Can You Ride Electric Bikes On Public Lands?

A new order from the Secretary of the Interior directs the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and two more federal agencies to expand electric bike access to the places traditional bikes can ride. Implementing the order could be more complicated that it seems.


It just takes a few minutes to email your representatives and make a difference with the REI Cooperative Action Network.

Take action today

Acadia National Park’s carriage roads are a unique cultural resource within the National Park Service (NPS), perhaps even the country. The 45-mile network of “broken-stone” roads and historic bridges winds through quiet conifer forests past rocky ocean views. They were built in the first half of the twentieth century by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who had the foresight to create a space where people could experience Acadia’s beauty by horse, foot, carriage or bicycle, free from motors. 

“He wanted to open it up to people in a way that was peaceful,” said David MacDonald, president of Friends of Acadia National Park.

Yet, even Rockefeller couldn’t have had the foresight to predict a future with electric bikes.

As a technology to increase bicycling access to more people, lower traffic congestion and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, electric bikes have largely been welcomed. Twenty-two states have already passed traffic laws to incorporate e-bikes on roads, bike paths and bike lanes. But what happens when the pavement ends?

Those state laws do not apply to federally managed trails, where e-bikes and electric mountain bikes are the new kids in an already crowded landscape of hikers, equestrians and traditional cyclists. Public opinion seems to be becoming more accepting of e-MTBs on the trails, but there’s still concern about their impact on the outdoor experience and environment.

Complicating matters, federal land management agencies have been inconsistent in their approach to electric mountain bikes. But frequently, e-MTBs, which have motors, have been treated like dirtbikes and barred from non-motorized trails.

That’s why some in the outdoor community were surprised on August 29 when Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt signed order number 3376 to allow e-bikes access to all roads and trails where traditional bicycles can go. Bernhardt directed the order to the NPS and three other federal agencies—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Bureau of Reclamation. He instructed the agencies to exempt e-bikes from the definition of motorized vehicles (which encompasses “every vehicle that is self-propelled”). The biggest takeaway is that, moving forward, e-bikes will now be treated like bicycles on lands managed by the Department of the Interior (DOI).

Does this mean that anyone with an e-bike can now ride on any existing DOI bike trail? No, at least not yet. While the order itself is simple, its implementation may be more complicated and varied.

The NPS has stated that it will allow all classes of e-bikes on trails as long as the riders also pedal, even on throttle-powered bikes, and follow normal trail-use rules such as speed limits. 

The secretarial order is the first step in a longer policymaking process that could include opportunities for the public to weigh in.

To start, each agency was required to adopt a new e-bike policy by September 12 that complied with the terms laid out in the DOI order “to the extent existing regulations allow” and amend any policies that limit its adoption. Then, the agencies have a second deadline on September 28 to report back to the DOI on three things: the policy changes they’ve made to expand e-bike access, a list of laws or regulations that impede further expansion of e-bike access and a timeline to seek public comment on any rule changes.

The day after Bernhardt signed the order, the NPS hit the deadline with time to spare by outlining its policy in a memorandum. Echoing the secretarial order, it states: “E-bikes are allowed where traditional bicycles are allowed.”

“You’ve got people right now who may wish to go cycling in a national park, but for reasons of their age or disease or disability, they can’t ride a traditional bicycle,” said Jeremy Barnum, acting assistant director of communications for the NPS. “We think this gives some of those visitors who otherwise might not be able to enjoy those bicycle paths better opportunity to see a national park from behind a set of handlebars rather than a steering wheel.”

For groups like the Friends of Acadia National Park, though, the DOI order and the NPS memorandum raises questions.

“You have a national level policy that is extremely challenging to blanket over all these hundreds of very diverse [park] units,” MacDonald said. “We think this process is flawed. The park superintendent and his team deserve more time to have a broader discussion in the community to talk about options and have a thoughtful process about how this should play out.”

So will the DOI order force Acadia National Park to open the carriage roads to e-bikes? We still don’t know.

The NPS memorandum states park superintendents will “retain the right to limit, restrict, or impose conditions of bicycle use and e-bike use in order to ensure visitor safety and resource protection.”

According to Barnum, this means parks will be able to declare trails that currently allow traditional bikes off limits to e-bikes.

“Superintendents who are on the ground and know those particular trails or paths can make that informed decision as to whether or not an e-bike makes sense on the same trail or same bike path,” he said.

