E-bikes are not currently allowed on mountain bike trails in the National Forests, this may change soon as the Ozark-Saint Francis and Ouachita National Forests work together to assess what allowing them will mean as far as environmental and social impact.
Over a Year to Get Here
In March of 2022, the US Forest Service issued guidance on the use of e-bikes on trails in National Forests, “…changes were made to Forest Service Manual 7700 Travel Management – Zero Code and to 7710 Travel Management – Travel Planning. The directives add a definition of e-bikes as a class of motor vehicle and establishes criteria for consideration in designating roads, trails, and areas for e-bike use that are not currently designated for motor vehicle use, among other changes.”1
This allowed the Ouachita and Ozark-Saint Francis National Forest administrations to begin an assessment with, “The purpose of the assessment is to determine if allowing e-bikes on forest trails could have significant impacts on the environment. The general criteria for review involves looking at natural and cultural resources, public safety, recreation opportunities, access needs, use conflicts, and maintenance needs.”2
The initial meeting was held virtually on May 11, 2023, where the three goals of the assessment would be, “Are the trails in question currently managed for bikes? Would e-bikes affect the trails adversely? And What class of e-bike should be allowed on the trail? It was also announced that the assessment would cover three trail systems, the Buffalo Headwaters, the Syllamo, and the Womble, all International Mountain Bicycling Association Epic Trails.3
The comment period began and in August 2022, I reported that the Ozark Society had taken a stance against allowing e-bikes on the trails at the Upper Buffalo Trails.4
While 19 months might sound like a long time, this process has been relatively quick for a Federal agency, particularly for rule changes with no national precedent.
The Latest News
Last night, I received an update from the US Forest Service on the project. One immediately noticeable change is that the Upper Buffalo Trails are no longer in consideration. I contacted Jade Ryles, Environmental Coordinator for the Ouachita National Forest. According to Ms. Ryles, there are a couple of reasons the Upper Buffalo Trails were no longer considered.
Ms. Ryles said, “We removed Upper Buffalo as part of the proposed action in response to public comment and a couple of other issues that were brought forward, including the proximity to the wild and scenic river corridor and then a non-motorized recreation management area…”
The wording in the report is as follows:
- “Minimizing conflicts between motor vehicle use [e-bikes by USFS definition are motor vehicles] and existing or proposed recreational uses of NFS lands and neighboring Federal lands.” It is deemed in the assessment that the use of e-bikes could cause adverse effects due to, “(1)…adjacent to the Upper Buffalo Wilderness, (2) passes through portions of the Buffalo National Wild and Scenic River, and (3)is primarily in MA 2.D, Upper Buffalo Dispersed Recreation Area, that establishes semi-primitive non-motorized management of activities.”
- “Additionally, several members of the public mentioned concerns directly related to allowing motorized travel in the area due to its current, primitive nature and proximity to the Upper Buffalo Wilderness. The adjacent wilderness designation does not prohibit the proposed action, but it contributes to the area’s characteristics and sensitivity to new, motorized uses.”
The other news from the assessment is that there will be another 30-day comment period which will start this weekend. Interested parties can make comments electronically until December 2, 2023, at https://cara.fs2c.usda.gov/Public//CommentInput?Project=62170. Comments can also be submitted via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or through the mail to Jade Tyles, Environmental Coordinator, 100 Reserve Street, Hot Springs, AR 71902.
As it stands, the proposal is to allow E-bikes (a determination has not been made yet on which class(es) of e-bikes would be allowed) to use the mountain bike trails at the Syllamo Trails in the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest and the Womble Trail in the Ouachita National Forest. The entire assessment is available here.
According to Ms. Ryles, “This analysis is designed to serve future needs for trail evaluations for e-bike use [in national forests] in other forests. Other forests are interested in how this analysis is structured so it can be applied nationwide.” We’ve received inquiries from Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee wondering what this analysis is looking like.”
Once the comment period is over, the Forest Service will assess these comments. This process could take anywhere from a couple of weeks to several months. At the end of that assessment, interested parties will have another 45 days to make objections. The final decision will be made after that.
1USDA Forest Service Issues E-Bike Guidance. March 31, 2022
4A Battle Brews Among Public Land Users. August 24, 2022