E-bikes in the crosshairs as a tool for exploring public land
The very thing that makes them so attractive is what has some people worried.
E-bikes, or electric bicycles, sport pedals like traditional bicycles. But they also have electric motors.
Land managers and lawmakers categorize them as either class 1, 2 or 3, with the difference largely dependent on whether the motor can operate without pedaling.
The attraction in all cases is that the bikes allow people to ride farther faster with less difficulty. That’s made them increasingly popular with everyone from traditional cyclists to hunters and anglers.
According to the NPD Group, a market research company, e-bike sales totaled $77.1 million in 2017. That’s up 91 percent over 2016 and more than 800 percent over 2014.
Kyle Stokes, owner of Swatara Creek Outfitters, an archery pro shop in Anville, is an avid e-biker. Now 44 years old, he has hunted since he was 12 and cycled since he was 16.
He still rides traditional bikes, he said. But his favorite thing to do is travel miles deep into state forests and game lands to bowhunt for white-tailed deer.
These days, having undergone five complete hip replacements, the only way he can do that is with an e-bike. His allows him to get himself and 75-100 pounds of gear where he needs to go.
Other hunters — with physical limitations and without — could do the same if e-bikes were more widely permitted, he said.
“I do think they would be a great mobile device,” Stokes said.
Where and when
But that’s the issue.
In August, the Department of the Interior released “Secretarial Order 3376.” It requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and Bureau of Reclamation to permit e-bikes on any trail allowing traditional bicycles.
“As more Americans are using e-bikes to enjoy the great outdoors, national parks should be responsive to visitors’ interest in using this new technology wherever it is safe and appropriate to do so,” said National Park Service deputy director P. Daniel Smith.
Others worry e-bikes might negatively impact everything from fish and wildlife to wilderness access.
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the Wilderness Society, National Wildlife Federation and even a number of mountain-biking groups are among those saying e-bikes shouldn’t be regulated the same as traditional bicycles.
The Outdoor Alliance, representing outdoor enthusiasts who embrace the “human powered experience,” agrees. It doesn’t oppose e-bike use, policy director Louis Geltman said.
But they are a “hybrid technology,” neither motorized vehicle nor traditional bike, he said. So land managers should be able to decide where they are permissible on a local basis.
“I think we’re really just interested in making sure that e-bikes are allowed where it’s appropriate, but that they are not managed as precisely the same as traditional bicycles. Because they really are their own thing,” Geltman said.
The controversy, and confusion, extends to lands owned by states scrambling to catch up with e-bike technology, especially in relation to hunting.
Maryland, for example, has no laws or regulations specifically addressing hunting and e-bikes, said Capt. Melissa Scarborough, acting public information officer for the state’s Natural Resources Police.
But existing rules prohibit operating a motor vehicle on anything but designated roads in state parks and forests, she said. Others prohibit hunting from a motor vehicle.
Meaning, with e-bikes classified by law as motor vehicles, cyclists can’t use them to explore public land or hunt anywhere.
In Ohio, hunters can’t use any kind of bike, motorized or otherwise, to hunt on public land, said John Windau, wildlife communications manager for the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
Hunters can use motorized bikes on private land to transport deer they’ve killed, but they can’t “hunt” from one like they can a nonmotorized bike.
In Pennsylvania, lawmakers — via Act 154 of 2014 — classify e-bikes the same as traditional bicycles. As a result they can be used anywhere traditional bikes are allowed, including on bike trails in state parks and forests.
But that doesn’t extend to state game lands, maintained for wildlife and hunting by the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
The commission liberalized its list of approved mobility devices permissible for use by hunters with a disabled persons permit in recent years. That’s how Stokes is able to use his e-bike.
But they’re off limits otherwise.
For now, anyway. With e-bike interest growing, an internal commission committee is looking at how to adapt.
Jason Raup, the commission’s assistant legal counsel, said the group initially looked at treating e-bikes the same as nonmotorized devices, such as horses and traditional bicycles. That created unintended consequences, though.
So instead, it’s leaning toward making them a new category of motorized vehicle.
Raup said she intent is to legalize only Class I bikes, though. And that could be a problem.
Almost all of the Class I bikes on the market are made for riding on developed bike trails, beaches, boardwalks and the like, said Jack Brown, a Westmoreland County-based brand ambassador for e-bike manufacturer QuietKat. Manufacturers don’t make them for taking hunters through the woods, he said.
Indeed, the outdoor television shows helping to popularize these all feature Class II bikes, he said.
The commission, he said, needs to understand that. Otherwise it’s going to legalize a class of e-bike with no real-world application for hunters, he said.
“They’re going to back themselves into a corner and legalize this, and nobody’s going to be able to use anything,” Brown said.
He’s hopeful the agency will reconsider. E-bikes are simply a tool, Brown said. But he believes they are one the commission would be wise to take advantage of.
The Game Commission, like similar agencies around the country, is struggling to maintain its license-buying base. R3 — or recruitment, retention and reactivation — is a huge point of emphasis.
E-bikes, Brown said, far from being hurtful, can help the cause by making it easier for an aging hunter demographic to do its thing.
“That’s all this is,” he said.
Raup said the commission hopes to roll out proposed e-bike regulations in January. Opportunities for public comment will follow.