Conservation Northwest participates in state e-bike policy advisory committee

Conservation Northwest participates in state e-bike policy advisory committee

Conservation Northwest / Oct 29, 2021 / Protecting Wildlands, Public Lands, Recreation

Diverse stakeholder group met throughout 2021 to discuss the emerging issue of electric-powered bicycle access on Washington’s public lands


Electric-powered bicycles (e-bikes) are a rapidly growing form of recreation in the outdoors. While great for carbon-free transit up steep city streets, where else can e-bikers legally and responsibly ride? Should one go shred down mountain bike trails with their electric assist mountain bike (eMTB)? How about on dirt roads or soft-surface trails? And if so, which ones?

In short, there aren’t easily found answers for this emerging technology. At least not yet.

Electric powered mountain bikes offer riders the ability to ride longer with less fatigue. Updated access regulations are needed for state lands to keep up with the growing industry. Photo: Andrey Popov

The growing e-bike industry has prompted Washington state lawmakers to call on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to produce a well-defined policy for e-bike access across state lands by the end September 2022. More background is available in this recent article in The Spokesman Review.

Federal public land managers including the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are also in the process of developing their own guidelines, including for national forests in our region.

Through our Wildlife-Recreation Coexistence Program, Conservation Northwest aims to support sustainable recreation and outdoor access while working to reduce negative impacts recreation may have on wildlife and habitat. Building off our long history of involvement on issues where recreation and conservation overlap, this new program includes wildlife awareness outreach and education, scientific research and partnerships, and participation in policy-making and grassroots advocacy.

Through collaboration, we hope to steer state e-bike policy and other recreation topics to coincide with our goals to protect, connect and restore wildlife and wildlands.

At present, e-bikes are allowed on Washington’s trails and forest roads open to other motorized uses, including Green Dot Roads.

However, state law stipulates that non-motorized single-track trails are closed to eMTBs unless specifically permitted by land managers. And unless a user has an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) exemption, e-bikes are not allowed on state public lands closed to motorized traffic, including behind forest road gates—a rule that some outdoor users appear to be unaware of.

Agencies are now tasked to update this policy to be responsive to the growing number of e-bike users, as well as to the needs and experiences of other outdoor enthusiasts, wildlife and habitat.

To further add to the need for clear policy, the e-bike industry is quickly developing newer technology. Current e-bike rules and regulations account for major differences in pedal assist capabilities, speed and structure in various e-bike models. There are three classifications that currently exist:

  • Class 1: Electric battery powered assistance only when a biker is pedaling and ceases to assist once a speed of 20 mph is reached.
  • Class 2: Electronic battery powered assistance may be used regardless of pedaling but ceases to assist once a speed of 20 mph is reached.
  • Class 3: Electric battery powered assistance only when a biker is pedaling and ceases to assist once a speed of 28 mph is reached

E-bikes offer bikers the ability to ride longer distances by easing the burden of cycling uphill. Class 1 eMTBs are becoming more popular on trails and forest roads, and are the most common. Other classifications are not common on soft surface trails or are simply not built for trail use.

Our colleagues at Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance (EMBA) organized a group of recreation stakeholders, bike experts and conservationists alike to brainstorm guidelines for formulating proper e-bike policy.

After several months of meetings, major discussion talking points and general e-bike access evaluation criteria will be passed on to state agencies as they begin drafting e-bike policy under Washington’s State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) guidelines. As part of this process, further opportunities for public and organizational input are expected in early 2022.

Our perspectives on e-bikes on state lands

We’re champions for wildlife and habitat, but we also recognize that conservation must go hand-in-hand with healthy and equitable communities. And we share values with many outdoor enthusiasts on public lands protection and funding.

Biking can offer a sustainable form of recreation when proper trail planning is conducted with regard to environmental impact, and regulations are in place and followed. Photo: CNW

Conservation Northwest has shared perspectives to the policy advisory committee around potential impacts e-bikes have on wildlife, and both our Executive Director Mitch Friedman and I have raised questions about the implications from expected increases in ridership and biking range on public lands.

Given that there has yet to be thorough research noting the impacts that e-bikes have on wildlife, careful studies should be conducted to better estimate the increase of the number of trail users associated with expanding eMTB access. Lacking regulation or studies to date have resulted in the widespread impacts of e-bikes to remain largely unknown.

Our bottom line is that e-bike impacts on wildlife must be well understood before expanding their use in important habitats on public lands. Precautionary principles and sound science will shape Conservation Northwest’s positions on e-bike access and regulations as they are formed by state agencies.

While e-bike policy takes shape at the state level, CNW will continue to advocate for wildlife in the face of growing recreation and the rapidly advancing forms of mechanized and motorized travel.

In accordance to our long-standing mission to connect, protect and restore, we support recreation that is careful to avoid impacts to wildlife and habitat, especially when associated with increased biking volume, range into sensitive wildlands, and any specific impacts that ongoing research documents.

Stay tuned for more information as state e-bike policy continues to progress. We will keep you updated.

Blanchard Mountain, located on state forest lands, is managed by the state’s Department of Natural Resources. E-bike access on these lands will be considered during the state policy formation process. Photo: Chase Gunnell