific guidance to follow in designating trails for motor vehicle use.’

Issue

These additions are unnecessary, as they are essentially equivalent to FSM 7703.13, Paragraph 3 and FSM 7703.14, Paragraph 5, respectively. If one is to designate an area or trail for motor vehicle use in accordance and conformation with these chapters as they stand currently, then the ‘specific guidance’ provided in FSM 7715.5 and FSM 7715.6 must already be followed.

7705 – Definitions

Adds ‘Electric Bicycle (E-Bike)’ and the three (3) classes of e-bike.

Issue

None. The addition of this definition to the manual, which differentiates an electric bicycle from a traditional bicycle, and further clarifies that electric bicycles are, in fact, motor vehicles, because all classes have motors, is appropriate.

Chapter 7710 – Travel Planning

7711.3 – MVUMs and OSVUMs

(MVUM: Motor Vehicle Use Map; OSVUM: Over-Snow Vehicle Use Map)

PARAGRAPH 6: Adds E-bikes as a category of motor vehicle use designation in subsection (g):

‘Trails Open to E-Bikes Only, Specify the class or classes of e-bikes allowed (Class 1, 2, and/or 3)’

**ISSUE**

The ONLY trails that could be assigned to this category, as e-bikes are currently already allowed to use any other trail or road open to any category of motorized vehicle, are trails that are currently designated for non-motorized use.

7715.03 – Policy

Adds Paragraph 9: ‘Consider emerging technology (such as e-bikes) that are changing the way people access and recreate on NFS lands. For example, where suitable for use, e-bikes may provide new opportunities for individuals who might otherwise be prevented from experiencing an NFS trail without assistance from an electrical motor.

Issues:

  1. Lack of specificity. No guidance or direction is offered in any of the proposed changes as to how one might determine where exactly e-bikes might be ‘suitable for use’ other than where they are already permitted to go. Therefore, as written, this policy leaves an exceptionally generous allowance for interpretation, which must necessarily be biased toward users of e-bikes pursuant to both this paragraph and proposed FSM 7702 Paragraph 8.
  2. Lack of transparency. As above under 7702 – Objectives; Issue (1): The proposed paragraph uses e-bikes as an ‘example’ of an emerging technology, but the wording published in the Federal Register specifically states that this paragraph is intended ‘to establish promotion of e-bike use on NFS lands as an objective.’
  3. Codified preferentialism toward e-bikes. This objective would make e-bikes the one and only specific category or class of motor vehicle to be ‘consider[ed]’ when making travel planning decisions. This is unprecedented and inappropriate. The number of e-bike users is exceptionally small, especially as compared to the combined number of hikers, equestrians, and traditional mountain bicyclists, from whom non-motorized trails will be taken.

7715.5 – Criteria

Adds Paragraph 4. Specific Criteria and Guidance for Designating E-Bike Use on Trails

‘..when designating trails for e-bike use (FSM 7705), consider and document the following:

a. ‘Whether and the extent to which the trails are managed for bicycle use or bicycle use is allowed (FSM 7705) under the applicable TMOs.

b. ‘For trails that are managed for bicycle use or where bicycle use is allowed, the extent to which effects from e-bike use are comparable to effects from existing bicycle use, accounting for, as appropriate, differences in speed; potential effects from increased or concentrated use; and any site-specific considerations.

c. ‘Whether a programmatic environmental analysis may be feasible and more efficient due to similarities in effects of bicycle use and e-bike use.

‘Consider designating a class or classes of e-bike use, as appropriate, on NFS trails managed for bicycle use or where bicycle use is allowed, where effects from e-bike use would be comparable to effects from bicycle use.

‘E-bikes are not allowed on a National Scenic Trail unless a regulatory exception authorized by the National Trails System Act is met or there is an exception in the enabling legislation for the trail.’

**ISSUES**

  1. SIGNIFICANT REDUCTION OF NON-MOTORIZED TRAILS. As mentioned above, the ONLY category of trail that can be designated as open to E-bikes only are non-motorized trails.
  2. Pre-Supposition. Subsection (c) states as fact that the effects of traditional and e-bike use are similar with no substantiating evidence or supporting material. In fact, subsection (b) directly conflicts with this assertion, as it directs the Planner to ‘consider and document’ the extent to which effects from e-bike use are comparable to effects from [existing] bicycle use,’ which implies that there IS a difference of unknown extent. Further, this pre-supposition offers implicit encouragement to the Planner to forego the typically-required Environmental Impact Survey and instead perform solely a ‘programmatic environmental analysis.’
  3. E-bikes on National Scenic Trails in the future. Traditional bicycles are already allowed on several segments of several National Scenic Trails. If the ‘promotion of e-bike use on NFS lands’ is a codified system-wide objective for Travel Management and Planning, and the determination of whether or not to open trails to e-bike use is predicated upon whether those trails are already open to traditional bicycles, it seems likely that if e-bikes are to be exempted from rules governing every other category of motor vehicle, they will ultimately be exempted from this restriction as well.

7715.72 – Road and Trail Jurisdiction and Coordination

Adds Paragraph 8: ‘On routes crossing multiple jurisdictions, coordinate travel management decisions and operational practices with appropriate Federal, State, county, and other local governmental entities and Tribal governments to provide continuity of recreation experiences.

