Interior Secretary opens national parks to e-bikes

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Ed Albrite is hopeful a new directive that could allow e-bikes on the Sun Road will help his business.

Electric bikes could soon be humming up Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road.

That’s great news for Columbia Falls businessman Ed Albrite, who rents the popular bikes, with two other business partners. But a national park advocacy group is crying foul about the announcement.

On Aug. 30 Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt directed the leaders of the National Park Service to implement new policies that would allow e-bikes on roads and trails that currently allow regular bicycles. E-bikes would be prohibited in wilderness, just as regular bicycles are.

The directive identifies an e-bike as an electric bike that “is a two-or three-wheeled cycle with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts that provides propulsion assistance.”

The bikes also have to stop helping the rider if the bike is going more than 28 mph, the directive notes. Bikes that go faster do not qualify under the rules.

E-bikes have grown in popularity across the Flathead in recent years, as their pedal assist capability allows people to bike uphill and farther than they have in the past.

“Next year it will be a game-changer,” said Albrite. Albrite and his partners Sky Yelinek and Tom Moldovan run Eco Sky Rentals in Columbia Falls. They have a fleet of about 20 electric bikes they rent out for $60 for 24 hours.

Business tripled this summer, as the company also rents rafts, personal pontoons, stand up paddleboards and other equipment.

But now that e-bikes are legal, Albrite expects a surge in popularity.

“Next year it will be game on,” he said. He said he expects to sell as well as the rent the bikes, which retail for about $2,000 to $2,500, depending on options.

He says they counsel renters on etiquette, telling folks to slow down when they come up behind hikers. They also give them bear spray at no charge.

The bikes have a range of 20 to 60 miles, depending on how much one relies on the electric motor.

Albrite said he can ride a regular bike three or four miles, but he can ride an electric bike 30 or 40.

That’s the point, Bernhardt’s directive says.

“E-bikes provide a new option for people who want to ride a bicycle but might not otherwise do so because of physical fitness, age, or convenience, especially at high altitude or in hilly or strenuous terrain,” he notes.

The directive gives managers in national parks like Glacier 30 days to come up with an e-bike policy.

“The park expects to have more information about what public engagement looks like around the e-bike topic in the next few weeks. Biking is an important part of many people’s Glacier experiences, particularly in the spring and fall, and we’ve received feedback over the past few years from multiple perspectives on this potential use,” said Glacier Park spokeswoman Lauren Alley.

While it’s not opposed to e-bikes, the The National Park Conservation Association has reservations.

““The Interior Department is rushing guidance on a use they haven’t properly evaluated for potential impacts to park natural and cultural resources, visitors or wildlife. Sadly, this new policy was created behind closed doors and with no public involvement,“ said Kristen Brengel, Senior Vice President of the NPCA is a statement. “E-bikes have a place on national parks’ roads and motorized trails. But this announcement disregards well-established policies for how visitors can enjoyably and safely experience the backcountry in national parks. For generations we’ve agreed that there are some places so special that they should be protected for visitors to enjoy away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. This new policy carelessly ignores those longstanding protections for backcountry areas.”

But the directive does allow superintendents wiggle room and they can close trails and other areas to e-bikes to protect resources.

For example, Glacier already prohibits bicycles on all but a few trails and closed roads in the winter are also managed as trails and bicycles are not allowed.

The Sun Road also has bicycle restrictions when it’s opened to motor vehicles. But most folks bike the road when it’s closed to cars in the spring, when plows first start clearing it of snow.

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