Thursday, March 7, 2019

Dave Gibson: E-Bikes Are Not For The Forest Preserve

bicycling on a Wild Forest corridor near the Cedar RiverJack 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).


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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

32 Responses

  1. Chris says:

    Allowing any form of “stored energy” mechanics into these areas is opening a Pandora’s Box of unintended consequences that is pretty obvious to see, even at this early stage of their technological development. It’s not hard to imagine what these bikes will become in just a few years.

    10x what this articles says about them… unlimited speed, internal gearing, no-throttle, throttles, suspension that will take you up stairs and over waterbars…. see you at the summit!

  2. Boreas says:

    One might well ask, who is to stop anyone from using Class 1 eBikes now? Unless you are riding them where someone might blow you in to the DEC, who is to know? It isn’t like there is a huge, obvious engine between your legs. Many people wouldn’t even notice it was an eBike. Unless you happen to pass a Ranger (not very likely) who is on the lookout for them, who would ever know? Would there even be a fine if you were caught, or just a warning? Interesting topic.

    • S Bailey says:

      Generally obvious in the presence and size of the battery, as well as a larger frame design at the crank (bottom bracket) where the motor and interface with the crank is located.

      As I understand it, harder to spot a Class 2 which has a throttle. That’s looks a lot like some twist shifters for mechanically geared bikes, thus the can of worms problem.

      • Boreas says:

        I guess my main point is that I don’t see Rangers putting a lot of effort into patrolling for eBikes of any sort, given what they already have on their plate.

  3. James Bullard says:

    As I mentioned in response to Jack’s original article, I did some research and unless the legislature and DOT have acted since then, e-bikes of any type are currently illegal anywhere in NY outside of NYC which has decided to allow them. You can use them on your own land of course but not on any public road or trail.

    Aside from that, thinking ahead to when the state finally does get its act together and decide on the status of e-bikes, if we are going to ban class 1 bikes which use stated energy to augment the rider’s muscle power perhaps, in the interest of defending symbolic values, we should ban multi-geared bikes too. Make people go back to single speed bikes with cruiser brakes.

    And yes you can easily tell the difference between a class 1 e-bike and a class 2 e-bike. The latter has a throttle lever on the handlebars next to or incorporated in the grip. The former does not.

    • Dan says:

      Chances are when/if the state decides on E-bikes you will likely have to at least register them similar to a boat powered by an electric trolling motor. Insurance could be another factor for taking them on the road, similar to a mo-ped.

      Don’t be in a hurry. The state can’t figure out what to do with registering UTVs and are missing out on some serious $$$.

      My friend has an E-bike that he uses for elk hunting in Colorado. He’s in his 70s and rides it up mountains that his son climbs. I tried it out, and actually liked it. Although I have no use for one myself.

    • S Bailey says:

      Can YOU tell, without looking closely and not being a cycling enthusiast, the difference between a GripShift mechanical twist shifter and a throttle ?. I’ve been cycling for 30 years and would know the difference but maybe not at a glance. That’s a very fine line to cross over from Class 1 to Class 2 and as stated by others, there’s no possibility any LEO is going to be enforcing this.

      A scenario I have trouble with and that is not ADK related is I actually have no issue with a person desiring exercise to be riding a Class 1 E-Bike on a designated bike path or boardwalk, such as the Jones Beach Bike Path, near where I live and where they only recently allowed bikes on the boardwalk year round. Right now the only method for a LEO/seasonal Ranger to tell the difference between a regular bike and an e-bike is the large battery on the frame that is required. If you open up paths, trails and boardwalks to Class 1, there is zero chance these rangers are going to be able to enforce no class 2 bikes. And we are thus headed down the slope. The only real answer is no e-bikes and I’m sorry for those who want to use them.

  4. Ed Zahniser says:

    Gibson makes a good historical and personal answer to the continuing press for mechanized use on Forest Preserve wilderness — as well as on national designated wilderness areas. As Aldo Leopold wrote, wilderness recreation has great contrast value to everyday life, a contrast value must be preserved.

  5. Joe Hansen says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Gibson, just because an older person can no longer access areas that they once could is no reason to degrade the wilderness aesthetic. Take comfort in the wildness of places even if you are not physically present. I’ll never climb Denali but I don’t want a tram built to the top.
    As far as ebikes, they are a great idea for transportation in cities and for helping older people with increased mobility. Just not in wilderness areas.

    • Boreas says:


      There is virtually no “wilderness aesthetic” anywhere a mountain bike is currently allowed in the Park. These are the only areas Class 1 ebikes would likely be allowed anyway. If one of these bikes passed someone on a road or trail mixed with other mountain bikes, I doubt anyone would notice. It has even been argued that trail erosion is less because of a more constant application of torque to the rear wheel when ascending a steeper slope.

      • Joe Hansen says:

        Boreas, I used wilderness with a smal w. I have mountain biked many Wild Forest and easement lands that were plenty wild and offered quite a bit of solitude. If you have to walk your bike up a hill or take it slower because of age so be it. It is recreation after all not some life or death race.

