The agency is the first within the Department of the Interior to release an interim policy for electric bicycles.

E-bikes officially won access to National Parks last week, when the National Park Service (NPS) ruled that low-speed models are allowed for now where traditional bikes are allowed.

The federal order comes as states and municipal governments grapple with regulating the new form of recreation.

“As more Americans are using e-bikes to enjoy the great outdoors, national parks should be responsive to visitors’ interest in using this new technology wherever it is safe and appropriate to do so,” NPS Deputy Director P. Daniel Smith said in a memo. “They make bicycle travel easier and more efficient, and they provide an option for people who want to ride a bicycle but might not otherwise do so because of physical fitness, age, disability, or convenience, especially at high altitudes or in hilly or strenuous terrain.”

The updated policy will allow visitors to the parks to ride Class 1, 2, and 3 e-bikes on park roads, paved or hardened trails, areas designated for off-road motor vehicle use, and administrative roads.

For the last five years, PeopleForBikes' e-bike committee has helped craft a three-class designation for bikes with pedal-assist systems. As of today, 22 states have adopted the designations into their vehicle codes—a step toward opening e-bike access on some trails.

Class 1: e-bikes that are pedal-assist only, with no throttle, and have a maximum assisted speed of 20 mph.

Class 2: e-bikes that also have a maximum speed of 20 mph, but are throttle-assisted.

Class 3: e-bikes that are pedal-assist only, with no throttle, and a maximum assisted speed of 28 mph.

But like traditional bikes, e-bikes will not be allowed in designated wilderness areas and "park superintendents will retain the right to limit, restrict, or impose conditions of bicycle use." E-bike riders also must only use the motor to assist pedaling and not propel the bike with a throttle, unless they're riding in areas open to motor vehicle traffic.

The policy is not immediate—each park will update its referendum over the next month.

The back and forth over e-bikes

Just like there's sometimes tension between hikers and mountain bikers, the debate over e-bike access is stirring up a similar conversation. The Wilderness Society and more than 50 other conservancy groups wrote to federal agencies in protest last month to e-bike access on public lands.

In a SNEWS poll posted Aug. 6, 44 percent of voters said e-bikes do not belong on any non-motorized trail, 36 percent said they belong anywhere mountain bikes can go, and 16 percent said they should be allowed only on some trails. 

Following the order, The Wilderness Society, Pacific Crest Trail Association, American Hiking Society, Back Country Horsemen of America, and National Parks Conservation Alliance (NPCA) reiterated their fears. They wrote that the new ruling "fails to consider impacts to hikers, mountain bikers, horse riders and other recreationists, and may signal the beginning of the end for non-motorized backcountry trails, all while not including the public in the decision-making process."

"Sadly, this new policy was created behind closed doors and with no public involvement," said Kristen Brengel, senior vice president at the NPCA. “E-bikes have a place on national parks’ roads and motorized trails. But this announcement disregards well-established policies for how visitors can enjoyably and safely experience the backcountry in national parks. For generations we’ve agreed that there are some places so special that they should be protected for visitors to enjoy away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. This new policy carelessly ignores those longstanding protections for backcountry areas.”

While Larry Pizzi, president of Accell Group North America and chair of PeopleForBikes' e-bike committee, understands the pushback, he's also pleased with the change. The committee's mission for five years has been to get more people riding bikes—traditional and pedal-assist alike—and to advance and inform policymaking.

"This Secretarial Order reflects the three-class e-bike system that has been widely adopted by state governments, and is understood and supported by the bicycle industry and e-bike owners," Pizzi said. "It also provides a broad framework for agencies to follow when adopting new rules for e-bikes, bringing their regulation closer to that of traditional bicycles. We look forward to a thorough stakeholder engagement effort that will help each agency create logical, consistent, and easy-to-understand policies for electric bicycles."

Pizzi also said the NPS policy is meant to be temporary, as the agency works on more permanent revisions to regulations.

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