The great e-bike debate
After years of discussion, it appears Durango remains divided on allowing electric bikes on natural trails.

The great e-bike debate

A biker makes her way up the final switchback to a well-deserved rest atop the Twin Buttes Trail late last year. After a trial to see how e-bikes co-exist with other trail users, the Durango City Council will make a decision on whether or not to allow e-bikes permanently on the trail system west of town./ File photo

Jonathan Romeo - 02/10/2022

After years of debate, it appears Durango remains divided on allowing electric bikes on natural trails.

“It’s a passionate topic right now, and it’s breaking my heart people feel like they’re not being heard,” Amy Schwarzbach, the natural resource manager for the City of Durango, said. “Because we are doing our best to hear everyone and strike a balance. That’s why the process isn’t overnight or knee-jerk.”

In the past decade, e-bikes have become increasingly popular, but the number of sales has soared since the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021 alone, an estimated 370,000 e-bikes were sold in the United States.

And in places where e-bikes are allowed on trails, like Jefferson County, the amount of people riding has skyrocketed.

For many, e-bikes offer a way for people with physical limitations to get back in the saddle and hit the trails. For others, e-bikes provide an easier way to get into mountain biking or to cover longer distances in less time.

But the relatively new mode of recreation presents some challenges on trails, namely concerns with over crowding, speeding and safety. Also, it’s been noted by wildlife officials that e-bikes allow more people to get deeper into the backcountry, disturbing wildlife that has few remaining places of refuge.

But the main issue at hand in Durango: e-bikes are not allowed on natural-surface trails, not uncommon for most municipalities or land management agencies. For the past couple years, the city has started conversations on what, if any, trails should be open to e-bikes. A test period on the Twin Buttes trail system, a popular route mostly used by mountain bikers, just ended, forcing the next passionate round of conversations among very dedicated user groups.

But no decision is near.

“From the outside looking in, it’s easy to think of e-bikes as a simple yes or no question,” Anthony Savastano, who serves on the city’s Parks and Rec advisory board, said. “But I think there’s a lot of concern related to conflict and the unknowns. Personally, I’m torn.”


For starters, it might be helpful to define what an e-bike is. An e-bike, at first glance, pretty much looks like a regular mountain bike. However, e-bikes run on an electric motor that’s powered by a battery. The power of the e-bike can vary, but most generally run at about 750 watts, the legal limit in the U.S.

E-bikes are broken down into three classes:

• Class 1 provides assistance when you pedal, up to 20 mph.

• Class 2 powers your ride even when not pedaling, capped at 20 mph.

• Class 3 is pedal-assisted and can reach up to 28 mph when pedaling.

For all intents and purposes, e-bikes are motorized and are classified as such by land management agencies. Yet advocates say e-bikes should not be lumped in with other motorized vehicles, like off-road vehicles and dirt bikes, and should be allowed on trails where regular mountain bikes are permitted.

Figuring out the balance

The City of Durango has been toying with the idea of opening select trails to e-bikes for some time. In 2018, the city allowed e-bikes on paved trails, including the Animas River Trail, Goeglein Gulch Road Trail, SMART 160 Trail and the Three Springs Trail, among others.

Then, in June 2020, the city launched a one-year e-bike trial period at Twin Buttes, a mostly one-directional singletrack system west of town. A major reason that trail was selected was because it does not cross city-owned conservation easements or federal lands, where e-bikes are not permitted.

As part of the test period, the city surveyed people out on the trail to gauge their experiences with e-bikes. Despite 83% of respondents identifying as cyclists (just 12% were hikers), only 57% of those surveyed thought e-bikes should be allowed on the Twin Buttes trails.

“The Twin Buttes trial period was very successful,” Schwarzbach said. “But it was not a landside of people in favor. We have a very split community. And that’s why it’s not a quick decision, because we’re figuring out the right balance.”

Open the gates

A public hearing Feb. 2 about the Twin Buttes trial period drew mostly staunch advocates of e-bikes.

Many people highlighted that e-bikes allow people with physical limitations who couldn’t otherwise power a traditional mountain bike to enjoy the outdoors. And, to deny people that opportunity is a bias against people with disabilities, some said.

“The opinions and preferences of fully entitled and able-bodied trail users should not prohibit others who need help to enjoy soft-surface trails in Durango,” John Glover, a manager at Mountain Bike Specialists, said.

Michael Payne, a Durango resident, said there’s little difference between e-bikes and regular mountain bikes on the trail, and there are ways to offset potential impacts. Indeed, many people suggested directional trails, specific user days and increased signage about trail etiquette. It was also argued that conflicts on trails happen regardless, and it’s unfair to pin the issues solely on e-bikes.

“Even when you’re 80 years old, you need cardio fitness,” Payne said. “Even Ned Overend (Durango mountain biker extraordinaire) is going to be on an e-bike in 15 years. We all get old.”

