Motor Ahead

Where can you ride your electric bike? 

Late last summer, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt released a controversial Secretarial Order regarding electric mountain bikes (e-MTBs). Bernhardt’s order advised land managers within the Department of the Interior (DOI) to allow e-MTBs access to non-motorized trails, so long as traditional bikes had access to said trails. The order was vague in scope and timeline, and not surprisingly, it caused more confusion than clarity.

Southwest Montana mountain bikers were not immune to the confusion. Regionally, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Park Service (NPS) both manage non-motorized trails open to human-powered pedal bikes; under the order, both agencies would have to develop plans to allow e-MTBs.

After significant pushback from conservation groups, including our local mountain-bike club, the Southwest Montana Mountain Bike Association, the DOI clarified the order’s intentions, providing a timeline for any access changes and adding a crucial “only if” clause. Now e-MTBs would be given access only if local land managers issued a statement authorizing use. So far, no local managers in Montana have issued such a statement.

So, where can you ride an e-MTB? Turns out, a lot of places. Trails in the Custer-Gallatin National Forest offer the greatest opportunity to recreate by e-MTB. The Forest Service considers e-MTBs motorized (probably because of their electric motors), so all trails currently open to motorized access are open to e-MTBs. Think Middle Cottonwood, Truman Gulch, Corbly, Johnson Canyon, Emerald Lake, and Hyalite Creek, to name a few. E-MTBs must abide by all timeshare and seasonal closures, but that’s a lot of accessible singletrack close to home. Trails closed to motorized access—Stone Creek, Sypes, the M, South Cottonwood, Leverich, and others—are also closed to e-MTBs. Pretty straightforward.

On BLM land, e-MTBs are not allowed at places like Copper City, which was designed as a non-motorized system. This includes e-MTBs of all classes, of which there are three. BLM trails at Revenue Flats, Pipestone, and closer to Helena are open to e-MTBs and offer excellent early-season opportunities.

So, where can you ride an e-MTB? Turns out, a lot of places.

In town, all GVLT trails are currently closed to e-MTBs. This includes commuter electric-bike models. The City of Bozeman manages these trails and considers e-bikes motor vehicles, much like other land-management agencies do. Therefore, the East Gallatin Rec Area, the Gallagator, Peets Hill, Sourdough, etc., are all closed to e-MTBs. Even Cherry River, which is managed by Montana FWP, is closed. This might come as a surprise to some Bozemanites, but following the motor-equals-motorized equation, it makes sense.

As e-MTB popularity continues to grow, land agencies will likely be forced to develop new management policies. These policies should reflect local realities and take into account environmental and social impacts. They shouldn’t be influenced by poorly informed top-down decision-making. E-MTBs, like most forms of recreation, have a place on our public lands. For now, that place is on motorized trails.

David Tucker is the outreach manager for the Southwest Montana Mountain Bike Association.