        • Boreas says:


          I get your points. In my view, “plenty wild” and wilderness aren’t the same thing. Bike trails, paths, and logging roads are not associated with a “wilderness aesthetic” in anyone’s view. No one is suggesting the use of ebikes or ANY bikes in a wilderness setting. The ebikes we are talking about, when used on these particular thoroughfares, are no more dangerous to the Forest Preserve than multi-speed mountain bikes. Both allow you to use a bike on varied terrain with less effort. The addition of gearing and these emotors only increases the number of users in non-wilderness settings. If this is the basis of the resistance to allow these devices, then I believe we need to revisit the legality of snowmobiles and bikes of all types in the FP – highly unlikely at this point.

          The case for “no motors” in the FP was lost a long time ago with the inclusion of snowmobiles as an allowed activity. Trails were created and usership encouraged. Same for the case for allowing and encouraging bicycles. Why were these conveyances allowed at all?? Simply to allow more access to the FP, thus increasing tourism and theoretically boosting the local economies. Realistically, are Class 1 ebikes a serious threat to the FP if they are allowed no more access than a mountain bike? People using ebikes often STILL have to walk up steeper slopes. But if the addition of an innocuous motor allows slightly more access to anyone (not just the old and infirm) in 4 seasons and on more trails, exactly what is the downside? I can ride a snowmobile down a snowmobile trail in winter. I can ride a fat bike on the same trail. But adding an innocuous, silent, non-polluting motor on the fat bike makes it illegal – while being passed by snowmobilers at 40 mph? Where is the common sense in that?

          A simple example is the Boreas Ponds access wars. Existing roads and trails set the scene for allowing motors deep into the interior of the parcel. From the new auto parking barriers near the ponds, “bicycles” are allowed on the existing roads and some trails. If the desire to increase access to the parcel includes snowmobiles and autos, should Class 1 ebikes be excluded? Should electric-powered wheelchairs also be excluded on these same roads? Ultimately, taxpayers need to decide their priorities WRT tourism and backcountry access. I think we all know the current state administration’s thoughts on this. This debate is likely to heat up even more in the future.

          Good discussion!!

  6. James Bullard says:

    Chris says, “Allowing any form of “stored energy” mechanics into these areas is opening a Pandora’s Box of unintended consequences that is pretty obvious to see, even at this early stage of their technological development.”
    I assume then that under that dictate many prosthetic legs and arms would be included in the prohibition since they contain computer-controlled electric motors. Or do we make an exception for motors that are semi-attached to the body?
    My point being, that this question is not so simple as dictating “NO MOTORS”. I think the actual effect of a given technology on the environment (not to include the delicate feelings of some purists) needs to be considered and balanced against access to what is public land.

    • S Bailey says:

      Good point.

      Possibly the criteria would be a certifiable disability that sees the person using a motor assist function that has no greater capability then available under human muscle power alone. Thus eliminating Class 2 bikes as example, that might provide for more horsepower than human powered. But I think the general consensus is to allow that, the rub is in the enforcement.

      It’s going to come down to a similar type of enforcement to folks walking with no snow shoes on x-country ski and snowshoe trails. Possible a hefty fine for using a throttle equipped Class 2 where not allowed.

      • Freethedacks says:

        Hey, your breakfast of pancakes and sausage is a form of “stored energy” too. Clearly humans are the real problem here…too many young energetic ones with an ample breakfast in their gut, ready and able to trample all over the sacred wilderness. Old farts may have had a good breakfast, but would rather just chill in the rocker on the camp porch. It is high time, then, we impose the “force of law” upon these young whippersnappers, to ban their peak bagging forays that are ruining an otherwise pristine wilderness. Fines and fees, better yet, impose hefty jail terms for these cretins. Our Adirondack jails are losing population, and we all know how important they are for local jobs.
        I’m surprised no one has of yet proposed a wall to be built around these sacred lands, so as to keep out these young and athletic aspiring 46ers. Access to the wilderness will be only through a select few gated entrances, and only for those with proper validated permits – having taken the approved course on wilderness history and etiquette.

        Build the wall! Just do it, so we can Make the Adirondacks Great again!

        • James Bullard says:

          Actually, I recall such an idea being proposed about 30 years ago. Some wilderness purists suggested that all evidence of humans should be removed from the park, a fence built around it and allow nature to commune with herself. Needless to say, it wasn’t a very popular idea.

  7. Heidi Plumley says:

    You really should be worried about the local economy instead of E-Bikes.

  8. TRAILOGRE says:

    And……if you remove the weight of the motor
    You wouldn’t need a motor……to overcome the weight of the motor

    NO MOTORS. .

