Order on e-bikes conjures questions

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

A recent secretarial order from the Interior Department classifies electric-powered bicycles as nonmotorized bikes. While seemingly insignificant at first glance, this order could alter the recreational landscape of the West — for better or worse.

Essentially, the order mandates that the National Park Service implement new policies allowing electric bicycles — e-bikes — on roads and trails that allow regular bikes, including the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The order also impacts all Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation lands. E-bikes would be prohibited in wilderness, just as regular bicycles are.

In simple terms, an e-bike is a bicycle with a small electric motor that provides a power assist. These bikes are relatively new on the scene but are quickly growing in popularity, especially among aging baby boomers and those with physical limitations.

In fact, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt says that’s the point of his order. He states that the new policy “is intended to increase recreational opportunities for all Americans, especially those with physical limitations.”

We certainly agree that expanding access to the joys of outdoor recreation is a good thing. Time spent outdoors improves health, reduces stress and enhances the overall wellbeing of a community. We could all use more time outdoors.

Yet, there could be some unintended consequences with this order, particularly in Glacier National Park.

While there aren’t many trails in Glacier that allow bicycles, cycling along Going-to-the-Sun Road has grown immensely over the last decade. In the spring before the scenic highway is fully opened to vehicles, cyclists enjoy the road at a more quiet pace while park crews plow and prep the road for summer.

There’s no doubt that packs of e-bikers whizzing by at 30 mph would change this experience.

We also worry about e-bikes on the road during peak summer season when millions of visitors flock to the park. Currently, Glacier allows bicycles on the alpine section of the Sun Road after 4 p.m. in the summer. Can you imagine two lanes of traffic trying to navigate this curvy, narrow road while also passing e-bikers? Yikes! It’s a tragedy in waiting.

The National Park Conservation Association isn’t opposed to e-bikes, but is expressing initial reservations about the order and the initial lack of public process.

“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,” said Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of the NPCA. “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.”

Luckily, Secretary Bernhardt’s directive gives managers in national parks 30 days to come up with an e-bike policy. Glacier expects to announce its public involvement process soon — now is the time to let your opinion be heard.

— Kalispell Daily Inter Lake