Jack Drury’s recent essay promoting the use of E-bikes opens with the challenge facing an older but reasonably well conditioned body attempting to keep up with younger bicycle riders.
Jack articulates well what many of us baby boomers are feeling as we take up a ski, paddle, hike, or bike with younger friends and colleagues. We think we are reasonably fit, but how to keep up? Especially, as Jack wondered, on the uphill sections?
For the peddling portion of this “keep up with our younger friends” challenge, Jack promotes the use of E-bikes which augment muscle-power with a motor assist for uphill climbing. He cites, accurately I’m sure, the wide popularity and increasing sales of E-bikes across the country particularly to the over-60 crowd.
A bike motor that runs on mechanical energy produced by our own power, spewing no polluting combustion gases in the process, sounds like a great way for older New Yorkers to enjoy bicycling for longer periods at a time, for more years, and with younger friends.
I am glad to note that Jack also states that “new recreational uses and technologies should not be allowed on Forest Preserve simply because they exist, but need to be evaluated on their own merits to see if there is both an environmental and social benefit.” As for passing the test of “conservation value,” Jack writes “E-bikes clearly pass the test because unlike internal combustion engines, they spew no gases, make no noise, and promote a healthy form of recreation.” As he says, E-bikes complement one’s own muscle power.
I sure could have used one on the pedal up to the Deer Pond parking area in the Essex Chain of Lakes Primitive area. I mostly walked my bike up that long uphill. Bikes of any type are not authorized in Wilderness or Primitive areas, but the Adirondack Park Agency amended the State Land Master Plan specifically to accommodate bicycles and mechanized maintenance of the former logging roads.
Are E-bikes right for the Forest Preserve? In his post, Jack writes that allowing them where other motorized vehicles are allowed, including snowmobiles, seems appropriate, such as conservation easements (Private Lands), old logging roads in Wild Forest (Forest Preserve) and on “multi-use snowmobile trails” (Wild Forest).
I agree with Jack that some of these places seem appropriate. However, just because they don’t pollute what we breathe or drink does not imply E-bikes have no impact on less tangible, more symbolic values many of us find essential in wild land.
I began advocating for “Forever Wild” more than thirty years ago when my wilderness mentors, who had devoted their previous 30-40 years advocating for the Forest Preserve, were retiring. These board members of mine were unable to hike, ski, or snowshoe into wilderness or wild forest as far as they once did.
Members of my board, then in their 60s (as I am now) or older would pull me aside when they learned I was in meetings debating more mechanized access. They would advise me not to give in to people clamoring for more access – usually motorized access – to the Forest Preserve because their legs no longer support them on long tramps.
“If we give in, pretty soon we won’t have a Forest Preserve,” said my board vice president. “I’m handicapped. It’s called getting old. I can’t get deep into the Forest Preserve anymore on my own two legs. But I can rest easy simply by knowing there is a non-motorized wilderness out there for younger folks to enjoy and by keeping memories of my wilderness experiences warm.”
I completely embraced that point of view, then and now, but I also admit I was a lot younger then and my older mentors thirty years ago lacked much of the technology to extend their outdoor careers – technology such as E-bikes.
Back to whether E-bikes are compatible with Wild Forest portions of the Forest Preserve – clearly, there is vast potential for future expansion of mechanical advantages in our Forest Preserve modes of recreation. Yet, more machinery in the Forest Preserve defeats one of its most important constitutional commitments – that it “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands” (Article XIV, Section 1). In the legal world, “shall” is a mandate.
Article XIV is usually thought of as a prohibition on tree cutting. It has far more scope than that. Where it impacts society most is its mandate that we restrain ourselves in wild forest/wilderness, including strict limits on the use of technology to mechanically assist our modes of travel. Article XIV mandates that wild forest land of the Forest Preserve contrast as starkly and as strictly as possible with other places in our society where we allow our mechanical technologies to dominate our lives. This is the critical contrast value of the Forest Preserve. We lose it at great cost to ourselves and our children, and theirs.
