BLM’s New Centralized E-bike Approval Policy

Scott Streater had an interesting article in E&E News yesterday about a new BLM policy on e-bikes.

The Bureau of Land Management is clamping down on the use of electric bikes in areas where motorized, off-highway vehicles are prohibited — concerning some outdoor recreationists but pleasing conservation groups worried about protecting natural resources.

At issue is BLM’s instruction memorandum, dated Aug. 1 and sent to all field offices, that walks back a Trump-era rule exempting e-bikes from off-road vehicle regulations, thus allowing them to be used in some cases on backcountry trails and other areas where motorized transport is generally prohibited.

BLM says in the latest memo that when it comes to authorizing the use of e-bikes in certain areas — such as on remote mountain and backcountry trails — it warrants the bureau taking a more “cautious approach” to regulation than what was outlined in the 2020 rule.

Specifically, the memo signed by Thomas Heinlein, assistant director of the National Conservation Lands and Community Partnerships directorate, requires BLM state, district and field offices to obtain his department’s approval “before using the e-bike rule to exclude e-bikes from the definition of off-road vehicle” or before authorizing “e-bikes on trails on which motorized vehicles are otherwise prohibited.”

Doing so “will allow BLM leadership to carefully consider the issues raised by application of the rule in site-specific circumstances,” the memo says.  The directorate “is better situated than individual state, district, and field offices to monitor new research on impacts and the compatibility of e-bike use on public land,” the memo says. It calls for the directorate to stay current on “relevant research” on e-bike use in the event that future studies indicate “e-bike use results in different — and potentially greater — impacts than what was assumed when the BLM promulgated the e-bike rule in 2020.”
The instruction memo requirements do not apply to people with disabilities who request “to ride an e-bike on trails where mechanized use is allowed and off-road vehicle use is otherwise prohibited,” it says.


So going to the memo itself..

Moreover, the National Conservation Lands and Community Partnerships Directorate is better situated than individual state, district, and field offices to monitor new research on impacts and the compatibility of e-bike use on public land. To that end, the Directorate will monitor the status of relevant research. Staying apprised of recent developments will allow the Directorate to know whether new research indicates that e-bike use results in different—and potentially greater—impacts than what was assumed when the BLM promulgated the e-bike rule in 2020.

What’s interesting about this to me is the idea of running certain decisions through Headquarters and requiring a centralized approval.  A person could argue that a centralized office would be better able than a field office to monitor “relevant research” on just about anything.

Second, it may be difficult for the BLM to enforce critical aspects of the e-bike rule. Under the rule, an e-bike can be excluded from the definition of off-road vehicle and, therefore, allowed on trails where off-road vehicle use is otherwise prohibited, only when the electric motor is not exclusively propelling the e-bike for an extended duration. Despite language in the rule’s preamble asserting that such enforcement challenges are not unique, this limitation, which is intended to help keep speeds down and prevent riders from venturing too far into the backcountry, may be difficult to police on remote, non-motorized trails.

I wonder if scarce BLM law enforcement resources are best employed checking to see that bikes are e-bikes or not on trails.   But if there’s no enforcement people on remote non-motorized trails, it really doesn’t matter exactly what the rules are.

Conservation groups praised the move, saying it’s needed to ensure that increased public access to more remote areas afforded by the motorized bikes does not trump resource protection. “We are pleased the BLM is taking this issue seriously and recognizes that a ‘cautious approach’ is needed in managing e-bikes, particularly e-mountain bikes, on public lands,” Judi Brawer, a wildlands attorney at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said in a statement. Brawer said that adding motorized mountain bikes “to already crowded trails necessitates the caution and further study provided for in this new guidance.”

So the problem is too many people? And yet the same groups often advocate for “protection” designations based on the fact that they attract more people and revenue to gateway communities.

I asked Scott which conservation groups exactly, and he replied in an email: “SUWA. Sierra Club, PEER, Pacific Crest Trail, Backcountry Horsemen Association, some hiking conservation group whose name escapes me.”

I guess there’s two questions for me here.. if you don’t trust District Managers to make the right decisions, why start with e-bikes?  One of my contacts pointed out that centralizing decisions like this was considered to be bad during the Trump Admin, and the local folks were thought to be better at making decisions.  And so it goes…

23 thoughts on “BLM’s New Centralized E-bike Approval Policy”

  1. And just like that the BLM uses an internal policy memorandum to essentially neuter a formal rule passed by notice-and-comment rulemaking, since you know this concurrent approval will rarely if ever be granted. They know they can’t justify repealing the eBike rule with a formal rulemaking, so they just make a new rule without it. Similar to how they recently amended their internal travel management manual to redefine drones as OHVs, turning pedestrians into OHVs limited to designated roads if they happen to be carrying a drone. Despite the fact that one of Biden’s first executive orders required land management agencies to expand recreational opportunities on public lands, the Biden admin has been the most anti-recreation administration in decades.

