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Making a case for e-MTB acceptance

Published July 15, 2022
Surrounded by restrictive USFS lands, a North Carolina trail system welcomes e-bikes.

A version of this article ran in the July issue of Bicycle Retailer & Industry News.

CHEROKEE, N.C. (BRAIN) — E-bike access on non-motorized trails might be a controversial topic for many land managers, but not to Jeremy Hyatt. As secretary of operations for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Hyatt has the authority to allow e-MTB access on the Fire Mountain Trail system. Hyatt spearheaded building the system on Cherokee land that's surrounded by more-restrictive National Forest land.

"I refuse to make rules for something that we don't have a problem with," Hyatt told the PeopleFor-Bikes Electric Bike Summit in May in Asheville, located about an hour east from Cherokee. "We're a sovereign nation. We are not beholden to state laws as it relates to what we do with the trails.

"We have carte blanche to make our own rules. One of those rules is that we allow e-bikes. We have had zero issues with anything (out on the trails). Anyone who discredited an e-bike has never ridden one. That's the bottom line."

And with that, Hyatt's keynote speech was interrupted with a round of applause.

The Fire Mountain Trail network celebrated its fifth year in June. It is comprised of 10½ miles of machine-built singletrack in the Great Smoky Mountains that is also open to the public for other recreational activities. Trails were built at a cost of about $400,000 from the gaming tribe's capital improvement project fund. A contract was just signed, Hyatt said, for 8 to 10 miles of additional trails, an asphalt pump track, a tot track, and skills park.

Health and economic benefits

Hyatt said the current trails serve as a health resource to the Cherokees, many of whom suffer from obesity and diabetes. The trails also have proven to be an economic driver attracting visitors and two businesses — a Motion Makers Bicycle Shop location and Bryson City Outdoors — opening.

"And it's not insignificant," said Hyatt, who added the town hasn't done an official economic survey yet to measure a precise impact. "I think we figured out that during some of the busier months, we're looking at $100,000 worth of revenue, and I'm talking about $100,000 of spending in Cherokee for that month, just for, say, 500 cyclists that are coming into town."

Motion Makers, which opened its Cherokee location in 2018, rents e-MTBs. The shop has seen rental numbers increase from seven in 2018 to 122 last year. "I will say that many people come and rent those bikes because the trail system allows it, and we have them available to rent," said owner Kent Cranford. "Jeremy has done a great job, and he still has lots of plans that are just amazing. Since (Western North Carolina) only has a few areas that are legal to ride an e-bike, these trails are very important for both consumers as a legal access point and for bike shops to be able to send customers to a place that is fun and legal and free."

Getting additional trail access on U.S. Forest Service lands will be an ongoing process, said Debbie Caffin, USFS Southern Region trail program leader, who also attended the summit.

"We envision more trails being open for e-MTBs," Caffin said. She said land managers are having conversations with users about existing trail systems that could be candidates for e-MTB access.

"It will take a little time, as we have to go through the Travel Management process (identifying what's environmentally and financially sustainable while meeting public needs). The great thing right now is we have many riding opportunities already open to e-MTBs, just many are not the singletrack, purpose-built experience some users are seeking."

Caffin said the Fire Mountain Trail system could be a test case for the USFS.

"Since they are already leading out, any information and data we can glean from their experiences certainly helps. Additionally, some state parks are allowing e-MTBs as well. All this information can be used as we go through the Travel Management process."

A longtime advocate organization for increased e-bike access, PeopleForBikes is speaking with "multiple attendees" from the summit to design and implement a pilot study in the region, using Fire Mountain as the model for how to introduce e-MTBs to non-motorized trails, said Ash Lovell, PeopleForBikes' electric bicycle policy & campaign director.

"I'm committed to making sure that the Forest Service is not averse to e-bikes," Hyatt said. "It seems like there's already a negative thought process as it relates to e-bikes. I'm de facto fighting that."

Allowing e-MTBs on non-motorized trails has sparked lawsuits by some conservation groups against the USFS and National Park Service. E-MTB opponents charge that "heavier, fast-moving e-bikes" negatively impact hikers, traditional bicyclists, horseback riders, and wildlife on backcountry trails, and can "damage unpaved trails from heavy e-bike use."

In March, the USFS finalized e-bike guidance for local land managers considering expanding access on trails and grasslands. Although e-bikes are still classified by the Forest Service as motor vehicles, land managers now can recategorize trails from non-motorized to motorized to allow access.

Since the USFS completed the guidance, Caffin said work is continuing to open three trails in Arkansas' Ozark and Ouachita National Forests to e-MTBs through the Travel Management process. She expects the process to be completed and a decision made early next year.
In May, a federal judge ruled that the NPS could continue to allow e-bikes on non-motorized trails but needed to conduct an environmental review and public comment period to measure their impact on park resources and other users.

Industry shows support of trail access

Bob Burns, Trek Bicycle's global advocacy director who attended the summit, said Fire Mountain shows e-MTBs can exist on non-motorized trails without detriment.
"Importantly, trails like Fire Mountain demonstrate that e-MTBs are bicycles, too, and do not have an adverse impact on the trails themselves or the experience of the overall trail-user community," Burns said.

Larry Pizzi is hopeful. Pizzi, the chief commercial officer of Alta Cycling Group, said the outcomes from environmental and social impact studies could demonstrate to land managers that Class 1 e-MTBs (20 mph maximum pedal assist) "can live in harmony and not negatively impact trails and other trail users.

"As an industry, we need to take advantage of the opportunity that Jeremy and the Cherokee community is extending for mutual benefit," said Pizzi, adding Fire Mountain could be the ideal venue to launch and demo the Diamondback e-MTB line — an Alta Cycling Group brand — next year.

Youngblood Haske, owner of Youngblood Bicycles in Asheville, estimated that e-MTBs are about 7% of his sales "with huge potential growth."
Still, he's pessimistic about the USFS opening some non-motorized trails to e-bikes.
"As wonderful as (Hyatt's) experience with e-bikes has been, I don't think it will have much effect on the National Forest Service," said Haske, who also attended the summit. "Talking to them is like talking to a brick wall. They have classified e-bikes as motorized and banned them from non-motorized trails."
Opening more access would be helped by the industry being more proactive in educating its consumers on proper trail etiquette and where they can ride legally, Caffin said.

"Positive interactions between users can help open the doors for additional shared-use trails through mutual understanding and partnerships. Additionally, continuing to encourage e-MTB owners about the importance of volunteering and helping all land managers maintain the trail systems. Riding legally is the fastest path to more opportunity. Organizations can spend time trying to fix illegally created trails or they can spend time working to expand legal riding opportunities. We much prefer to be working together on expanded great-riding trails."

The Fire Mountain Trail network celebrated its fifth year in June.
Topics associated with this article: Electric bike, From the Magazine

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