The mountain biking community is also anxiously waiting to hear how the BLM, manager of many of the West’s most beloved trails, and other DOI agencies will respond to Bernhardt’s order.

Alex Logemann, policy counsel for People for Bikes, a cycling advocacy organization that has lobbied for expanded e-bike access (and that receives financial support from REI), said he’s excited to see e-bikes embraced by the DOI and land management agencies.

“There’s some really good things in it. I think it’s great that it acknowledges the class system. That’s going to be a really big tool for land managers to use to better regulate e-bikes on public lands,” he said, but also agreed that the process to integrate them into the existing infrastructure requires a nuanced approach.

“We’re being attentive to an over-simplification of the rules as agencies tackle this issue,” Logemann said. “We don’t think it’s as simple as all e-bikes go here and all e-bikes don’t go there. There’s different types of devices, there’s different types of infrastructure, and we really want to see the agencies incorporate that kind of nuance into their policy.”

Not all e-bikes are the same. Class 2 e-bikes have throttles that work independently of pedaling. Others have motors that only kick in when you pedal, a function called “pedal-assist.” Class 1 can go 20 mph, Class 3 top out at 28 mph. Bernhardt’s order recognizes the different types of e-bikes, but it makes no distinction in regards to which e-bikes can go where. Which is to say that 28-mile-per-hour bikes could find their way onto multiuse trails with hikers, horses and traditional bicycles.

The NPS has stated that it will allow all classes of e-bikes on trails as long as the riders also pedal, even on throttle-powered bikes, and follow normal trail-use rules such as speed limits.

“The expectation is that people will ride e-bikes in a similar manner and with all the same safety measures as they would a traditional bicycle on a path,” Barnum said. “We make visitors aware of the rules and regulations, and we ask them out of respect for the park to obey those rules and regulations. We find that the vast majority of our visitors, because they respect national parks, do just that.”

The NPS memo also specifically praises e-bikes’ ability to act as an alternative to fossil-fuel-powered vehicles.

“It’s heartening to see an agency like the Park Service recognize that the new technology can get more people outside, while reducing congestion and greenhouse gases,” said Marc Berejka, REI Co-op’s director of community and government affairs. “Starting with that general principle, we also know there’s work to do to assure that, in specific cases, the trail systems we’ve all spent years stewarding stay intact. Responsible use of our trails is the touchstone.”

A different bicycling advocacy group⁠—the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA)⁠—believes e-bikes should be managed separately from traditional bikes. IMBA has long spoken in favor of a measured approach that would allow lower-speed, pedal-assist models access to some trails.

Just as trails have posts marking access for hikers, horses and bicycles, IMBA would like to see another icon that symbolizes access for e-bikes, including the specific class. “We’re OK with Class 1 e-bikes [on multi-use trails] as long as access isn’t jeopardized,” for traditional mountain bikes, said David Wiens, executive director of IMBA. “We’ve been clear. [The federal government] has heard from us for a few years now about the importance of Class 1 only. [There should] be separate categories. Keep it distinct.”

Though the NPS has until September 28 to fully implement its e-bike policy, that won’t be the end of the process. Barnum noted there will be more rulemaking in the future to bring regulations that govern bicycle usage in the parks in compliance with the DOI order.

“And during that time, in the next year or so as we go through that process, we’ll be accepting public comment and you’ll see some more formal documentation on the policy as well,” said Barnum.

As the process continues, he says it’s best to call or check each park’s website to see where e-bikes are allowed and where they’re not.

The mountain biking community is also anxiously waiting to hear how the BLM, manager of many of the West’s most beloved trails, and other DOI agencies will respond to Bernhardt’s order. The BLM has not yet published a statement about how they intend to expand e-bike access. (The U.S. Forest Service is another land management agency that people are looking at, but the Forest Service takes its direction from the Department of Agriculture, not the DOI.)

Friends of Acadia, which manages an endowment that supports maintenance on the carriage roads, hopes there will be a transparent, public process. “We’re going to ask for meetings to understand the implications, for safety, user conflicts, impact on the roads themselves, and the funding that we put into maintaining these roads,” MacDonald said.

Editor’s Note: REI Co-op recently gave PeopleForBikes a $110,000 grant to support its cycling advocacy, including $10,000 to support its e-bike initiative which promotes greater access for bike riders across the country. REI Co-op recently gave IMBA $75,000 to support its cycling advocacy to increase and maintain access for mountain bike riders.