An order handed down last week from the U.S. Department of the Interior is going to be a challenge for Acadia National Park.
The order from Secretary David Bernhardt to “increase recreational opportunities through the use of electric bikes” will allow bicycles with electric motors where other types of bicycles are allowed in national parks, effective as soon as the National Park Service develops specific regulations.
E-bikes are already allowed on motor roads in Acadia. The change is a big deal here because it will allow the bikes on the park’s system of gravel carriage roads, where to date they have not been allowed.
In 1917, John D. Rockefeller Jr. met with the secretary of the interior and George B. Dorr, one of the founders of Acadia, and talked about his plans for building the carriage roads and donating them to the park, Rebecca Cole-Will, the park’s chief of resource management, told the Acadia Advisory Commission in 2017.
“The agreement between them was that the carriage roads would always be nonmotorized,” she said. “They were always intended for the experience of quiet, solitude, getting away from it all, separate from the motor road system. So, from that day on, the carriage roads have always been identified with recreational uses that are nonmotorized.”
The language of the order defines “low-speed electric bicycle” as one whose “maximum speed on a paved level surface, when powered solely by a motor ridden by an operator who weighs 170 pounds, is less than 20 miles per hour.” When the operator is pedaling, different classes of the bikes “cease to provide assistance” when the bicycle reaches a speed of either 20 or 28 miles per hour.
The carriage roads are neither paved nor level. And we already have too many cycling accidents on the carriage roads, most of them attributable to unsafe speed on downhill stretches.
A Change.org petition to “Allow e-bikes and equal access for the aging and disabled in our national parks” has circulated over the summer; at press time it had 5,712 signatures and counting. It may have helped spur the secretary to write the order.
But both the order and the petition miss a critical distinction, at least as far as Acadia is concerned: people with permanent disabilities that prohibit them from using the carriage roads without motorized assistance have been exempt from the ban on e-bikes.
Acadia’s leaders and advocates have a good track record of negotiating, when directives come from Washington that threaten to do damage here. Witness the recent entrance fee debate.
This new order seems cut and dried, and there may not be much room for adjustment. But we’re in support of a final rule that will leave some room for Acadia National Park staff to protect Rockefeller’s vision and safeguard visitor safety.