Biking into the Wilderness – The Legal Fight over E-Bikes in National Parks

By Will Quish*

In late August of 2019, the Secretary of the Interior issued Order 3376 that allowed for the use of electric bicycles (e-bikes) in national parks.[i] E-bikes look similar to a regular bicycle but are powered by a small electric motor that assist the bikers in pedaling. The order furthered a what had been a trend of allowing humans to venture in more invasive ways in national parks.[ii] The addition of e-bikes to the list of actions that would impact the local animal populace has invited legal action with several outdoor groups writing letters to the Department of the Interior.[iii]

In the recent years there has been an uptick in activities such as ultramarathons and mountain biking in parks across the United States.[iv] This increasing interested coupled with a growing number of trails for biking or hiking has allowed humans to venture further and more often into animals’ habitats than ever before[v]. Additionally, advances in technology such as winter tires on mountain bikes allows for humans to impact animals’ environments throughout the year.[vi] This impact can be massive on the animals and the humans ranging from elk fleeing for miles or the rare grizzly attack on human intruders.[vii] Order 3376 concerns environmentalists that on national parks this impact may be enhanced.

As the law was interpreted before Order 3376, however, mountain bikes were illegal in wilderness areas.[viii] Therefore, under that interpretation, e-bikes were also illegal.[ix] In the announcement of allowing e-bikes the Department of Interior made clear to note that e-bikes should be treated the same mountain bikes.[x] Logically, this means any expansion on the use of mountain bikes would also mean an expansion on the use of e-bikes.

Environmentalists have pointed to the fact that as the Wilderness Act of 1964 is currently read to say lands that are declared wilderness areas should be free from e-bikes.[xi] Wilderness areas are different than national parks but they may overlap.[xii] Environmentalists logical next step is to have more areas designated wilderness areas. In order for land to be declared wilderness areas a regional forester must recommend for land to be designed as wilderness.[xiii] This recommendation will be forwarded to the Secretary of Agricultural who will then send recommendations onto Congress.[xiv]  If Congress agrees with the recommendation they can designate the area as a wilderness area.[xv] This process does provides a barrier to further use of e-bikes but also gives mountain biking enthusiasts a number of chances to stop proceedings.

A challenge has already been produced in Wyoming in the Bridger-Teton National Forest regarding a wilderness area.[xvi] The complaint claims the U.S. Forest Service is breaking a multitude of federal laws by allowing current levels of motorized and mechanized recreation in its Shoal Creek and Palisades wilderness study areas.[xvii] This lawsuit, if successful, could lead to a shutdown of use of e-bikes in any wilderness areas.

Over the years, however mountain bikes have pushed on the interpretation that bikes are illegal in wilderness areas in hopes of gaining access to pristine trails. Mountain bikers argue that the wilderness areas should be open to whatever form of quiet, non-motorized recreation people prefer. Biking advocates point to various scientific studies as support for the position that mountain biking is no more damaging to the environment and wildlife than hiking, and much less damaging than horseback riding.[xviii]

Bikers argue that wilderness areas are allowed to be used for “historic” use and biking should fall under that category, especially considering horseback riding is allowed.[xix] The argument proceeds as follows, horses are not native to the United States nor is their existence in the United States older than that of the wheel, horses cause more distribution, go at faster speeds and trails are more degraded by use.[xx] Mountain bikers feel that agencies simply ban bicycles because they are seen as disruptive to their own wildlife experiences rather than following the letter of the law.[xxi]

There is precedent for allowing bikes on trials. In the 1980s, the National Forrest officers were permitted to allow or prohibit bikes in wilderness areas on a case by case basis.[xxii] Barring congressional action to change the statute or a successful challenge that changes the interpretation of the statute mountain bikers will have to rely on agreements with individual agencies or parks in order to ride. These agreements, however, would be subject the very sort of challenges now being presented in Wyoming.

Challenges to the expansion of e-bikes currently have the ability to use the Wilderness Act as a shield in areas that are already protected or as a sword in pushing for the expansion of areas that do not have the protection. The enjoyment of national parks for all is the stated goal of the expansion, those that disagree are trying to have the final say.[xxiii]

*Will Quish is an Associate Editor on MJEAL. He can be reached at wquish@umich.edu.


[i] Secretary of the Interior, SO 3376 (August 29, 2019)

[ii] Jim Robbins, When Biking and Bears Don’t Mix, N.Y. Times, October 7, 2019

[iii] Tal Axelrod, Trump Admin to allow E-Bikes on National Park Trails, The Hill (2019)

[iv] Id.

[v] Id.

[vi] Id.

[vii] Id.

[viii] National Parks Sevices

[ix] Heidi Ruckriegle, Mountain Biking into the Wilderness, 28 Colo. Nat. Resources, Energy & Envtl. L. Rev. 147, 166 (2017)

[x] Secretary of the Interior, supra note 1

[xi] National Parks Service, America’s Public Lands Explained (June 13, 2019), https://www.nps.gov/subjects/biking/e-bikes.htm

[xii] Department of the Interior, Electronic Bicycles (e-bikes) in National Parks (2019), https://www.doi.gov/blog/americas-public-lands-explained

[xiii] Martin Nie & Christopher Barns, The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Wilderness Act: The Next Chapter in Wilderness Designation, Politics, and Management, 5 Ariz. J. Envtl. L. & Pol’y 237, 248 (2014)

[xiv] Id.

[xv] Id.

[xvi] Mike Koshmrl, Hunting Advocate Sues to Stop ATV and Mountain Bike use in Wilderness, Jackson Hole News & Guide (2019)

[xvii] Id.

[xviii] Id.

[xix] Id.

[xx] Id.

[xxi] Id.

[xxii] Id.

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