Electronic bikes — or e-bikes — occupy a sort of purgatory when it comes to outdoor recreation — not motorcycles but not really traditional bicycles, either.
Their place on trails is also in the gray zone. Several federal agencies classify pedal-assist e-bikes within the “bicycle” category, so they’re permitted where bikes are allowed. The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, which is managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior, allows both bikes and e-bikes on roads and the new multi-use trail in Soldotna, while prohibiting both on all other trails. The Kenai Fjords National Park, under the National Park Service, functions similarly.
Here on the peninsula, pedal-assist e-bikes are allowed on Tsalteshi Trails, in Soldotna. In Anchorage, they’re permitted on all bike paths as of 2016.
The U.S. Forest Service, however, has considered e-bikes to be a type of motor vehicle. Now, they’re considering changing that distinction and opening up its trails to e-bike use. That includes popular routes like Crescent Creek Trail, Russian Lakes, Lost Lake and Resurrection Pass.
The service is asking for public input on proposed updates through Oct. 26.
Proponents of e-bikes see them as a way to increase accessibility for disabled and older riders. Mike Amos lives in Cooper Landing and is the owner of Bike Cooper Landing, a new bike shop that has both e-bikes and mountain bikes.
Amos said he didn’t realize e-bikes weren’t legal everywhere when he opened the shop this summer. In a letter to the forest service, he mentioned how the restrictions put his new business in a tough spot and said opening up more trails to e-bikes could have a positive economic impact on the U.S. as a whole.
Amos said it’s a misconception that they’re noisy or that they go too fast.
“I think the big thing that gets people worked up about e-bikes is they hear the word 'motor,'" he said. "They hear that they’re noisy. They hear the word 'throttle.' And immediately it pops into their mind of dirt bikes ripping up the trail, throwing a rooster tail of rocks and mud, which is not the case. ’Cause e-bikes are limited to how fast they can go and how much power they’re allowed to have, legally. In the U.S., it’s limited to 750 watts, which converts to one horsepower.”
Most bikes that are allowed on trails are pedal assist, with no throttle. Often, when bikes with throttles are permitted on trails, users are only allowed to use the throttle while they’re peddling.
He said he had written off e-bikes until he took to riding them himself, after a construction accident four years ago.
“I ended up going through eight surgeries and I have a fine collection of hardware. And that took the fun out of trying to ride a mountain bike,"” he said.
E-bikes make it possible for Amos to do long bike trips again.
“It allowed me to go farther," he said. "Unfortunately, I still can’t ride it up to the Russian River Falls, so I’ve got to get on my regular bike and grit my teeth and go do my thing.”
John Morton, a recently retired refuge biologist, said e-bikes might give people confidence to go too fast in hairy areas. He’s hesitant to see all Forest Service trails open up e-bike use.
“On the safety end of it, my concern is that e-bikes travel fast. Faster than people ride mechanical bikes," he said.
He worries that the bikes will end up injuring the people they’re designed to help because users will become overly confident and get themselves into accidents.
“And I saw this actually play out on the Lost Lake Trail earlier this summer when I saw an older gentleman who was winding up Lost Lake Trail," he said. "So he was going up the hill. He was actually going so fast that he shot off a curve on the trail and shot 30 feet down a ravine.”
Morton doesn’t think e-bikes should be outlawed — if he lived in a city, he said, he would probably use one to commute. But he worries about how people might use them on steep, remote, woods trails.
“I think e-bikes, and specifically (throttle-) assisted e-bikes, should probably be allowed on some trails. But not all trails," he said.
Morton said he will probably submit a comment to the Forest Service on the matter.
Separately, bike policy — and, consequently, e-bike policy — in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is also up for debate. E-bikes are allowed on the new multi-use trail off Ski Hill Road. That’s because the refuge falls under the umbrella of the Department of the Interior, which ruled this October that e-bikes would be allowed on all trails where bikes are also allowed. The refuge doesn’t currently allow bikes on most trails.
Proposed rule changes on the table this fall would open up parts of the refuge that were previously inaccessible to bikes. That would include e-bikes.