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Trail group sues Forest Service for allowing e-bikes on trails

Published November 19, 2019

SACRAMENTO (BRAIN) — A group of trail and forest advocates filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service for allowing Class 1 e-bikes on non-motorized trails in the Tahoe National Forest without first conducting a public study.

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The lawsuit filed Oct. 23 cites a violation of the Travel Management rule, which limits motorized access to certain U.S. Forest Service trails. Before opening non-motorized trails to e-bike use, the Tahoe National Forest should have had a public study that includes analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act to assess the impact of the decision, according to the suit filed in federal court.

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

A U.S. Forest Service spokesperson said it will not comment on impending litigation. The Tahoe National Forest is located northwest of Lake Tahoe.

The plaintiffs in the suit include The Wilderness Society, the Gold Country Trails Council, Backcountry Horsemen of California, Back Country Horsemen of America, and the Forest Issues Group. The groups are represented by the Western Environmental Law Center.

"We're not opposed to e-bikes on federal land," said Michael Carroll, senior director of The Wilderness Society's People Outdoors Program. "We want to make sure people are going through the process and not just willy-nilly opening up forests of non-motorized trails to motorized bicycles without going through the travel management process. And that's what our lawsuit is basically about. You can't do it arbitrarily. You have to go through the entire process. We think that the Tahoe National Forest has violated the law, and we're pretty sure and confident that the courts will agree with us."

Morgan Lommele, director of state and local policy for PeopleForBikes, said the nonprofit bicycle advocacy group will not comment on the lawsuit's specific claims.

"We interpret the lawsuit to primarily concern the process that the Forest Service took to authorize the use of e-bikes in the Tahoe National Forest, as opposed to whether e-bikes have a material effect on trail conditions," Lommele said.

She said the Forest Service needs more data about e-bike demographics and social and natural resource impacts. "Sometimes, it's best to perform this data collection through real time trail allowance rather than speculation," Lommele said. "We support the use of Class 1 e-bikes on non-motorized trails in the Tahoe National Forest and believe their use is reinforced by the data the Forest Service collected."

Lommele said the Tahoe National Forest didn't report an increase of trail or resource damage from e-bike use on the trails so far. Nor did it receive reports of trail conflicts, accidents or injuries.

"The Tahoe National Forest trail and recreation managers did observe an increase in the diversity of skill levels and age groups using e-bikes to access Tahoe National Forest routes and trails," she said.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported Oct. 25 that the policy change was noticed by a Gold Country Trails Council member who saw a page on the Tahoe National Forest website about expanded e-bike opportunities. The Tahoe National Forest, which the Department of Agriculture oversees, now allows e-bikes on more than 130 miles of trails that were designated for non-motorized uses, the advocacy groups said, which added there are "about 2,500 miles of trails and roads available for motorized uses."

"The Forest Service cannot simply disregard its own rules when it comes to allowing electric bikes on non-motorized trails on the Tahoe National Forest," said Western Environmental attorney Susan Jane M. Brown in a statement. "With this lawsuit, we seek to compel the agency to follow those rules."

In July, trail advocates and conservation groups sent a joint letter to federal land management officials opposing any changes to non-motorized land regulations, sensing a move toward opening more of these trails to e-bikes.

Then, in August, the Department of Interior said all classes of e-bikes will be regulated as traditional bicycles on non-motorized federal lands, which includes the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management, but not the U.S. Forest Service. That decision allows agencies to regulate e-bikes as they see fit, just like with traditional bikes.

"We would love an early settlement of the case wherein the Forest Service acknowledges its process for authorizing e-bikes on non-motorized trails on the Tahoe National Forest was not done in accordance with the law and agency policy," said Randy Rasmussen, director of public lands and recreation for the Back Country Horsemen of America. 

U.S. Forest Service is the subject of a lawsuit.
Topics associated with this article: Electric bike

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