What about snowmobiles, Jack might ask me? What about all terrain bikes similarly authorized (by the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan ) in Wild Forest? These were hard-fought compromises. The door should be shut to more, as Article XIV demands restraint everywhere on the Forest Preserve.
Yet Jack’s point must be acknowledged. The snowmobiles of 1964, when DEC first committed to limit their use to designated trails (not cross-country) do not resemble today’s bigger, far more powerful machines. The mechanized groomers such bigger snowmobiles allegedly require (to extend the snowpack) were not envisioned then either. Nor were all-terrain bikes envisioned until that technology advanced and bicycling advocacy became very active. So, in 1987 all-terrain bicycling was permitted in Wild Forest areas at the discretion of the DEC on “roads legally open to the public and on state truck trails, foot trails, snowmobile trails and horse trails deemed suitable for such use as specified in individual unit management plans” (APSLMP).
E-bikes are not compliant with the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan now. Bikes are defined as “a non-motorized, human-powered, cycle designed or used for cross country travel on roads or trails.” Motor vehicles are broadly defined in the APSLMP as “ a device for transporting people…incorporating a motor or an engine of any type for propulsion and with wheels, tracks, skids, skis, air cushion or other contrivance for traveling on or adjacent to land and water or through water.” The only APSLMP authorized motor vehicle on Wild Forest trails (as opposed to roads open to public use) is a snowmobile.
The APSLMP, which has the force of law, states that with respect to Wild Forest the use of motor vehicles will be “on a limited and regulated basis that will not materially increase motorized uses that conformed to the Master Plan in 1972” and that “the relatively greater intensity of use allowed by the wild forest guidelines should not be interpreted as permitting or encouraging unlimited or unrestrained use of wild forest areas.”
The cumulative impact of motorized uses and mechanical advantages on the primitive character of the Forest Preserve has reached significant levels. Some of these were approved as amendments following public hearings and comment, others were not.
Snowmobile grooming machines, for example, are now routinely used on Wild Forest trails despite a commitment in 2000 by Governor George Pataki to amend the APSLMP to expressly allow them because he viewed them as a legal violation. His commitment, made to me and others in the snowmobile working group, was dropped. For example, all terrain bicycles were defined in 1987 for use on “unimproved roads or trails.” More recently, all-terrain was dropped by an amendment and generic bike trails were re- defined as “a marked trail, designated for travel by bicycles, located and designed to provide access in a manner causing the least effect on the local environment.” Subsequently, there have been major “improvements” to construct and maintain popular single track and other types of bike trails in Wild Forest, such as at Wilmington Wild Forest.
As Jack notes in his post, type 1 E-bikes are OK by him. Type 2, with a throttle, should not be encouraged, he says, as they more closely resemble a motor vehicle. Are our future land managers and forest rangers going to be able to rapidly distinguish if you’re using a type 1 or type 2 E-bike? No. Could the introduction of E-bikes of either type materially increase motorized uses on the Forest Preserve? Of course.
As the snowpack season shortens and more and more mechanical devices useful during the snow-free months loom as technologically feasible and popular for trail use, the time for further accommodation of mechanical assists to our Forest Preserve modes of travel and recreation should end.
As for E-bikes, types 1 or 2, embrace them, perhaps, on conservation easement lands and roads open to motor vehicle uses, but let’s not embrace them on the trails of the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve. As for keeping up with younger friends on the Forest Preserve’s trails, ask them to wait for us or you’ll surely see them later.
I turn to Aldo Leopold for an assist. In “The Land Ethic” at the close of A Sand County Almanac, Leopold writes: “Perhaps the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of a land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land. Your true modern is separated from the land by many middlemen, and by innumerable physical gadgets.”
And, elsewhere from the same book, one of my favorite lines from Leopold: “recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.”
Photo: Bicycling on a Wild Forest corridor near the Cedar River (David Gibson).