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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington Legislature directs state land managers to recommend comprehensive e-bike policy by 2022

The rules governing e-bikes are murky since the technology is still relatively new.  (Rich Landers/courtesy)

State lawmakers gave Washington land managers a tricky assignment this year.

Gather public input on e-bikes and then draft a policy recommendation based on that information by 2022.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and state Department of Natural Resources were directed by legislators to “undergo a public process to collect information related to e-bike use on natural surface trails and roads that are limited to nonmotorized use to determine where e-bike operation may occur and which classes of e-bikes are acceptable on such roads and trails under the agencies’ management,” according to a new law that went into effect July 25.

The two agencies must report their findings to the Legislature by Sept. 30, 2022.

“There are really diverse perspectives, so the Legislature has directed us to convene some of those opinions and try and come to some recommendation,” said Joel Sisolak, WDFW’s lands planning, recreation and outreach manager.

Currently, WDFW and DNR don’t allow e-bikes except for where motorized travel is already allowed. Meanwhile, the Parks and Recreation Commission is managing e-bikes as a bicycle.

Spokane County prohibits all e-bike use on county owned and managed natural surface trails.

Federally, the Bureau of Land Management opened all its lands to e-bikes in 2019.

Both the Idaho Panhandle and Colville National Forests consider e-bikes motorized vehicles as does the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

That patchwork of rules and regulations underscores the newness of the technology.

WDFW is still designing the public input process, but Sisolak said the agency hopes to asses the effects of e-bikes on recreation and the environment.

“I think there is not a great deal of data and research out there about the impacts of e-bikes,” Sisolak said.

A 2018 state law placed e-bikes into three categories (see sidebar) and by default all nonmotorized natural-surface trails and lands in the state are closed to e-bikes, unless stated otherwise.

Mountain bike advocates want natural-surface trails to be open to e-bikes by default said Chris Conley, president of the Eastern Washington chapter of the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance.

“Obviously we’d like to see consistency across all of the land managers,” he said. “We just kind of need to get everybody on the same page. The reality is bike shops are selling them like crazy, and they’re everywhere.”

The Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance supports Class 1 e-bikes and is against Class 2 e-bikes, Conley said. He said there are no Class 3 e-bikes on the market currently.

“We are very passionate about Class 1,” he said. “Completely against Class 2. It doesn’t have to have pedals. It’s essentially a motorcycle.”

One concern Conley does have about all types of e-bikes is they do increase trail use, and as a result, accelerate trail wear-and-tear. Devising some consistent regulations and studying the impacts the bikes have, can help that issue, he said.

E-bikes, particularly Class 1 bikes, have been embraced by many mountain bikers as it eases the uphill burn and increases the number of downhill laps. The bikes are also a boon for older cyclists.

Hunters, too, have started using e-bikes to access more remote backcountry areas long closed to motorized vehicles. This has caused some division within the hunting community.

“The group is well into the process, we have been hearing presentations from all the various groups in our research portion,” said Marie Neumiller, the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council’s executive director in an email. “We are now working to reach a consensus as we move toward the policy draft. I believe the goal is to have our draft roughed out in August so that we can begin finalizing the proposal.”

A survey conducted by Spokane County highlighted the division among recreationists. According to the survey, which was completed in 2020, 36% of respondents were against all e-bikes on natural-surface trails while 64% of respondents supported some sort of e-bike use.

But, once broken into different recreation groups the divide between recreation groups became clearer. One-half of all hikers and trail runners was against e-bikes of all kinds, and 39% of all mountain bikers approved of Class 1 e-bikes. The group most opposed to e-bikes were horseback riders, with 62% of respondents saying e-bikes shouldn’t be allowed at all on natural-surface trails.

Like other groups, the Washington Trails Association wants careful consideration and analysis of how e-bikes will impact trails, said Holly Weiler, the Washington Trail Association’s Eastern Washington coordinator.

“If a trail has been built to a certain standard e-bikes might change that dynamic a little bit,” she said.

In the past year-and-a-half Weiler has seen more e-bikes on trails, including in closed areas which underscores the need for consistent regulations.

Her anecdotal observations line up with national trends.

Roughly 600,000 e-bikes were sold in 2020, although many of those were bikes designed for paved surfaces. As of April 2021, e-bike sales in the U.S. were up 139% compared to the same period in 2020, according to market research firm NPD Group.