    • Sorry Ben, I would have liked to put the whole article in this post, but I’m always afraid of copyright issues. So then I have to pick some parts and sadly leave other out.

      Anyway, here’s the rest of the story, including your quotes.

      “But Ben Burr — executive director of the BlueRibbon Coalition, an Idaho-based off-roading and outdoor recreation advocacy group — said the memo is another example of federal land managers trying to limit access to public lands.
      “We definitely support as much e-bike use on the land as we do mountain bike use,” Burr said in an interview. “I have not seen any evidence that an e-bike creates an impact different than that of a mountain bike.” Burr said his group would watch closely how BLM implements the directions in the memo, but added it will likely take Congress stepping in and authorizing e-bike access as their popularity grows.

      “The market isn’t going to stop selling them; people are not going to stop buying them,” he said. “These are public lands. The trails already exist. And the public wants this use to be allowed.”
      The memo is the latest in the ongoing debate over the use of the e-bikes — standard bicycles partially powered by a small motor — on federal lands.

      The Trump administration’s Interior Department promoted the use of e-bikes as a way to increase “recreational opportunities for all Americans, especially those with physical limitations.”
      And the rest deals with National Parks.

      “While BLM, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Fish and Wildlife Service allow for e-bikes, most of the activity — and controversy — has centered on e-bike use at National Park Service sites.
      Initial efforts to allow e-bikes on trails and roads in those locations were met with criticism from parks and wildlife advocates who consider them motorized vehicles that compromise the peace and quiet of national parks.
      The National Park Service in 2019 directed park superintendents to allow e-bike use in the same areas where traditional bicycles were allowed, unless they determined that restrictions or closures of certain areas were warranted.
      The policy was finalized in 2020, sparking a flurry of litigation that eventually resulted in NPS conducting an environmental assessment, released in June, that concluded e-bikes pose little threat to park resources.
      Park superintendents are currently allowed to authorize e-bike use on a case-by-case basis on park roads, parking areas, administrative roads and trails that are otherwise open to traditional bicycle use.”

  2. Another interesting thing about this guidance:

    “This IM is not intended to address situations in which persons with disabilities request a reasonable modification under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, to ride an e-bike on trails where mechanized use is allowed and off-road vehicle use is otherwise prohibited. In such situations, the BLM authorized officer should assess the request in accordance with applicable Department of the Interior regulations at 43 CFR 17(e) and applicable BLM policies. Where granted, reasonable modifications do not require concurrence from the Assistant Director, National Conservation Lands and Community Partnerships, nor do they require application of the criteria at 43 CFR 8342.1.”

    I wonder how enforcement of that would work.. stickers? Wouldn’t the law enforcement person have to be close to see them? What kinds of old-person disabilities would qualify? Many of the e-bike users I see around appear to be Old Persons who may well have disabilities.

  3. While e-bikes are obviously motor vehicles to anyone not pushing their agenda, it’s really silly to worry about them on non-motorized single track trails outside of wz areas. My district has a lot of popular multi-use trails (hike/trail run/mtb) and the last thing I’d ask any of my employees to do is try to “catch” an e-bike on the trails. We’ve got a lot of professional mountain bikers in town and they go farther and faster than almost anyone on an e-bike, so what exactly is the harm? I’ll answer my own question: there is none.

    • Interesting.

      So, I agree with you that “e-bikes are obviously motor vehicles.”

      Yet, we shouldn’t worry about E-bikes (ie “obviously motor vehicles”) on non-motorized trails because professional athletes (ie professional mountain bikers, who may make up 0.0001% of the entire U.S. population) can go really far and fast on mountain bikes? I disagree.

      A person who could maybe bike two miles on a non-motorized trail on a non-motorized mountain bike might be able to go 10 or 20 or even more miles on a motorized mountain bike, so it seems clear that there might be a harm to non-motorized users of the same trail, and to wildlife as well.

      • Hi Matthew: How — exactly — are wildlife “harmed” by someone on a bike? It’s not like a pickup truck hitting a deer. People make claims like this all of the time, but never offer any evidence or reasonable conjecture how these harms might take place.

        • Hi Bob, there is plenty of scientific literature on the effects of human recreation on wildlife. It’s pretty conflicted overall, though, and many findings (such as one activity being more harmful than another) are controversial among researchers. Like the other human effects, bikers can affect wildlife behavior and it can be detrimental. I use for searches of what’s publicly available using a keyword(s) for topics I’m interested in. I also ride a Class 1 e-bike now in my dotage and they’re hardly “motor vehicles” lol, I don’t think even legally meeting that standard. There doesn’t seem to be a strict federal definition but many states–39 IIRC–define them as bicycles. Motorized bicycles to be clear. I didn’t want to quibble about that on the earlier posts. Everybody who wants to have an opinion on their social and physical impact should at a minimum ride one on real trails. And that’s the bare minimum because there’s more to consider.