Lo and behold, Overend, in attendance, said with so many bikers out on public lands, it may be necessary to designate trails specifically for hikers. “And we have enough trails here where we can do that,” he said. “We’re very fortunate.”

Not so fast

E-bikes, of course, are not without detractors. 

Many worry about safety to other trail users, like hikers, given that e-bikes can reach high speeds with little effort on narrow trails. While e-bikes do help people with disabilities recreate, there’s concern companies market the bikes for adrenaline junkies. And, with a motor, people can get farther into remote areas, increasing disturbance to wildlife.

Also in question – given e-bikes’ incredible popularity – what will happen to trail access points in neighborhoods adjacent to areas like Horse Gulch and Overend?

Eric Tomszak, who owns Myth Cycles, voiced concerns that rental businesses push e-bikes on tourists (who may not have necessary skills), possibly creating chaos on trails. Did Moab anticipate razors when opening the town to off-road vehicles?, he asked.

“This is a new and honestly powerful technology, and things are going to change as the technology evolves and e-bikes become more affordable and widespread,” he said. “These decisions will be in place for a long time, and we should move forward cautiously.”

One major critique reiterated is the unknowns – and unintended consequences – of opening trails to e-bikes (for instance, companies are now making e-bikes designed specifically for hunters, so they can haul out animals from areas where off-road vehicles are not allowed).

As a prime example, since the city started discussing e-bikes on trails, Schwarzbach said people commented that if e-bikes are permitted, dirt bikes should be, too. How would that precedent affect other city trails or federal lands?

“E-bikes are motorized vehicles,” Keith Ashmore, a Durango resident and cyclist, said. “And I’m concerned about the slippery slope when the next guy comes and says, ‘I’m on a motorcycle, why can’t I use the trail?’”

Laying down the law

Perhaps an even more difficult hurdle than gaining a majority of public support looms for e-bikes: the law and the interconnected reality of Durango trails with federal lands.

Many city-owned public lands around Durango (like Horse Gulch, and Dalla and Overend mountain parks) were acquired through GOCO lottery money as land trusts now held by La Plata Open Space Conservancy. These lands are under what’s known as a conservation easement, which do not allow any motorized vehicles.

To change this rule would likely require a lengthy legal process. Yes, many of these areas have become mountain biking meccas, but conservation easements, by law, must take into account a range of values, such as wildlife and natural resources – not just one specific recreational use.

“Those easements are meant to protect many values,” Steve McClung, an ex-officio member of the city’s Natural Lands Preservation advisory board, said Feb. 2. “Be prepared, through the looking glass, that might be a high hurdle the city will encounter.”

And, what happens when a Durango trail crosses federal lands managed by the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management, where e-bikes are not allowed?

Where to ride?

This is all not to say e-bikes don’t have places to ride (one tally shows more than 160 miles of trails in the area).

As mentioned above, e-bikes are allowed on paved Durango trails. On Forest Service lands, e-bikes are allowed on all roads and trails open to vehicles, as well as those open to smaller motorized vehicles like motorcycles. They are not, however, allowed on trails designated for non-motorized use.

In 2019, the BLM moved to open more trails to e-bikes. Now, BLM land managers can open trails permitted for mountain bikes to e-bikes. As a result, about 22 miles of new trails (on top of BLM motorized routes where e-bikes are allowed) were opened up, mostly around Mancos and Cortez.

But because of the complications of land access and trail connectivity, no new additional routes on BLM land were opened around Durango, said Jeff Christenson, the BLM’s Tres Rios supervisory outdoor recreation planner. “Durango is tougher,” he said.

Also of note: two major new mountain bike parks – Bakers Park in Silverton and Durango Mesa Park in Durango – both plan to have an extensive network of miles of trails that will allow e-bikes once completed. (Of note, the organizers of Bakers Park did not originally include e-bikes, but they were put in by the BLM’s Gunnison office).

Uphill climb

As for Durango’s parks, no decision on the e-bike question is near.

In the next few weeks, it’s likely that three advisory boards – Parks and Rec, Multimodal and Natural Lands Preservation – will provide their recommendations to Durango city councilors on whether to permanently allow e-bikes on the Twin Buttes trail. 

As far as e-bikes on other trails go, the city has created a subcommittee (three people from each advisory board) to decide on e-bikes in a larger sense. Each board has its own interests. Parks and Rec obviously focuses on recreation. Multimodal looks at ways people can sustainably travel and reduce traffic. And Natural Land Preservation places an emphasis on natural resources.

And it may not be an all or nothing deal – it could be that some trails make sense, others don’t. But this process could take months.

“It’s such a big, nuanced conversation, and it’s a situation where there will be people unhappy one way or the other,” Savastano said. “But I think it comes down to: what sort of trail culture do we want for Durango?”