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Forest Service Seeks a Balanced Approach to Access as Popularity of Electric Bicycles Surge

Korey Morgan
Office of Communication
October 7, 2020

The gravel popping under the bicycle’s tires had a familiar sound. The trail would soon make an abrupt turn upwards, marking the beginning of a grueling climb up miles of steep terrain. In anticipation, I pressed the button on the bike’s onboard computer, engaging the pedal assist. Immediately the motor silently relieved some of the burden of what would have been a heart-pounding ascent on a traditional trail bike. 

That first ride revealed many of the reasons why e-bikes have been surging in popularity in recent years. Lighter batteries that hold a charge over hours of hard riding combined with more stylish and streamlined designs continue to appeal to many traditional cyclists. Perhaps more importantly, e-bikes are opening the door to a beloved recreational activity for older adults and seniors. Simply put, pedal assisting electric motors lower the high physical hurdle of even modest rides.

More Americans are opting for e-bikes than ever before when recreating on their public lands. As a result, the USDA Forest Service is taking a look at how e-bike use is managed on National Forests and Grasslands. Currently, e-bikes are allowed on nearly 60,000 miles of Forest Service trails, more than any other federal land management agency.

A picture of a woman standing next to an e-Bike in a grassy field next to a coastline with a sunset or sunrise in the horizon.
Woman with electric bicycle watching the sun set over the water. Photo by iStock.

Like other emerging technologies, e-bikes pose a particularly difficult dilemma for federal land managers, who must weigh the question of equity and access against ecological, environmental, social, and other potential impacts. Increased use brings greater pressure on trail systems, wildlife, and raises the potential for conflict with other users. 

In September the Forest Service issued highly anticipated updates to its guidelines on e-bike use. These proposed updates would use the existing Travel Management Rule and adopt a three-tier classification system for designating e-bikes as a motorized vehicle. 

“The addition of the three-tiered classification system, along with other changes, would ensure that we protect resource values, promote the safety of all users, and minimize conflicts when managing e-bike use on National Forests and Grasslands,” said Penny Wu, Travel Management Program Manager for the USDA Forest Service.  “They would strike a balance between access and minimizing effects from use.”  

Each National Forest and Grassland faces a unique set of conditions and challenges. In addition, e-bikes have generated controversy among some users in some places. The proposed changes aim to provide flexibility. They would produce decisions that consider local conditions and that are grounded in the agency’s multiple use mission.

“Members of the public come to widely different conclusions regarding the uptick in e-bike use on National Forests, and folks have strong opinions on the issue,” said Wu. “With that in mind, in developing these proposed changes we wanted to ensure decision-making is kept at the local level. The responsible Forest Service official who understands local conditions would be able to make an informed decision based on public involvement and environmental analysis.”

To view and make comments on the proposed updates to agency guidance on e-bikes, visit the Federal Register’s website. For questions regarding off-road vehicle use, to pick up trail maps, or to inquire about e-bikes on your local national forest or grassland, contact your local Forest Service office.