          • Thanks Redhawk: Yes I am familiar with the literature regarding the effects of human recreation on wildlife — I even have a degree on the topic — and I think you are being polite when you say it’s “pretty conflicted.” A lot of it appears even “dubious,” and some of it actually is “scientific.” Most of it — at least what I’ve come across — seems kind of questionable, or even biased, though.

            I personally can’t imagine e-bikers on trails as being “harmful” to wildlife, no matter how much “peer review” is involved. I have personally witnessed and documented beneficial aspects to a lot of wildlife species associated with the construction of new logging roads and clearcuts and seen these actions presented as harmful to wildlife, too — but the literature in that regards seems almost entirely one-sided and agenda-based.

            I have noted the harmful effects to wildlife by caused by predictable wildfires in designated Wilderness and roadless areas along trails without e-bikes or functional roads, though, and continue to believe that is the far greater problem than recreation or most other human uses.

            • Hi Bob, based on my experience as a mountain biker of several decades, now transitioned to emtb (though not to riding in jeans and checkered shirts), and as a trail builder and maintainer on the Tahoe NF, I would hypothesize that whatever impact mtbs have on wildlife, emtbs would have the same. (LOL Lourenco Marques and I question your no doubt clipped in lycra-clad credentials on the matter of judging foot placement on pedals.)

              • @Redhawk — I did not mean to offend! 🙂 E-bikers come in all varieties and plenty are Lycra-clad riders whose skills exceed mine.

                • Redhawk and Laurenco: I think you’re talking inside baseball with the reference to lycra-clad credentials and pedal foot-placement — no idea what that means! I have told people for many years that if they see me jogging or riding a bike, to kill it — aliens had invaded my body.

      • Indeed, despite the e-bike industry’s dodges, an e-bike is a motor vehicle. No amount of public-relations spin can hide the axiomatic.

        But what is this “harm” to nonmotorized trail users of which you speak?

        As a mountain biker, the main “harm” I experience is the presence of doughy e-bikers who are likely too unfit to ride a mountain bike comfortably.

        But it’s harm without substance, the result of mere prejudice. We should celebrate e-bikers’ presence. More people on trails means a broader base for trails and for conservation generally.

        I will admit that e-bikers who play audible music and otherwise don’t know proper trail etiquette are annoying. But over time they’ll learn, including from trailhead signs telling visitors not to play music that others can hear, which exist. Otherwise, they can be amusing in their jeans, checked shirts, and feet not optimally planted on the pedals.

    • Precisely. I have been an MTB rider for years. At 78, I just purchased an e-mtb. It allows me to still get out on mtb trails. An e-mtb is power assist for Class 1. In terms of power output (what chews up trail), a strong rider puts out 300 watts, the largest motor is 750 watts (~1000 watts). By comparison a 50 cc Moped puts out 1200 watts. Speed? One manages it conforming to both trail traffic, configuration, and features. My experience, a strong rider on a trad mtb will still go faster especially on the downhill. As far as enforcement, my hunch as the Ranger notes there are bigger fish to fry.

  4. I know of only one jurisdiction anywhere in the United States where the edict of a governmental entity prohibiting e-bikes on an otherwise multiuse trail has kept e-bikers away.

    That one jurisdiction is the rather fusty Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space District in the Bay Area, whose rangers cite e-bikers.

    The Mid-Pen regulation makes no sense. It exists because the crotchety majority who dominate the governing board don’t like e-bikes (and don’t like mountain biking either).

    There are also a few, perhaps very few, places like Crested Butte, Colo., where the trails community itself polices a rule against e-bikes on singletrack. The many talented mountain bikers and trail runners in Crested Butte would rebuke e-bikers’ presence merely by their own, even if they don’t say a word, leaving e-bikers feeling uncomfortable about the risk of getting disapproving looks. (Unless something has changed in the last three years, that is.)

  5. all things being equal, e-bikes take riders further and faster than non-motorized bikes.
    that means more impacts on soil, water, wildlife, and other recreationists.
    that fact should be obvious and non-controversial.

    • Let’s get rid of trails and that will solve the problem of whose use is purer than whose.

      But as long as we’re on this fixation, I suspect that backpackers can go farther than an e-bike on its limited charge and cause far more disruption to wildlife. Campfires, pooping, cooking, talking around said campfire, being there all night, and the same day after day. E-bikers don’t do any of that.

      I don’t own an e-bike and do not have a dog in this fight, except to point out what’s just as obvious: in the mindset of many, my use is acceptable because I enjoy it, but other people’s isn’t, because I don’t enjoy what they do.

  6. To 2nd Law, a really fit mountain biker can ride harder, faster and longer than a not-so-fit mountain biker. So should we have rules against physically fit mountain bikers?

    • SYou nailed it. At 78 an e-mtb’s keep me in the game. But a younger, stronger mtb’r will still pass me. Speed on the trail is controlled more by trail features and traffic. An e-mtb is power assist, not an Enduro motorcycle.


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