Equestrians Sue Tahoe Nat’l Forest over Class 1 eMTB Access on Non-motorized Trails

Tahoe Rim Trail. photo: Greg Heil.

Earlier this year we reported that the Tahoe National Forest had authorized the use of Class 1 eMTBs on non-motorized trails in certain areas. It wasn’t an official policy change, nor was it a blanket opening.

At the time, when we interviewed a representative from the USFS about the change, he was extremely careful with his word choice around the authorization of eMTBs in the national forest.

“There really was no decision, and I’m saying decision with a capital D,” said Public Affairs Officer Joe Flannery. “We didn’t trigger NEPA and NEPA didn’t need to be triggered.”

NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act, mandates that land management agencies conduct environmental impact statements and assessments before implementing a decision to ensure that the surrounding environment won’t be negatively impacted by a new policy.

Flannery also elaborated that after the classification system for eMTBs was more easily understood by the Tahoe National Forest, they could confidently manage class 1 eMTBs on non-motorized trails.

“It’s not really a function of sustainability, it’s in the self-propelled nature. I’m not calling it non-motorized equipment. I’m just saying that with the class 1, pedal-assisted criteria, we can manage it on non-motorized trails.”

As is the case when it comes to any decision about e-bikes, people were mad. In many cases, mountain bikers themselves form the greatest resistance to the eMTB movement, but this time there is a group even more opposed to eMTB access on non-motorized trails: equestrians.

“Backcountry trail and forest groups in California joined together to challenge the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to allow motorized bikes to operate on non-motorized trails in the Tahoe National Forest,” says the Western Environmental Law Center in a statement released last month.

Those trail and forest groups are comprised of three equestrian advocacy groups, the Gold Country Trails Council, the Back Country Horsemen of California, and the Back Country Horsemen of America.

“The Forest Service cannot simply disregard its own rules when it comes to allowing electric bikes on non-motorized trails on the Tahoe National Forest,” said Susan Jane Brown, attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. “With this lawsuit, we seek to compel the agency to follow those rules.”

The group is taking contention with the Forest Service’s decision on two fronts. First, they argue the agency did not conduct an environmental assessment or follow NEPA procedures when they allowed eMTBs on non-motorized trails. Then, there’s also the whole issue of allowing motors on non-motorized trails.

“Allowing motorized bicycles on non-motorized trails meant for hikers, backpackers, and equestrians poses risks and conflicts for the many visitors who enjoy that type of quiet recreation,” said Helen Harvey, president of the Gold Country Trails Council in Nevada County. 

While some could easily debate with Harvey about the fact that eMTBs are not loud, or are even distinguishable from non-motorized bikes by the majority of trail users, the groups want nothing to do with them. Some are also offended that there wasn’t any public scoping for the decision either.

“We are disappointed that the rules for using trails in this wonderful natural area were changed behind closed doors without public participation,” added Randy Hackbarth. “This is particularly disappointing for our members who are proud of the stewardship and care they bring to the non-motorized trails on public lands.”

This resistance comes at a time when eMTBs have been on a streak of access victories, including the most recent announcement from the Secretary of Interior that the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management need to implement a new plan to allow all classes of eMTBs on any trail that non-motorized bicycles are allowed.

The hope of the plaintiffs is that the court will find that the Forest Service violated their travel management plan by allowing e-bikes on non-motorized trails, and violated NEPA. They also would like e-bikes to be prohibited again from non-motorized trails and remove the e-bike trail recommendations from the Tahoe National Forest website.

As of now, there is no indication that these issues will be settled anytime soon.

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