  9. rlstolz says:

    Muddying the waters of what a motor might be is shortsighted. They are clearly defined and a well-established standard. I am in my 60’s and, like Jack, I find myself less able to keep up than I could in the past. I move more slowly, like most older folks. As a result I travel shorter distances, at slower speeds, but I see more. It is a change imposed by aging but it’s also an opportunity to enjoy wild places in a different way. Going faster, or with less effort, is in no way superior to a slower pace; it’s just different. And it’s not something we are entitled to.

    Altering standards, or the environment, is antithetical to the very notion of wilderness and to the park itself. Rationalizing motors and various access “improvements” dilutes the value of wilderness and wilderness is what distinguishes the Adirondacks more so than anything else. It is also the most important economic asset the area has. There are plenty of places where one can recreate in less wild environments. Why would we dumb down this place and remove the uniqueness in the process? It makes no sense economically. Wilderness is inconvenient by design and that’s the whole point. Motors are a definitive standard and they should remain that way.

    If you want to recreate with a motor (and I do enjoy that too) do it in a place where motorized recreation is not at odds with wilderness. You have abundant options nearby.

  10. Hope says:

    I do not believe that anyone is proposing that e-bikes be allowed in Wilderness designated areas. So the rub is that e-bikes shouldn’t be allowed in Wild Forest Areas even though autos and snowmobiles are? There is no reason that e-bikes should be banned from trails and seasonal roads that are built for other motorized or bicycling use. That what UMPs are for, to determine where and what is appropriate for the terrain. Trying blanket ban e-bikes from the FP is not the answer. I imagine there has already been e-bikes on several snowmobile trails this winter not to mention other FP roads this past fall. I just had a conversation with a friend who just purchased a pair of e-bikes for his family to use while camping at remote but designated camping spot that they can drive their camper to. They are excited to be able to ride the seasonal roads in the area. And really, pretty much no one likes to walk their bike uphill. If you want to walk then take a hike. Lots of places to do that.

  11. James Bullard says:

    Again, no one is proposing the use of e-bikes in wilderness areas. What I hear being said is that in terms of pollution (air and noise) a class 1 e-bike has no more negative environmental impact than a multi-geared mountain bike. The measure by which something should be allowed is its environmental impact, not the technology involved.

  12. Charlie S says:

    Heidi Plumley says: “What about the local economy??”

    Always about economy to some. Come hell or high water…economy. Therein the problem lies!

    • JohnL says:

      You gotta live Charlie. You may be retired but most of the good people of the North Country aren’t. As repugnant as it is to you, they have to make a living at something besides looking at the beautiful scenery.

      • Charlie S says:

        I work JohnL. My point is…It’s always about economy screw all things else because nothing comes before economy. It’s just the way we are. When the population doubles, after yours and mine bodies are moldering in the dust, when all of those people are going to need jobs…what then? Take away more of the little that’s left? Ere long they’ll be nothing left, no silent havens, no unpolluted waters, no sanity….. Economy first!

    • James Bullard says:

      And it is always about wilderness to others, even though no one is suggesting allowing e-bikes in wilderness areas.

  13. S Bailey says:

    I spotted 2 Class-2 e-bikes heading onto the Bethpage State Park (NY) mt. bike/hiking trails today. Big batteries, big motors, if I hadn’t seen the pedals I would have mistaken them for gas powered dirt motorcycles.

    One rider had a nice mud racing stripe up his ass and jacket, so maybe using a touch too much throttle in the hills. I had just done a mt. bike loop, conditions were soft but mostly dry, pretty good for a human powered bike, but I could see that these guys were likely making a bit of a mess. It is as BTW, the local mountain bike club – CLIMB that A) Got permission to build the trail system, B) Does all the maintenance.

    1) E-Bikes are illegal to ride on roads or paths in NY State. 2) E-Bikes are illegal to ride in NY State Parks. 3) E-bikes are illegal to ride on any trails, paved or dirt in NY State.

    So ask me if I think e-bikes are a good thing.

  14. E-bikes fee into the Adirondacks - SPORT NEWS says:

    […] definition of a Elegance 1 e-bike. The plan says not anything concerning the different categories. If the state had been to open up the wooded area keep to e-bikes, they most certainly can be of the Elegance 1 […]

  15. Anthony Hanson says:

    David. I really wish you would have started this argument with a resounding YES for using them on the roads. It is currently illegal, and I think that is the main argument in the article you are replying to. The idea that we allow them on paths, I agree, but the way you worded your headline says No in general, and you have a lot of content to read before you realize you think they could be on the roads. I have no car and I am looking at getting a kit for my bike. I rode all year in my home state of MN, but that has not been viable for me here because of the hills. Being able to ride an ebike would change that, but I’m a stickler for following rules.

  16. Steve Shea says:

    NY has to be the most backwards state in the US with regards to transportation law, where a means of transport that is almost completely quiet and exceeds 500 miles per gallon in fuel efficiency is made illegal while incredibly wasteful internal combustion passenger vehicles are considered both legal and respectable . The situation should be reversed in any sane society. The cars should be illegal if are going to pick just one to ban.

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