Imagine it’s early September and you hold a coveted Mount Emily archery elk tag. After a restless night, you rise three hours before dawn and drive 45 minutes to a trailhead where you are happy to see no other vehicles. Loading up your hunting pack and bow, you walk past a closed road gate for a 3-mile hike into your secret elk hunting spot, far from the disturbance of motor vehicles. You and the elk have an affinity for this place, and the quiet and solitude it provides.
The eastern horizon is just starting to turn pale pink as you near the familiar saddle where elk trails cross the still dark ridge. Ears, eyes, nose — all senses are on full hunting alert when you become aware of the crunch of tires on the road coming up quickly from behind. You are no longer the only human in these woods.
A bicyclist, also carrying a pack and hunting bow, glides effortlessly past you on the steady uphill grade. Other than the tires rolling over the ground, the only sound you hear is a low whir.
You’ve just been overtaken by a hunter on an e-bike, a bicycle powered by an electric motor. You curse under your breath, realizing that this hunter has invested less boot leather and effort than you, and slept more last night, while accessing the same remote backcountry.
This scene plays out more and more on our public lands as land managers and forest users sort out the latest development allowing more people to easily access the deep backcountry. As owners of these public lands, we should be thinking about this new tool and how it impacts our natural resources and recreational pursuits.
To be clear, this is not about Wilderness with a capital “W.” By law, federally designated wilderness areas are off-limits to mechanized travel of all sorts. E-bikes, ATVs, motorcycles, mountain bikes and, yes, even wheeled deer carts are not permitted in wilderness. This is not really open for debate, although some people are using this as part of a fallacious slippery slope argument against allowing e-bikes on public trails and roads.
More than 90% of federal land in Oregon and Washington is not designated wilderness, but not all this area is treated the same. Some areas are not open to any motor vehicles, some are open only to motorcycles and/or ATVs, and some are open to motor vehicles only in certain seasons (like snowmobile trails or dry season ATV trails). Where do e-bikes fit? Are they just an easier and faster cousin of mountain bikes? Or are they more like quiet motorcycles and only appropriate where motor vehicles are allowed?
To work through this puzzle, it helps to understand why some areas are closed to motorized travel in the first place. I see two broad sets of reasoning. First, reducing disturbance provides areas of security for wildlife and a place for humans to find quiet and spiritual renewal. Traffic, noise, safety, security and solitude are all good reasons to have areas far from motor vehicles, and as our ambitious archery hunter knows, such areas can hold more elk.
Second, natural resource damage can occur when the rubber meets the mud, creating rutting and erosion, impacts to soils and sensitive vegetation, and in general tends to put mud in the crick. Motor vehicles are among the worst culprits.
So where do e-bikes fit? They are quiet, less powerful and slower than motorcycles or ATVs. Still, our early-rising bow hunter would argue that his or her solitude and backcountry experience was ruined by this technology. And while e-bikes can’t do the same kind of damage to soils, water and vegetation as motorcycles or ATVs, they can probably do more damage than mountain bikes or foot traffic.
The biggest impact of e-bikes may be the way they allow easier access into the deep back country. Motorcycles, three-wheelers, four-wheelers, side-by-sides and e-bikes each represent an incremental evolution of technology with impacts that we may not fully appreciate at first. Opportunities for solitude and adventure should require some commitment of time, energy and discomfort, and whether it is new ultralight backpacking gear, satellite communications or vehicles, people are using technology to get further, and more easily, into the backcountry.
As land managers wrestle with e-bikes and the next new type of vehicle, it helps to have a bright line of distinction. For example, with respect to designated wilderness areas, mechanized equipment is not allowed. Wheeled equipment is mechanized and wheels don’t belong in wilderness. Simple.
I suggest there is another useful bright line with respect to e-bikes. If it has a motor, it is a motorized vehicle. Roads, trails and areas that are open only to nonmotorized travel should be off limits to e-bikes because they have a motor. Simple, clearly understood and without nuance.
Stick to the established standard and keep motorized vehicles out of nonmotorized areas, no matter how quiet. This is better for backcountry, better for wildlife, and better for the pursuit of peace and quiet.