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Backpedaling on e-bikes

Federal land-managers are backpedaling on where electric-assisted bikes — known as e-bikes — can operate on backwoods trails.

E-bikes have been classified as motorbikes and, thus, have been treated similarly to motorcycles and not allowed on federal trails deemed open for hikers and conventional mountain bikers.

But that changed under the Trump Administration, when the Department of the Interior allowed e-bikes on traditional mountain-biking trails within its lands, including the National Park Service.

Tyler Flaming rides his electric-assisted bike on a Prescott Park trail. Federal officials classify e-bikes as similar to motorcycles, banning them on many federal lands. MT file foto

The Park Service rescinded e-bike accessibility Thursday at 28 national parks, not including Crater Lake National Park, where e-bikes are allowed on Rim Drive and one other gravel road.

After numerous complaints,the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest last month posted dozens of miles of trails in the Ashland Watershed as off-limits to e-bikes, regardless of whether the battery-powered motors are used.

The rule dates back to 2016 when the Forest Service excluded e-bikes from nonmotorized trails. All of the trails in the Ashland Watershed are designated as nonmotorized, so the ban technically has been in place the past five years.

Forest Service crews placed signs designating the rule on several trails over the past few weeks. Violators can to receive citations that could lead to fines of as much as $500 under federal laws.

Concerns have come from hikers, runners and conventional mountain bikers that e-bikes can generate speeds of up to 20 mph, which creates safety issues on blind curves. Also the uphill power is considered by some to create more erosion on trails.

E-bikes allow for faster speeds both uphill and downhill, and hikers often complain about their exposure to crashes.

But e-bikes are also hailed for their role in getting more people outdoors and on bikes — particularly older riders who need help ascending trails. Even conventional mountain bikers laud the technology as helping them spend more time outdoors and on longer trail rides.

A growing concern about e-bikes operating illegally in the watershed created the need for signage, says Michelle Ahearn, the forest’s recreational program manager.

“Reports from the recreation community indicate that there is a noticeable uptick in e-bikes in the watershed,” she says. “Even walking into any bike shop in Southern Oregon is a clear indication that they are growing in popularity.”

Data from the National Visitor Use Monitoring Program shows that e-bike use has increased on federal lands, along with traditional uses, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the same time, Forest Service officials in California are proposing a five-fold increase in the number of miles of trail where e-bikes will be welcomed, especially around Lake Tahoe.

But Forest Service officials say the Ashland Watershed is a bit of an anomaly among federal lands.

“Many of the trails are in the protected municipal watershed that provides water to the town of Ashland.,” Ahearn says. “It is home to plants and animals that are vitally important to the ecosystem. The granitic soils that make up many of the trails are pretty different than a lot of trail systems in Southern Oregon.

“All of the analysis done in the watershed over decades has resulted in policy that prohibits unauthorized motorized use throughout the municipal watershed, on trails and roads alike, to protect the resources there,” she says.

But all is not lost for e-bikers.

The biking and hiking trails at Medford’s Prescott Park remain open to e-bikers, as well as hundreds of miles of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands throughout Southern Oregon.

The Bear Creek Greenway is closed to them, but they are allowed on the stretch of the Rogue River Greenway between Gold Hill and Rogue River. Forest Service trails along Taylor Creek near Galice likewise are e-bike friendly.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.