Department of Interior announces e-bike regulations despite lawsuit, conservation concerns

Staff and wire reports

The Department of the Interior on Friday announced that it finalized electric bike (or e-bike) regulations that it says paves the way for land managers to allow more people, especially older Americans and those with physical limitations, to experience bicycling on public lands managed by the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation.

“Enhancing access to our public lands and expanding recreational opportunities to all Americans is a priority for the Trump Administration,” U.S. Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt said in a release. “The new regulations allow our public land managers to provide e-bike access to bike trails, enhancing the opportunities to utilize our public lands to create life-long memories.”

The final regulations come 13 months after Bernhardt ordered the National Park Service to grant e-bike riders the same access in parks as muscle-powered cyclists.

The policy change toward the end of August 2019 came without public disclosure and without an opportunity for the public to comment on the proposal before it was implemented, moves that appear in conflict with the Code of Federal Regulations. The secretarial order called for the policy to be adopted “unless otherwise prohibited by law or regulation” within two weeks. It also called for public comment, after the fact, some time in the future.

Last December, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) filed a lawsuit to overturn the Interior Department’s move to expand e-bike access in the National Park System.

The 31-page filing, made by PEER with three other conservation groups and two individuals, charged that the decision-making process violated the Administrative Procedures Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. The plaintiffs also argued that an advisory committee comprised of industry-friendly representatives met regularly with Interior officials to lobby for the increased access and helped develop the new policy.

Officials with PEER said Friday that Interior’s announcement would not derail the lawsuit.

Concerns ranging from the risks of high-speed e-bikes to visitors and wildlife, spooking horses on mixed-use trails, and degrading the quality of the backcountry experience have not been addressed, the organization said.

“The Park Service’s undue haste resembles an e-bike whizzing by with an irresponsible teenager on the throttle,” PEER Senior Counsel Peter Jenkins said in a release. “Interior and the Park Service realized they were caught with their legal pants down and are scrambling for cover.

“This rule is the product of industry influence having nothing to do with improving the park experience – a topic on which the Park Service has yet to even do a preliminary assessment. Given the major challenges facing a Park Service in the grip of a pandemic, this is a questionable use of its limited regulatory resources.”

Bicycling is an excellent way to experience America’s rich natural heritage, and innovations in e-bike design have opened the possibilities for a greater number of people, particularly for those with limitations stemming from age, illness, disability or fitness, especially in more challenging environments, such as high altitudes or hilly terrain.

The final rules in large part adopt the existing federal definition of e-bikes as a two- or three-wheeled cycle with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of not more than 750 watts. The rules look to the classification system developed by a majority of states to differentiate between different types of e-bikes.

Many environmental and conservation groups were stunned and infuriated by the announcement.

“It’s extremely sweeping. It basically says you have to allow e-bikes of all different classes. And you cannot treat them as motor vehicles,” Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association, said to OutsideOnline.com.

“I am absolutely shocked he did a secretarial order on this,” Brengel said. “Not even considering conservation in this decision, it goes against the Organic Act of the Park Service,” referring to the 1916 legislation that founded the service.

These new regulations clarify the authority of the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation to increase recreational opportunities for those who enjoy the pedaling assistance e-bikes can provide. The regulations make clear the agencies can allow e-bikes on roads and trails that are open to traditional bicycles through the issuance of site-specific decisions.

Local land managers will carry out the new regulations in their jurisdictions after taking into consideration public health and safety, natural and cultural resource protection and other management activities and objectives.

Public lands designated by Congress as “wilderness areas” will remain off-limits to both traditional bicycles and e-bikes.

The final rules were informed by public feedback received during 60-day public comment periods. Each final rule becomes effective 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.

More information about each bureau’s final rules can be found online.

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