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Forest Service prepares to welcome e-bikes

Following national guidance, San Juan National Forest can allow the bikes for first time
Mike Phillips with Mountain Bike Specialists shows an electric-mountain bike sold at the store in Durango in November 2021. The U.S. Forest Service announced Thursday that the agency would allow for the use of e-bikes on forest trails, though each national forest has discretion over where e-bikes will be allowed. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

The U.S. Forest Service has finalized guidance that will allow national forests to consider expanding the use of e-bikes.

San Juan National Forest has been working on its e-bike policy for two years and with the new guidance will move forward with plans to authorize the use of e-bikes on forest lands for the first time. However, e-bikes remain prohibited on trails for the time being.

“National guidance establishes a process for us to enable e-bikes to use certain trails,” said Scott Owen, spokesman for San Juan National Forest. “We’re going through a process right now of identifying those trails and that’ll be site-specific. (It) will take into account wildlife, the use, all the factors that we typically take into account to make sure that it works for the rest of the public.”

The Forest Service updated two chapters of its code to reflect its guidance on e-bikes.

Forest managers must now consider how emerging technologies such as e-bikes are changing recreation and access when managing trails and Forest Service lands.

According to the new regulations, the agency defines e-bikes as motor vehicles, breaking them down into three classes.

“Class 1” e-bikes have a motor that works only when the rider is pedaling and the motor stops when the rider reaches 20 mph.

“Class 2” e-bikes have a motor that runs without pedaling, but the motor stops when the rider reaches 20 mph.

“Class 3” e-bikes have a motor that works only when the rider is pedaling, but the motor stops when the rider reaches 28 mph.

The Forest Service will designate trails and roads for e-bikes using these three classes.

The new policy also outlines criteria Forest Service staff members must review when opening trails to e-bikes.

Managers must minimize damage to soil and vegetation, significant disruption of wildlife habitats and conflicts between e-bikes and other recreational users. They should also consider a trail’s current use for biking and account for differences in speed with e-bikes.

E-bikes are not allowed on a National Science Trail unless they receive an exemption, according to the new rules.

The Forest Service currently allows e-bikes on all roads open to motor vehicles, but San Juan National Forest does not allow e-bikes on forest trails.

With the updated national guidance in place, San Juan National Forest plans to begin opening select areas of the forest to e-bikes.

The process will take time as the Forest Service conducts environmental assessments required by the National Environmental Policy Act and develops a travel management plan.

“We just have to make sure that we do it correctly (so) we don’t impact trails, wildlife or degradation of the natural resources,” Owen said. “We're working on updating (San Juan National Forest’s e-bike policy) as soon as we can and some of (the trails) will require more analysis just like other projects that we do on the forest.”

San Juan National Forest is weighing the use of e-bikes project by project. The agency is working on a proposal to expand mountain biking trails on Jackson Mountain near Pagosa Springs and e-bikes will be a part of that project, he said.

But the goal is to move to a broader policy in which e-bikes are allowed on certain trails across the forest.

“We want to do it forest-wide so we’re not doing it each individual piecemeal project,” Owen said.

As San Juan National Forest expands access for e-bikes, the agency will update its motor vehicle use map to reflect the areas that e-bikes can go and the trails they can use.

San Juan National Forest has yet to say when e-bikes will be allowed, but Owens said the Forest Service is working to finalize a timeline for their use. Until the agency develops a plan for e-bikes, they will remain prohibited.

While the forest is still steps away from allowing e-bikes, Owens said San Juan National Forest looked forward to expanding recreational access.

“We’re excited to welcome our e-bike users out to the national forest,” he said.

ahannon@durangoherald.com

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