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E-bikes on Lake Tahoe forest trails? Biking and hiking purists aren't happy

Sacramento Bee logoSacramento Bee 5/11/2021 Ryan Sabalow, The Sacramento Bee

May 11—Lynn Brown and her husband, Steve, ride bikes in the spectacular mountains around their home on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe. But it's not as easy as it used to be now that they've reached retirement age.

So about a year ago, the Browns bought a pair of e-bikes, which have small electric motors that assist them when they pedal. The bikes have allowed them to go on rides without pummeling their bodies during hard climbs.

"Having an e-bike with bad knees, for me, it's changed my life totally," said Lynn Brown, who's 65 and a former local retail shop owner. "I work, work, work, worked my whole life. And then all of a sudden, we get older and you want to enjoy life. ... Riding bikes around Tahoe, especially for climbing, is not easy."

The Browns are thrilled the U.S. Forest Service plans to open about a quarter of its "non motorized" trails around Lake Tahoe to "Class 1" e-bike usage. Those trails, about 87 miles worth, currently allow only hiking, horseback riding and biking.

Class 1 e-bikes don't have a throttle like a motorcycle; they only kick on while a rider is peddling. Their motors are designed to shut off when the bike reaches 20 mph. The bikes can travel downhill as fast as a regular bike.

The plan has opened a rift among trail lovers over the future of one of the nation's most popular public forests. Opponents argue the plan will send hordes of inexperienced riders into woods that are already crowded with people fleeing urban spaces for the Tahoe Basin forests.

To them, the influx of inexperienced e-bike riders will mean more violations of trail etiquette, more riders needing rescuing in the backcountry, more spooked horses, and more damage to the terrain.

The serenity that comes with fewer people in the deep woods will be lost, they say.

"Presently, the sheer beauty about the sport of mountain biking is that so few people are willing to make the effort to pedal," said Zephyr Cove resident Mark Treiber on the Facebook group, "I Love Lake Tahoe." "It only takes an hour on a bike to get away from the majority of people. Separating the wheat from the chaff. It's muscle power."

Treiber's remarks were in response to a question The Sacramento Bee posted to the Facebook group about the Forest Service's proposed e-bike expansion. Within hours, it generated dozens of impassioned comments.

The controversy over the Forest Service's proposal in Tahoe likely signals what's to come at many of the country's 154 national forests, which manage around 150,000 miles of trails. There are 18 national forests in California including the Tahoe and Eldorado in the Sacramento area and the Cleveland and Angeles forests in Southern California.

Last fall, the national forest system solicited input on a proposal that would set "guidance and criteria for designating e-bike use" on roads and trails on Forest Service lands.

"The bikes expand recreational opportunities for many people, particularly the elderly and disabled, enabling them to enjoy the outdoors and associated health benefits," the agency said.

The Tahoe Basin Management Unit's plan is widely considered to be a national test case in how the managers of heavily trafficked national forests and other public lands balance the surge of interest in the increasingly popular e-bike technology. Currently, the Forest Service considers e-bikes a motorized vehicle akin to an ATV or a motorcycle, limiting their use to forest roads and off-highway vehicle trails.

E-bike use expands in the U.S.

Modern e-bikes have been around since the 1990s and have become common in Europe and China. They have exploded in popularity in the U.S. in the past few years, due in part to the widespread use of e-bikes in urban areas through app-based ride-sharing programs like Uber's Jump bike system in Sacramento. Bike shops are selling road and mountain e-bikes for prices that range anywhere from $600 to more than $8,000. Sellers say sales have skyrocketed during the pandemic as more people seek outdoor activities away from groups of people.

Under California's regulations, Class 2 e-bikes have a throttle, but can't assist the rider over 20 mph. Class 3 e-bikes operate similarly to pedal-operated Class 1 bikes, though they're equipped with a speedometer and can assist at speeds of up to 28 mph instead of 20, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

The Tahoe Basin isn't the first local forest to begin to address the e-bike issue.

Earlier this year, the Tahoe National Forest, headquartered in Nevada City, opened up 35.5 miles of its 682 miles of non-motorized trails to Class 1 e-bikes — but not before the agency agreed to settle a 2019 federal lawsuit brought by horse-riding groups and environmentalists opposed to the forest allowing e-bikes on trails without first conducting an environmental review and public comment period required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Using the experience on the Tahoe as a guide, a nearly identical planning process is underway in the Forest Service's Tahoe Basin Management Unit. Officials hope to have final approval by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the Tahoe Basin Management Unit has so far received more than 500 comments in response to the proposal, both for and against expanding e-bike access, said Jacob Quinn, a forest engineering technician who's leading the planning process.

As it stands, the proposal would open up 87 miles of the Tahoe Basin's 375 miles of non-motorized trails to Class 1 e-bikes. The plan also calls for opening up another 23 miles of new trails that would be e-bike accessible.

Quinn said the plan attempts to strike a balance between the people who really want to see e-bikes allowed everywhere with those who'd prefer they're not allowed anywhere.

At the same time, the plan provides a chance to educate people right now about where e-bikes are allowed, Quinn said.

"When someone goes to a bike shop and purchases an e-bike, there's not really an education component at that point of sale about where these things are allowed to be," Quinn said. "There's definitely a big education piece with this project, where we're just trying to teach the public what the current rules are."

Pushback and praise for e-bikes

Horse riders are among the groups most vocally opposed to allowing e-bikes into the woods.

They say regular mountain bike riders are prone to spooking their horses on trails. Horses get skittish and bucky if they think a fast-moving biker is a strange predator approaching to attack.

Kim Dalbol, the past president of the Truckee Donner Horsemen, a local trail riding association, fears e-bikes are going to make these sorts of trail conflicts even more common.

"There are a lot of people out there, and there is a lot of feeling that the places where horses can be ridden safely are getting fewer and fewer," she said.

Dalbol isn't opposed to e-bikes on principle; she may even buy one herself, but she said she thinks they shouldn't necessarily be on the same trails with "a 1,200-pound animal that's scared by a mouse."

But e-bike advocates say Class 1 bikes aren't any more dangerous than a regular mountain bike. And they argue the opportunity to get more people in the woods is very much in the spirit of allowing public access to the nation's wild places in the first place.

"People are getting out and riding their goddamn bikes. Like how is that bad?" said Brain Cunningham, an e-bike aficionado from Truckee area.

Some e-bike fans likened the pushback to how skiers at first argued that snowboarders didn't belong on the slopes when that downhill snow sport similarly exploded in popularity in the 1980s and 90s.

Now, snowboarders and skiers ride the same chair lifts together, and it's no big deal, they say.

"It's gonna be the same thing," said Mike Majors, the owner of The Electric Bike Shop in Sacramento. "Everyone's gonna come around. It's just people are snobs, you know?


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