By David Peterson, Ozark Society Past President

Until recently, e-bikes were only authorized on legal, motorized trails and roads on the Ouachita and Ozark-St. Francis National Forests. Last year, in response to rapidly increased e-bike usage everywhere, the USFS reversed this policy and requested that forest managers develop a framework “to determine if e-bike use will be designated on select trails.”

In response, forest supervisors in Arkansas proposed an “appropriate environmental analysis and … opportunity for public engagement” for three current bike trails under Forest Service supervision: the Womble Trail on the Ouachita National Forest (51 miles), the Syllamo Mountain Bike Trail (38 miles), and the Buffalo River Headwaters bike trail (35 miles).

Although there are potential safety issues and environmental concerns with e-bikes, we responded with support of the proposal but with qualification.

Here is a 19- mile bike trail loop in the headwaters – the Buffalo River starts in the upper left-hand corner

Support: It is clear that e-bikes provide an enjoyable way to visit our national forests, and expand the potential ridership to those with physical limitations.

Qualification: We asked that e-bikes be limited to class I (pedal assist with maximum speed of 20 mph), and that the Buffalo River Headwaters bike trail not be included in the study.

Our concern for the headwaters focused on preserving water quality and potential overuse. The headwaters are only 12 square miles, and the current bike trail system is 35 miles. But there is an immediate proposed addition to 53 miles, and in the future, to 100+ miles. There is also an ambition for additional access points with attendant access road construction.

Good News: On October 30, 2023 the USFS announced a 30-day comment period to designate two existing non-motorized trails for use by electric bikes – the Womble and Syllamo Trails, but not the Buffalo. As of November 28, the comment period is closed and we can assume that the Forrest Service decision will largely stand. This is a win-win, expanded biking opportunity, and a study on the impact of e-bikes on two trails other than in the headwaters.