E-Bikes on Shaky Ground in National Parks Pending Environmental Review

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In May, a federal judge ruled that the National Park Service failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act when it allowed e-bikes on trails across its network in 2019.

E-bike owners can still ride on national park trails previously reserved for human-powered travel — for now.

A District of Columbia federal judge ruled that the National Park Service (NPS) can keep its existing rules in place for e-bike use on trails, but must now conduct its own environmental impact review to analyze the rules’ validity.

In his May 24 decision, U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Contreras directed the NPS to take a “hard look” at the impacts of e-bikes on trails in the 423 parks it manages nationwide. The plaintiffs called the decision a win, but it does not comprehensively deliver on their expectations.

‘Smith Directive’ Prompts Lawsuit

In 2019, P. Daniel Smith, NPS acting director at the time, issued a directive that ordered every park to treat e-bikes “in a similar manner” to traditional bicycles. That policy, called the Smith Directive, led to a “Final Rule” that now governs how the NPS treats them; as such, it allows e-bikes on trails throughout the system.

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Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), however, soon took issue with the measure. The group’s lawsuit, filed in December 2019, alleged that the rule change evaded legally required environmental reviews.

Ultimately, Contreras supported the group’s allegations. The judge’s 52-page opinion found that the Smith Directive bypassed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in its allowances.

The decision held that the NPS acted in an “arbitrary and capricious manner” when it issued the new guidelines “without requiring either an environmental assessment or more strenuous environmental impact statement examining any natural resource impacts from the decision.”

NEPA seeks to regulate national policy changes by requiring agencies to submit detailed impact statements on how their proposed changes will affect the environment. Contreras’ ruling now forces the NPS to conduct its own studies in compliance with NEPA, as well as facilitate public comment periods.

National Park E-Bike Access Safe for Now

Meanwhile, existing regulations for e-bike access in national parks will remain in place.

“[T]here is ‘at least a serious possibility that [NPS] will be able to substantiate its decision on remand,’” the decision reads. It goes on to say that the NPS’ error does not “necessarily require” it to conduct a full environmental impact statement (EIS) “as opposed to some other form of NEPA compliance. On remand, the agency will need to determine the proper level of NEPA compliance for the Final Rule, adequately document its reasoning, and provide opportunity for public input as appropriate.”

PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse said Contreras’ decision met some of his group’s expectations but fell short on others.

“[It] should be a win for Park users,” he said in a statement. “We are disappointed that [Contreras] did not block e-bike use in Parks immediately, but the battle is not over. The fact that the National Park Service sought to avoid studying the impact on park resources and visitors before opening trails to e-bikes speaks volumes about the agency’s environmental decision-making.

“In essence, the Park Service chose to leap before it looked.”

Plaintiffs Claim Lobbying Violation, but Court Denies Judgment

The decision also ruled in favor of the lawsuit’s other main substantive claim but didn’t find the grounds to offer summary judgment on it.

PEER also argued in 2019 that Smith and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) — which requires transparency to prevent secret lobbying — while discussing the rule changes.

They did so, PEER alleged, by repeatedly meeting in private with an industry-dominated advisory committee called the E-bike Partner & Agency Group during the decision process.

bernhardt smith
2018-19 acting NPS director P. Daniel Smith (left) and 2019-2021 Interior Secretary David Bernhardt (right); (photos/Wiki Commons)

Greenwire reported the committee started advising the NPS in 2017, and that the NPS never gave public notice of its meetings with the group.

The court found the claims to be true. It even agreed that the E-Bike Partner & Agency Group was an advisory committee by definition and that Smith and Bernhardt’s interaction with it constituted “a technical FACA violation.”

However, the decision ruled that the Smith Directive did not influence the NPS’ Final Rule directly enough to strike it down based on FACA.

“[T]he connection between the FACA violation and the Final Rule is too tenuous to set aside the Final Rule on the basis of the FACA violation or even to declare, as Plaintiffs request, that the violation improperly contributed to the Final Rule,” it reads. “Accordingly, the Court denies summary judgment to the Plaintiffs” on the claim.

Tumultuous Times for E-Bike Access on Public Lands

Co-plaintiffs in the suit included Wilderness Watch, Marin Conservation League, Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, Save Our Seashore, and three impacted individuals.

The decision arrives amid a shifting landscape of e-bike access on U.S. public lands. The U.S. Forest Service recently issued an e-bike-focused directive that may profoundly affect motorized versus non-motorized use on National Forest System trails.

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