There have been multiple columns and letters to the editor since The Bulletin published an editorial on Oct. 25 about allowing/not allowing e-bikes on nonmotorized singletrack trails within national forests. There are strong feelings on both sides of the e-bike issue, even among the members, volunteers, and board members of the Central Oregon Trail Alliance (COTA). Regardless of your opinion on whether e-bikes belong on nonmotorized singletrack trails, the COTA board would like to clarify some common misconceptions regarding this issue.
COTA is a nonprofit organization, with a single employee, that works with land managers throughout Central Oregon including the Forest Service (FS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Trail management policies, including usage restrictions, are dictated by the land managers; COTA does not make policy or enforce regulations that apply to trails. COTA builds and maintains trails under the direction of the land managers and adheres to policies and standards defined in volunteer service agreements with those agencies. When you see a sign with COTA’s name on it, it has been placed by volunteers under the direction of the land manager and signifies that COTA maintains that trail under a volunteer service agreement; it does not mean that COTA determines who can use that trail.
The COTA board has not adopted a formal position for or against allowing e-bikes on nonmotorized trails. In fact, the Madras East Hills Trail System, which is open to e-bikes, was built by COTA volunteers. The Madras East Hills Trail System is located on city lands that do not have restrictions on e-bike access and therefore e-bikes are allowed.
The process to consider whether e-bikes are suitable for use on some or all nonmotorized trails in the Deschutes National Forest will likely take some time. Just as the process to build new trails requires a multiyear collaborative process including a NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) analysis, considering whether to open some or all nonmotorized trails to e-bikes will require a similar review. The NEPA process would be conducted by the FS and would include input from the public. (The BLM will also have to conduct a NEPA analysis to consider whether to open nonmotorized trails to e-bikes at places like Horse Ridge, Maston and Cline Butte.)
E-bike management on trails is a complex issue, and the FS and BLM are bound by law to conduct a comprehensive environmental impact analysis under NEPA that includes opportunities for public input before making changes to policies governing nonmotorized trails. This is important because any change to existing trail management policies will affect other trail users including hikers, trail runners, equestrians, and human-powered mountain bikers. While there are compelling arguments for inclusion of e-bikes on trails open to mountain bikes, there are also arguments to continue to provide places where users can have a true nonmotorized trail experience.
USFS and BLM lands are not “off limits” to e-bikes. Although trails that are specifically designated for nonmotorized use do not allow e-bikes, there are thousands of miles of unpaved roads and trails that do allow motorized recreation, which includes e-bikes. Many of these roads and trails are scenic and less crowded than popular nonmotorized trails and provide a great user experience for those willing to explore them. While current FS and BLM policies prohibit e-bikes on nonmotorized trails, they do not prevent use and enjoyment of public lands.