Forest Service issues new guidelines for e-bike use

Opening non-motorized routes is possible but must be thoroughly studied

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Jordan Yankowiak shreds Vail Mountain's mountain bike trails Saturday, July 10, in Vail. The mountain offers different trails for multiple ability levels.
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The U.S. Forest Service released national guidelines Thursday that reinforce e-bike access to roads and trails open to motorized uses and give local officials leeway in evaluating the use of additional routes.

The national directive classifies e-bikes as a motorized use. Expansion of use onto non-motorized trails is possible but must go through the agency’s regular environmental analysis process.

“There will not be any immediate changes to our approach for managing e-bikes on the White River National Forest,” said David Boyd, public information officer for the forest supervisor’s office. “Any proposed changes would go through a formal planning review including a (National Environmental Policy Act) analysis with opportunities for public comment.”

There are no current proposals being reviewed or planned to expand e-bike use, he said.

On a national scale, e-bikes are allowed on 60,000 miles of motorized-use forest trails, roughly 38% of all trails the agency manages. Statistics on open trails and roads in the Aspen-Sopris District were not immediately available.

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E-bike use on non-motorized trails became controversial in 2019 when the Department of Interior said any routes open to regular bikes should be opened to e-bikes. That resulted in the opening of some trails managed by the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management. It didn’t affect the Forest Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The interior department stepped the rule back and gave local federal land managers more authority to evaluate e-bike access on a case-by-case basis.

Mike Pritchard, executive director of the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association, said the controversy over e-bike use has largely calmed down and he didn’t see anything in the Forest Service guidelines that would reignite it.

“It does seem that the e-bike topic is getting a little less heated over time,” he said.

He personally believes e-bikes are valuable to keep mountain bikers pursuing their passion as they grow older, and it gets other people off the couch. On the other hand, critics are concerned that opening non-motorized singletrack routes will attract more riders to trails that are already overcrowded, he noted.

Class One e-bikes seem to be the most accepted among cyclists. They are pedal-assist bikes that require the riders to actively engage rather than simply twist a throttle.

In the Roaring Fork and Lower Colorado River valleys, there is limited use of e-bikes and very few problems reported to the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association, Pritchard said.

Nationwide, the BLM allows e-bike use on 18,000 miles of trails.

The Forest Service’s national office released a statement Thursday that said flexibility is a necessity when assessing e-bike access.

“Emerging technologies such as e-bikes are changing the way people enjoy their visits to national forests and grasslands,” the agency’s statement said. “As e-bike use trends change with time and new technologies, the way the Forest Service manages these lands for multi purposes to ensure their long-term health and resilience must change as well. The agency thoroughly examined our policy to identify new ways to expand e-bike access for Americans in ways that meet user needs while continuing to protect forest resources.”

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