In 1600, an English scientist coined the term electricus after penning a six-book epic on all things magnetic and electric.
In 1752, Benjamin Franklin tied a key to a damp kite string, launching the experiment into a thunderstorm in the process shocking himself.
In 1821, another Englishman invented the electric motor.
In 1895, Ogden Bolton Jr. filed a patent for the first electric bicycle.
And on July 5, 2022, Spokane historian Larry Cebula loaded up one of the descendants of Bolton’s inventions and headed west.
Cebula, a professor at Eastern Washington University, doesn’t describe himself as an avid biker, or outdoorsman. He loves to walk and used to bike occasionally but, living on the South Hill, didn’t like bike commuting because of the steep uphill. His knees hurt and his back aches from several years spent heaving a Pulaski on a Forest Service trail crew in his 20s.
So when it came to biking across the state on a gravelly, often rough, sometimes nonexistent, former railway bed?
No way. Or, at least not without an e-bike.
“To be honest, I’d dream about it,” Cebula said while biking through the Eastern Washington Scablands Monday. “But like I said, I’m 61.”
A ‘disruptive technology’
Cebula is biking the Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail, a 250-mile route that bisects Washington, although he started in Montana near Taft and rode the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes to get to Washington. He’s doing it on a 50-pound e-bike that provides varying levels of pedal assistance.
The rail-trail is owned and managed by Washington State Parks and Recreation. While State Parks doesn’t track what kind of bike is being ridden on its longest trail (and narrowest park) a spokeswoman for the agency said that they’ve “noticed an uptick in users asking whether e-bikes are allowed on this trail.”
At the same time, the Washington departments of Fish and Wildlife and Natural Resources have been soliciting feedback as they consider e-bike policies on lands they manage, a process that garnered more than 7,000 responses before the survey closed Friday.
The question, where e-bikes should or shouldn’t be allowed, has raised plenty of controversy with some worrying about ecological impacts and others concerned that e-bikes allow some to go farther and faster on roads previously closed to motorized traffic. That conversation is highlighting an ever-present tension between abetting recreational access and protecting ecosystems and wildlife, said Marie Neumiller, the executive director of the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council. From discussions with members of the council, she believes that group to be nearly split on the issue.
Cebula is aware of these arguments but believes e-bikes are here to stay, meaning agencies have to figure out the best way to manage what he calls a “disruptive technology.”
That’s exactly the task the Washington Legislature gave to WDFW and DNR in 2021 when they directed the agencies 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.”
The public input part of that process ended Friday and the agencies are working on a report summarizing their findings. The agencies must report their findings to the Legislature by Sept. 30.
“We will be representing the information that we gathered from the public input process and from the public engagement process,” said Heide Andersen, the recreation planner for WDFW. “Then likely each agency will have a section where we will discuss some of the issues that might be particular (to that agency).”
That included pulling together relevant studies and literature on how – or if – e-bikes impact animal movement and ecological processes. Andersen said there is some evidence e-bikes are similar to mountain bikes when it comes to trail erosion, but when it comes to e-bike science she said there’s “a big gap in knowledge, honestly.”
Shifting opinions, contradictory regulations
While there is certainly a contingent of cyclists and recreationist vehemently opposed to widespread e-bike use, that contingent has lessened in recent years, said Chris Conley, the president of The Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance – Eastern Washington Chapter.
A few years ago, Conley estimated 30% of Evergreen members supported e-bike use broadly. Now that number has more or less flipped, he said. That doesn’t mean there are no issues to work through.
In particular, Conley and others mentioned a patchwork of sometimes contradictory local, regional and federal regulations which make it tough for users to know where they can, or can’t, go.
In 2019, the Department of the Interior classified e-bikes as nonmotorized, allowing e-bikes on biking trails in the country’s roughly 400 national parks and other federally managed backcountry areas. In March, the Forest Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, announced that Class 1, 2 and 3 e-bikes would be considered motorized, thus barring them from nonmotorized trails.
“The Forest Service came out with their policy, which is calling the e-bikes motorized, which kind of threw a wrench in everything and made everything more complicated,” Conley said.
There is also regulatory inconsistency at the state level. Washington State Parks allows Class 1 and 3 e-bikes on long-distance trails and nonmotorized trails that allow bikes. Both WDFW and DNR only allow e-bikes on motorized trails and roads, unless the user has an ADA parking sticker.
“I think consistent guidelines are what’s going to help,” Neumiller said.
Minus 20 years
The appeal of an e-bike is evident to Cebula after biking half a day.
“An e-bike is just like a regular bike, except you’re 20 years younger,” he said. “On the other hand, when the battery runs down, an e-bike is like a regular bike, except you’re 20 years older.”
That consideration, how e-bikes make it easier for disabled and elderly people to get outside, has been a consistent point of emphasis for those in favor of the technology. Neumiller, the director of the Wildlife Council, said the bikes are a boon for aging hunters who can no longer trek deep into the backcountry.
“I’ve heard a lot about disabled access, but I think it’s more about aging access,” she said in the hunting context. “There is a benefit to it, but that’s one of those that it’s a benefit but there is also a drawback. More people can access those places, but then again, more people can access those places.”
That complicated dance, between providing recreational access – whether hunting, fishing, bird watching or biking – while also protecting and preserving Washington’s diverse natural heritage is at the core of all management considerations. The surge in interest in all things outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic only reinforced the importance of balancing those considerations.
“Every activity we participate in you face that tightrope. I think because it’s a new technology, that’s why there is tension around it,” Neumiller said. “I don’t think necessarily that e-bikes are a negative thing. I just think it opens up that conversation.”
One thing that isn’t in question?
Cebula is having what he calls “a grand adventure” as he pedals – with some assistance – across the state. He believes he has about two more weeks until he arrives in La Push, Washington. Recharging his battery is a constant consideration, so he plans to mostly stay in hotels or Airbnbs.
“Look at that old windmill up there,” he said pointing toward one of the numerous rolling sage covered hills near Lind, Washington. Harnessing the power of the wind to pull water from the ground, that windmill allowed homesteaders to graze cattle in previously impossible areas, he said.
“You could buy one in a Sears catalogue for, I don’t know, 100 bucks or something.”
It all illustrates the cliché that the only constant in life is change, leaving it up to us to figure out how to best adapt.
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