When Mark Schlegel started volunteering about 15 years ago to repair trails on Fort Ord National Monument, he used a mountain bike with a trailer to carry the tools he needs, which weigh around 100 pounds. A few years ago, prostate cancer struck. Treatment sapped his energy – he lost his “mojo,” as he puts it – and he had to stop volunteering. Then the retired landscaper and volunteer Carmel Valley firefighter and EMT discovered e-mountain bikes, or eMTBs.
“I was pretty unhappy, pretty depressed and then these e-bikes came along and I said, ‘Hallelujah! I can ride again,’” says Schlegel, now 70 and cancer-free. The extra power boost got him back on the trails. The bikes use a removable, rechargeable battery pack that powers an electric motor meant to augment – not replace – the rider’s own pedal power. The assistance helps riders like Schlegel and others with joint, back and other physical issues who cannot use, or struggle to use, regular bikes.
Unbeknownst to Schlegel, he was breaking federal law. In 2015, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management adopted a policy banning all e-bikes on trails, reasoning that since e-bikes have motors, they are motorized vehicles. The policy is consistent with other federal agencies like the National Park Service. Schlegel says he saw signs indicating no motorized vehicles were allowed on Fort Ord trails, but assumed they meant gas-powered vehicles like motorcycles.
Despite the blanket ban, not all BLM lands were actively enforcing it. As the popularity and availability of e-bikes started to grow, more federal land managers began publicizing the law as a prelude to enforcement, including on Fort Ord National Monument
Ben Blom, BLM’s Central Coast field manager, says the agency is now educating park visitors about the ban. Rangers are not issuing $180 citations, but at some point they will; an enforcement date has yet to be determined.
One reason given for the ban is safety, since e-bikes can go faster than traditional bikes. Collisions have happened, and in recent months there have been a handful of injuries due to e-bikes on Fort Ord, according to Park Ranger Sarah Spragg. Schlegel thinks BLM should ticket speeders or those creating safety hazards, instead of banning all e-bikes.
The BLM is grappling with fast-changing technologies in nature, like drones. When considering all the different classes of e-bikes and motorbikes available, Blom asks, “Where do we draw the line?”
Adding to Schlegel’s frustration is that e-bikes are allowed in state parks. The California State Parks website states that a policy review is ongoing, but for now e-MTBs are allowed where regular mountain bikes are allowed. Considerations are made on a trail-by-trail basis, “which we understand can be confusing to visitors,” the website states.
Schlegel also rides in Monterey County regional parks because he says he’s never seen a sign saying he can’t. However, an existing ordinance only identifies bikes that are “human powered” as acceptable on trails, meaning a broad ban on e-bikes in county parks.
Schlegel is lobbying for change at Fort Ord. He sent a letter appealing to U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Carmel Valley, in hopes that BLM will make exceptions for older people and those with disabilities. Schlegel wants to resume his volunteer work.
“I’m dedicated to doing this the rest of my life, but if you’re going to tie my hands behind my back – game over,” Schlegel says.