Here’s how the use of this new technology will be managed on national forests and grasslands and what it means for public land hunters and anglers
If you talk with hunters and anglers about electric bikes, or e-bikes, you will get a mixed response. Some embrace the obvious utility of e-bikes for accessing remote areas and for hauling gear and game. Others worry that widespread use of e-bikes—by dramatically increasing the ability of the average person to travel further into the backcountry—could potentially have a negative impact on our big game herds. Such concerns are warranted: Research clearly shows that high-volume trail use displaces big game, and in some areas high motorized route densities are associated with excessive elk harvest. Elk are particularly susceptible to these impacts, as they require large secure areas far from heavily used roads and trails to thrive.
On March 31, 2022, the Forest Service announced its final internal guidance on how e-bikes will be managed on national forests and grasslands. The long-anticipated update reaffirms the existing policy that e-bikes are now, and will continue to be, managed as a motorized use—that is, e-bikes will be allowed on all currently authorized roads and trails open to motorized use and not allowed on roads and trails closed to motorized use, seasonally or otherwise. At the same time, the guidance also outlines a process for the agency to evaluate requests for expanded e-bike access and establishes a new “e-bike only” trail category.
As an avid motorcyclist and mountain biker who has used two wheels to access my favorite hunting spots for many years, the new guidance is somewhat reassuring, but it also highlights the need for hunters and anglers to engage in local travel management planning to make sure quality hunting opportunities are maintained.
Here’s what you need to know about this update.
The purpose behind the new guidance is to provide direction for the agency to coordinate travel management planning with other federal, state, county, local, and tribal governments, to ensure, as much as possible, the continuity of recreational experiences across these jurisdictions. The guidance also directs the agency to consider how emerging technologies such as e-bikes provide opportunities for individuals that may otherwise be prevented from certain forms of recreation on our public lands.
The guidance categorizes e-bikes into Classes 1, 2, and 3, all of which are limited to a 750-watt-capable motor—essentially the same classification adopted in 2020 by the Bureau of Land Management. The biggest difference in the Forest Service’s guidance as compared to the BLM’s is that the Forest Service has elected, by default, to regulate all categories of e-bikes as motorized use. The Forest Service’s guidance also provides a process and specific criteria for evaluating new “e-bike only” trail designations and for allowing e-bikes on existing non-motorized trails.
When the Forest Service classifies trails and routes by allowable use during the travel management planning process, the agency emphasizes combinations of motorized and non-motorized uses on the same trails, but also recognizes that the best way to minimize conflicts among user groups may be to provide separate routes for each. As a result, the creation of a new “e-bike only” category could lead to a proliferation of additional trails if, for example, traditional mountain bikers can’t get along with e-bikers. In these cases, which—again—will be decided at the local level, e-bike compatibility with traditional mountain bikes will likely depend on the category of e-bike under consideration: class 1 e-bikes, which require pedaling and are limited to 20-miles per hour, are considered the most compatible with traditional mountain bikes.
Of particular interest to hunters is that the updated Forest Service guidance maintains limited use of motor vehicles (now specifically including e-bikes) for game retrieval within a limited distance of specific routes during big game hunting season. The particulars of when and where this is allowed will be made clear in individual travel management plans. And remember: While many hunters with traditional mountain bikes utilize gated roads closed to motorized use as a means of accessing hunting areas, hunters with e-bikes cannot do the same and are subject to the motorized use closure.
E-Bikes and Habitat Fragmentation
There are welcome provisions in the updated guidance that promote conservation and stewardship, and some provisions that are less clear. On the positive side, the specific criteria for designating trails and trail-use areas require that the agency considers the potential for “harassment of wildlife and significant disruption of wildlife habitats.” Additionally, the policy explicitly calls out considerations for maintenance and administration of new trails in the context of budget and staffing, and it provides guidance to avoid adding new routes unless adequate budget and staffing for long-term maintenance have been identified. Both of these provisions promote conservation and well-designed, sustainable trail systems for access.
There are also provisions to address unauthorized routes, but some of the guidance regarding this issue remains problematic to those who care about the impact of these trails on habitat fragmentation. On the one hand, the policy prohibits use of unauthorized routes, calls for identifying unauthorized routes through travel analysis, and prioritizes addressing restoration and decommissioning of unauthorized routes when making travel management decisions. On the other hand, the policy acknowledges that some unauthorized routes are well sited and would enhance the system of designated routes. This seems to pave the way for continuation of the long-criticized practice of allowing unauthorized trail builders to have illegally built trails legitimized during travel management planning.
Whether or not you choose to embrace the use of e-bikes for hunting and fishing, as you would any new technology, here are some things to consider:
- Unless otherwise specified in your local travel management plan, e-bikes are allowed only on designated motorized trails or motorized-use areas on Forest Service lands and are subject to the same seasonal restrictions and closures as any other motorized vehicle.
- E-bikes allow public land users to travel significantly farther into the backcountry and provide increased access for all. This may change trail-use characteristics, as well as the distribution of big game on the landscape in your favorite hunting areas.
- If you choose to use an e-bike for hunting and fishing, pay close attention to the class-type (1, 2, or 3) and match your choice of e-bike to the applicable regulations in areas you want access, as identified by the Forest Service in the travel management plan for your hunting area.
- Engage with the Forest Service on travel management planning in the areas you care about. Decisions on the designation of new e-bike only trails and e-bike access on existing trails will impact your hunting access, the distribution of big game, and whether you continue to have quality hunting opportunities in the areas you care about, which is why it is critical that hunters and anglers participate in local travel management planning processes.
- The recently passed Modernizing Access to our Public Land Act requires the Forest Service and other land management agencies to create and make publicly available recreational access information as geospatial files that depict restrictions by vehicle type, including e-bikes. This will help hunters identify routes where they can and cannot ride their e-bikes in the future.
Photo credit: @maxsbenz