Issues:

  1. Prejudicial. Interior has already mandated similar changes to e-bike policy, as have 27 states. If a trail passes from USFS to NPS or BLM land, the default decision pursuant to this paragraph will be to re-classify a non-motorized trail that is currently open to bicycles as a motorized trail open to e-bikes.
  2. Potential conflict of interests. If a trail passes through multiple jurisdictions with conflicting designations regarding e-bikes, USFS will likely default to re-classifying non-motorized trails as open to e-bikes pursuant to proposed FSM 7702 and in alignment with the statement published in the Federal Register that these are added ‘to establish promotion of e-bike use on NFS lands as an objective.’

CONCERNS

SAFETY

Despite the Forest Service statement that these policy changes are designed ‘to provide new opportunities for individuals who might otherwise be prevented from experiencing an NFS trail without assistance from an electric motor,’ implying that e-bike users will generally be, as the Interior Order describes, suffering from ‘limitations stemming from age, illness, disability, or fitness,’ according to a 2019 study by the Portland State University Transportation Research and Education Center, the typical e-bike owner is in ‘very good or excellent health,’ (53.1%), and only ’28.7% reported having a physical limitation that makes riding a standard bicycle difficult.’

77.2% of respondents agreed that ‘an e-bike’s speed and acceleration are exciting.’

68.5% agreed that ‘on my e-bike, I feel like I go faster than other cyclists.’

81.6% agreed that ‘on average, I ride faster than I would on a standard bicycle.’

Because e-bikes are surprisingly quiet, this combination of speed (Class III e-bikes can accelerate up to almost 30 mph unassisted) and silence endanger traditional non-motorized trail users, especially hikers, who typically average 2-3 mph, and equestrians, because horses tend to spook extremely easily. Many non-motorized trails are more remote and inaccessible than motorized trails and roads. If non-motorized trails are re-classified as e-bike trails, it is likely that Search & Rescue (SAR) calls will increase, and that more trail users will be injured more severely and more frequently. This video, from an e-bike manufacturer, indicates the target market and intent for its electric mountain bike, describing it as ‘the weapon of choice.’

COST

Re-classifying non-motorized trails to allow access for e-bikes will result in numerous costs that will ultimately be footed by Taxpayers, the vast majority of whom do not use e-bikes:

  • Costs associated with re-signing existing trails and re-printing MVUMs;
  • Costs associated with trail maintenance, and specifically accelerated trail erosion;
  • Costs associated with enforcement and regulation of e-bike users on trails;
  • Costs in staff hours associated with re-classifying non-motorized trails as appropriate for e-bike use;
  • Costs associated with the inevitable lawsuits that will arise as a result of inappropriate designations, failures to properly adhere to legal and regulatory procedure in re-classifying trails, conflicts between user groups, and civil liability litigation that will arise as a result of collisions between e-bike users and traditional non-motorized trail users.

EXCLUSION OF RE-CLASSIFIED AREAS FROM FUTURE WILDERNESS CONSIDERATION

Once an area has been naturalized to motor vehicle use, it is automatically disqualified from consideration for future protection as a federally-designated wilderness.

DECREASE IN OPPORTUNITIES FOR BACKCOUNTRY EXPERIENCES WITHOUT THE INTRUSION OF MECHANIZED OR MOTORIZED VEHICLES

If new e-bike trails can only come from trails that are currently non-motorized, the availability of trails promising a lack of interaction with vehicles is necessarily reduced.

INCREASE IN GENTRIFICATION AND DECREASE IN DIVERSITY ON OUR PUBLIC LANDS

Mountain biking is already one of the least diverse types of outdoors recreation. According to the Portland State University study referenced above, e-bike users are even less diverse: the typical e-bike owner is a white (85.4%) male (70.5%), over 45 years old (67.2%) with a college degree (64.2%). The average electric mountain bike costs $4,150, or more than 6% of the 2019 median household income. It stands to reason that as e-bike usership increases, traditional trail users may choose to no longer use those now-shared trails in order to avoid conflicts with e-bike users.

Traditional mountain bikers may see reduced future trail access

Executive Director of the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) David Wiens has stated that it is imperative that traditional and electric mountain bikes not be seen as functional equals by regulators. However, by predicating whether or not a non-motorized trail should be opened to e-bikes by whether or not it is currently open to traditional mountain bikes pursuant to proposed FSM 7715.5, that is EXACTLY what is happening. As a result, future decisions regarding whether or not a trail should be open to mountain bikes will necessarily have to take into account that e-bikes will likely have to be allowed access as well.

PUBLIC OPINION

As yet, there are few studies or sources related to electric mountain bikes in outdoor recreation. However, earlier this month, The Arizona Trail Association published its report ‘Perceptions of Conflict Surrounding Future E-Bike Use’ in which 64.1% of agreed that e-bikes should not be allowed on the Arizona National Scenic Trail, and 69.1% agreed that e-bikes should not be allowed on non-motorized trails.

Jefferson County, Colorado also conducted a study, ‘E-bikes and Trails: Measuring Impact and Acceptance of Class 1 E-bikes on Trails,’ and as a result, determined to allow only Class I e-bikes, and those only on paved trails.

** SUBMIT YOUR COMMENT HERE

BY MONDAY OCTOBER 26th **

Pro Tip: Submitting a comment that is not in a form letter (i.e. in your own words) carries more impact.

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<a href="https://www.supportpubliclands.com/author/superclassy/" target="_self">Michelle Markel</a>

Michelle Markel

When not hiking a ridiculously long trail or exploring some of our almost 840 million acres of public lands from her van / house, Michelle can typically be found in someone's basement or shed feverishly working on this website.

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