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Guest opinion: E-bikes make public lands more accessible

SHARE Guest opinion: E-bikes make public lands more accessible
Dawn comes to the Colorado River at Dead Horse Point State Park near Moab, Utah.

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When my older son was a boy, he and I rode a tandem bicycle throughout Colorado. We cycled the Ride the Rockies Bicycle Tour from Cortez to Golden, a distance of more than 462 miles in seven days over four mountain passes. We rode the Triple Bypass from Bergen Park to Vail over Squaw, Loveland, and Vail passes, covering 96 miles and climbing 10,000 vertical feet. Finally, we rode from our town of Evergreen to the top of Mt. Evans, a 37-mile trip involving a nearly 8,000-foot climb on the highest paved road in North America.   

Those days are mostly behind me — and my son is now a lieutenant colonel Marine Corps judge advocate with five young children of his own. But like millions of seasoned citizens, I still crave an active, healthy, outdoor lifestyle. 

I want all Americans to be able to have those kinds of opportunities too, and the chance to create lifelong memories exploring and enjoying the great outdoors. 

Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt shares this vision. That’s why he signed a Secretary’s Order directing the Bureau of Land Management and other Interior bureaus to expand access on public lands to electronic bikes.

E-bikes create opportunities for those of us — like me — who are chronologically challenged, as well as disabled veterans, families with younger children, or those who aren’t experienced technical mountain bikers. These pedal-assisted bikes especially benefit such users in steep terrain and at high altitudes, giving many more people a chance to explore places they might not be able to access on a traditional bicycle.  

For those unfamiliar with e-bikes, they have small, lightweight, ultra-quiet electric motors housed in the frames that resemble traditional bicycles and provide some extra power to help negotiate challenging climbs and terrain. They can be ridden on paved roads like traditional road bikes, or used on off-road trails accessible to mountain bikes. 

We’re working hard to implement Secretary Bernhardt’s directive wherever possible on the 245 million acres of public lands managed by the BLM because we believe these lands are managed in trust for all citizens, and that people of every ability should be able to explore them to the greatest extent possible.  

In response to the Secretary’s Order, I’ve directed each of our BLM state organizations to empower our local land managers to permit the use of e-bikes wherever they have the statutory authority to do so. This includes paved roads and other roads and trails open to motorized vehicles, such as Hartman Rocks in Gunnison, Colorado, which features roughly 65 miles of single-track trail and spectacular views; the famous Slickrock Trail in Moab, Utah — the trail that turned Moab into a mecca for mountain bikers from around the world; and the Glade Run Recreation Area near Farmington, New Mexico, with more than 42 miles of trails through slickrock, junipers and pinyons. 

The Secretary’s Order makes clear our intent to allow e-bikes wherever other bikes are allowed, and not to manage them as off-highway vehicles. This change will modernize rules that do not specifically address e-bikes and address rules that are often in conflict across agency boundaries. 

Soon, we will begin a formal rulemaking process that will evaluate options for allowing e-bikes on trails currently closed to motorized vehicles. That process will take a bit more time, but when we finish it, it will provide countless other opportunities for Americans to get out on their public lands. Of course, federal lands designated by Congress as “wilderness areas” will remain off-limits to both traditional bicycles and e-bikes. 

For long-time cyclists, hikers, and other public land users, we anticipate the difference between e-bikes and traditional bikes will hardly be noticeable. E-bike users will be expected to observe the same rules of the road, rights-of-way protocols, and trail etiquette as those on traditional bikes. You may not be able to tell an e-bike from a traditional one, but I believe you will notice a more diverse group of riders out there as people discover e-bikes and the amazing places they make accessible to so many more Americans. 

Who knows, maybe my son will be willing to saddle up with his old man and tempt those high-mountain passes again. I hope so — and I hope to see you all out there with us.

William Perry Pendley serves as the Bureau of Land Management’s Deputy Director for Policy and Programs, exercising authority of the director. Pendley, an attorney, has decades of experience in federal land management policy.