SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — With the rising popularity of e-bikes, the USDA Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit has released a new proposal that would build new trails and expand access on existing trails.
Forest Service officials are weeding through hundreds of comments and discovering they are split down the middle. Half the people approve, half don’t.
The Basin Wide Trails Analysis proposal aims to improve overall trail accessibility and improve user experience.
“We have proposed three new trailheads in the proposal month,” said Jacob Quinn, one of LTBMU project leads. “Some of that is designed to address congestion at existing parking areas, but the other thing that we’re trying to do is to put public access points on public land. So discourage people parking in the back of neighborhoods to access trail systems; to actually put them on public land in appropriate locations.”
In addition to the new trailheads, the proposal would include closing some of the bigger connectivity gaps, upgrade road and trail crossings over streams and wet areas, install interpretive and directional signs, and upgrade trailhead parking areas.
One point of the proposal receiving the most attention is the expansion of e-bike access on trails.
“E-bikes are expanding in popularity really everywhere in the nation and we’ve seen really big growth in that market here in the Lake Tahoe Basin and currently the federal government considers e-bikes to be a motorized vehicle,” said Quinn. “So, right now for Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, e-bikes are only allowed on routes, roads and trails that are open to motorized use.”
This gives e-bikes two disadvantages. The first is that they are limited to the number of trails and it shortens their riding season since backroads haven’t yet been opened for the season despite the lack of snow.
This proposal would open up some additional trails to motorized use but for only Class-1 vehicles, which are e-bikes. Motorcycles and ATVs would still not be allowed on those trails.
When thinking about what trails to open, Quinn said they are considering existing traffic on the trails.
“Where we have super super high use trails, we haven’t proposed some of those be open to e-bikes because we don’t want to introduce yet another use to some of our very congested and very crowded areas,” Quinn said.
In addition, none of the Tahoe Rim Trail will be open to e-bikes.
They are trying to open a variety of terrain so both beginner and advanced riders have somewhere to ride. They are all considering trails that connect to areas managed by other land managers to create more connectivity.
Quinn said LTBMU manages 25 miles of trail that are open to e-bikes. The proposal suggests opening up an additional 120 miles. That would account for about one-third of the trails LTBMU manages.
Quinn said they’ve received over 500 public comments which are about evenly split between pro and con.
For the comments against expansion, Quinn said he got quite a few from hikers who say e-bikes impede their ability to enjoy nature.
On the flip side, Quinn said he got a lot of comments from people who are older or have been injured who say e-bikes allow them to continue accessing nature, which they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.
Many bike organizations in the area have expressed support of the proposal.
“I am in support of expanded e-bike access. I believe the current set of rules is far too confusing and difficult for people to understand,” said Pat Donahue owner of Over the Edge Bicycle Shop in South Lake Tahoe. “I think we need a simple and easy-to-understand rule that both locals and tourists can understand.”
Donahue gives the example that Corral, Incense Cedar, and Sidewinder trails are e-bike legal. However, it is very confusing that Powerline and Railroad Grade, both trails that are used to access the Corral area, are not legal.
“One could also argue to simply make everything that is MTB-legal also e-bike legal,” Donahue said. “People are simply ignoring the rules right now and you see e-bikes literally everywhere. In addition, the latest e-bike design trends are making it far more difficult to visually distinguish between e-bikes and regular bikes.”
Quinn said there is not yet enough data to show if e-bikes do more damage to trails than traditional mountain bikes. However, Donahue said if it’s proven that they don’t do more damage, he could see all trails eventually being opened to both.
The Tahoe Area Mountain Bike Association surveyed members on their thoughts of the proposal and used the feedback to shape their comments.
“Our members were split fairly evenly, both for and against e-bike expansion as well as those who were still on the fence or wanted a more gradual approach to access,” said Patrick Parsel, TAMBA trails coordinator. “We think the LTBMU presents a balanced approach by opening up most lower elevation trails to e-bikes, especially those that are frequently used by individuals to commute around town and those trails that connect with existing motorized use trails.”
“E-bike trail networks should provide intuitive connectivity to create an ease of use for riders, as well as for signage and enforcement,” Parsel continued. “We have recommended to the LTBMU that some other trails be added for e-bike use, specifically ones that would close gaps of connectivity between neighborhoods and connections to other trails that allow e-bike use, as shown on their project maps.”
Even though TRT will still be closed to e-bikes, Morgan Steel, executive director of the Tahoe Rim Trail Association, is glad the forest service is asking for feedback on the topic.
“We encourage everyone to comment on the proposal,” said Steel, saying that depending on the feedback and possible success of access expansion, they might reconsider in the future. But for now, she said they want TRT users to have a more remote backcountry experience.
“E-bike use is only going to continue to grow in the future and we want to be able to provide opportunities for these users as well as respect the remote feeling you get while riding in our higher alpine areas,” Parsel said, adding that TAMBA is in support of TRTA’s decision. “Trail networks should be able to grow and adapt to changing uses and this project presents a good first step towards this goal of catching up with an overall larger volume of trail users and evolving technologies.”
This issue is being discussed all over the basin. Tahoe National Forest recently opened 35 miles of trails to e-bikes.
“Opening non-motorized trails to Class 1 e-bikes provides more diverse recreation opportunities and this, according to District Ranger Jonathan Cook-Fisher, is one of the key missions of the Truckee Ranger District,” a press release said.
Non-motorized trails that are now open to Class 1 e-bikes include the popular Emigrant Trail, Big Chief Trail, Sawtooth Trail and the Jackass Ridge Trails.
“We saw our trail network get pushed to its limits last summer and our hope with this proposal is by bringing on more trails into the network that we can help spread users out and provide for a broader variety of trail experiences around the lake,” Parsel said.
Quinn and his team are reviewing all the comments that came in and will release an alternative proposal in April or May.
To read the proposal or to comment, visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=54566.