Our National Park System has been under attack almost since its beginning. Benign neglect has always been its most grounded foe, but presidential administrations—almost exclusively Republican—have also launched attacks based on their donor affiliations.
The Trump Administration is perhaps the most fervent attack—and an actual attack where most others were sheer disconnection—and the reason why my money has gone for 3 years more and more into the legal funds of environmental defense groups.
As a 30+ year bicyclist, as well as a multi-park direct supporter and where we hike and backpack, the preservation of the National Park Service, threatened now as never before, is a focus of many people like my wife and I, with our time and funds.
But, the uproar of some of the organizations of which we’re members over e-bikes on national park roads is ill conceived. As the NPS directive says: any road a regular bike is allowed on will now allow e-bikes. That, quite frankly, are paved and some unpaved roads, and not the trail system at all, so any uproar is unnecessary and based in inflamed ignorance rather than knowledge and need for concern.
Here is what I mean: e-bikes, contrary to Kristen Brengel, VP of the National Parks Conservation Association, of which we are long-time members, talked about a vehicle with a throttle. E-bikes almost exclusively do not have a throttle at all, and the motor—not an engine, but an electric motor—assists pedaling only when the rider is actively pedaling. In the vast majority of the bikes sold with motors, that is the method of the bike: it assists the pedaler, it does not replace them.
As to the 28-mph speed of the e-bikes she decried as terrible for our NPS roads: that is the speed at which assist is cut off.
Again, without a throttle and assistance only when pedaling, one must pedal to 28 mph and above that speed is generating power only from their legs. From personal observation, my riding a gravel bike next to an e-bike, I struggle to keep the e-biker in sight going uphill, but can easily outrun them on flats and downhill, because—and this is important—the e-biker is likely unable to generate the power by themselves to propel any bike above 20 mph in most situations.
Perhaps, then, the real focus should be on defining what constitutes an “e-bike” rather than lump them all in with mopeds and motorcycles, almost none of which are electric and unsuitable for non-motorized roads where bikes are already accepted. Maybe the definition would be more apt to use the phase, Pedal Assist or Pedal Assisted, because there is only power when pedaling.
The other focus should be on the wording in the decree by the Interior Secretary, David Bernhardt, in which it says any place bicycles are currently allowed would be open to e-bikes. And, to be clear: bicycles are not allowed on nearly any hiking trail in any national park—and many state parks—in the entire NPS system, so e-bikes would also not be allowed on those trails.
Gravel roads, where bikes are currently allowed and almost unused by hikers, is what is being opened to e-bikes. For an example of this, the AP article talks of the Rockefeller Carriage Roads in Acadia National Park, which we have ridden. The two days were were touring the roads on rented bikes we saw no carriages, not a single hiker—though they were everywhere else in the park—only bikes.
Over 30 years ago, living in Texas where mountain bike trails were non-existent, I sent out a survey to almost 70 state and national parks in the state, where they had over about 20 miles of trails, asking if they allowed bikes or not, and then a series of questions and comment areas giving land managers the chance to explain policy decisions.
National forests allowed bikes, but no state or national parks did at the time, though less than a year later Texas Parks and Wildlife sent out their “entrepreneurial edit” as multiple park managers called it, mandating increased visitation or closed gates. I was contacted by almost a dozen state park rangers looking for guidance to invite mountain bikes into the park in the weeks following.
The hue and cry nationwide at the time by hiking, running and horse groups, that bikes on the trails were the end of safe hiking, a trail maintenance nightmare waiting to happen, and the end of the park system as we knew it, were alarmist and simply wrong. Since NPS has not followed suit and trails remain off limits—and I support that decision whole heartedly—to bikes, the story of what’s happened in the state parks that did open trails to bikes has been almost exclusively positive.
Not only do mountain bikers climb off their bikes to yield to other users—International Mountain Bikes Association’s famous yield signage is all over the world—but they also climb off their bikes to work on trails. Conflicts occur between trail users, but not exclusively between bikes and other users; conflicts occur, and adding bikes into the mix apparently has not created any maelstroms between groups.
That original national attempt to close trails to bikes, reserving them for horses (proven to do far more damage than bike tires), hikers and runners, turned out to be alarmist and narrow minded, because the base premises were founded in feelings against a group rather than facts about that group. Here, too, from their own words, may be the same thing.
If e-bikes are being considered to access national park roads that are currently accessible by non-pedal assist bikes, then no new literal ground is being opened to any wheeled group, and any outcry might be seen as almost extreme in its position. So maybe the real focus would be to better define e-bike as pedal assist-only (no throttles, only pedals that must be turned to activate the motor).
Bicycles have been through this before, and over the last 35-40 years the policies that opened trails to bikes in regional and state parks, but not in national parks, are not being threatened here. The only expansion is not to trail access, but by e-assist bikes being allowed on trails currently allowing regular bikes.
The outcry, then, is not based in fact, but feelings, and you can tell this is true because if it were not, I would be fighting on the side to keep this from happening.