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Expansion of e-bike trails in Banff National Park draws controversy

“Parks Canada has made a mockery of its so-called core planning values of transparency and science-based decision-making. “It needs to rescind this latest policy change, go back to the drawing board and give this issue the public scrutiny it deserves," said Reg Bunyan, vice-president of Bow Valley Naturalists.
e-bike summer explorer 1
Jennifer Mannsberger, lead e-bike guide at White Mountain Adventures, rides along a dirt trail in the Banff townsite as part of the new adventure company's e-bike tour. JORDAN SMALL RMO PHOTO

BANFF – The number of trails where pedal-assisted electric bikes are permitted in Banff National Park has been expanded, including a controversial move to allow them on some backcountry trails.

While members of the cycling and mountain biking community are pleased with the decision, conservationists are calling on Parks Canada to rescind the policy change for backcountry trails like Healy/Brewster Creek trail to Sundance Lodge and Redearth Creek trail to Shadow Lake Lodge.

The Bow Valley Naturalists (BVN) and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) say they strongly support e-bikes in urban areas and on hardened local trails, noting they are unquestionably part of the solution to Bow Valley traffic congestion and provide a low impact way to access road-based trailheads and facilities in the park.

But Reg Bunyan, vice-president of BVN, said e-bike use on backcountry trails is essentially a form of motorized transport that gets users into the wilderness faster and easier, potentially resulting in more user conflicts, greater crowding and increased wildlife conflicts.

“It functionally moves the trailhead from the highway to the heart of the backcountry, resulting in an overall degradation of wilderness character that extends beyond the end of the e-bike trail,” said Bunyan, a retired resource conservation officer with Banff National Park.

“Many municipalities are already struggling with how to manage ever increasingly more powerful e-bikes on urban bike trails; how this will be done in a backcountry setting with a chronically understaffed warden service defies logic.”

Only class 1 pedal-assist e-bikes are allowed on permitted trails in Banff National Park. That means power assistance is only provided when the e-bike is being pedalled, the motor must not generate more than 500W, and the power assistance must stop when the speed reaches 32km/h.

Pedal-assisted e-bikes have been permitted on the Legacy Trail, but a revised restricted activity order has been expanded to allow pedal assist e-bike use on other trails, including Tunnel Mountain technical trails such as Topp Notch, Star Wars and Return of the Jedi.

In the Lake Louise area, e-bikes are allowed on the Bow River loop, the Tramline and Great Divide Route.

However, the more controversial trails include the Healy Creek-Brewster Creek trail and the Redearth Creek trail.

Specifically, e-bikes, are allowed on the Healy Creek and Brewster Creek trail from the trailhead at the base of Sunshine Village to Sundance Lodge, which is operated by Banff Trail Riders; however, they are not allowed on the Healy Creek trail east beyond the junction with Brewster Creek trail.

E-bikes are also now allowed on the Redearth Creek Trail year-round from the parking area off the Trans-Canada Highway to and back from the Redearth warden cabin. However, e-biking is only allowed on the trail beyond the Y-junction to and from Shadow Lake Lodge, operated by the Alpine Club of Canada, from Dec. 15-March 15 annually.

Bunyan said BVN is at an utter loss to understand Parks Canada’s reasons for opening up e-bike use in the backcountry.

He points to the draft management plan for Banff National Park, which specifically indicates e-bikes won’t be permitted in wilderness areas. It does not refer to declared wilderness, which is a legal definition.

“Parks Canada has made a mockery of its so-called core planning values of transparency and science-based decision-making,” he said.

“It needs to rescind this latest policy change, go back to the drawing board and give this issue the public scrutiny it deserves.”

Mountain biking groups, on the other hand, are pleased with the news.

Clare McCann, who heads up the Bow Valley Mountain Bike Alliance (BVMBA), said the group has been working closely with Parks Canada to mitigate any challenges or apprehension regarding e-bikes on trails.

“We’re pretty excited,” said McCann.

“It allows people that wouldn’t necessarily have the capability to ride mountain bikes the ability to do so and to do so with a great big smile on their face,” she added.

“If it’s going to allow for more people to ride bikes in Banff National Park, that’s fantastic.”

McCann, who was the first person to have a guiding business licensed to offer mountain bike tours in Banff National Park, said the park is becoming a premier cycling destination, noting there are seven e-bike rental companies operating in Banff.

“We have phenomenal trails, we have phenomenal pavements,” she said.

“We have these beautiful Instagram shots and experiences whether the Bow Valley Parkway is open or closed; it’s an amazing e-bike experience.”

McCann said some avid cyclists may find it challenging to continue cycling as they age, so e-bikes provide a great alternative.

“If you’re a local and you’re ageing a little quicker than your riding buddies and you’re an avid cyclist, this is great,” she said.

News that e-bike restrictions had been lifted on select trails came via a Nov. 28 Facebook post from Bow Cycle & Sports, which shared the revised restricted activity order, which had been signed by both Banff field unit superintendents on Nov. 12.

Parks Canada had not posted the new policy on its website until late last Thursday (Dec. 2) after the Rocky Mountain Outlook and others began making inquiries. At 4:50 p.m. that day, the superintendent’s office sent out an email to stakeholders.

BVN and CPAWS were dismayed to learn of Parks Canada’s new e-bike policy via a bicycle store Facebook post.

“CPAWS values transparency in working with Parks Canada and the way this was released violates that principle,” said Sarah Elmeligi, program coordinator for the southern Alberta chapter of CPAWS.

Parks Canada began an assessment in 2019 to determine where e-bikes would be permitted in Banff National Park given the increased popularity and use of e-bikes.

Officials say the assessment analyzed each proposed location, taking into account ecological integrity if traditional bikes were already allowed, and conformance with the agency's mandate, policies and regulations.

Daniella Rubeling, visitor experience manager for Banff National Park, said developing new and innovative programs and services allows people of varying backgrounds and abilities to experience the outdoors.

“Improving the services or the visitor experiences that Parks Canada does have from an accessibility standpoint is really important,” she said.

Parks Canada is legally required to prioritize ecological integrity in all management decisions, but CPAWS argues this restricted activity order expanding e-bike use in the park appears to contradict that commitment.

Elmeligi said trails allowing e-bikes are in landscape management units where the management plan commits to increasing grizzly bear habitat security, an essential component of which is managing human use.

“This restricted activity order further compromises grizzly bear habitat security and contradicts other management efforts to increase it, particularly in the Redearth Creek, Healy/Brewster Creek and Great Divide Trails,” she said.

“This restricted activity order increases and facilitates access by bikes into sensitive backcountry habitats, which needs to be carefully monitored. We would like more information about what kind of monitoring programs will be in place.”

Rubeling said there was consultation on e-bikes during the park management plan process, but it was halted when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“I want to reiterate that consultation and engagement did happen, but it has been a while,” she said.

But Bunyan said that throughout the Banff National Park management plan process, BVN was repeatedly advised that Parks Canada was committed to consultation, open and transparent decision-making based on science. 

He said no terms of reference or monitoring data from the so-called e-bike pilot study have ever been released, leading BVN to believe “that we have regressed to an environment of park management decisions by whim instead of by science.”

“It would seem that we have returned to an environment of backroom deals with select stakeholders and where public input is excluded,” said Bunyan.

Parks Canada is also not sure how the e-bike expansion decision was announced on social media via a Calgary cycling business.

“I would say we’re still trying to sort a bit of that out to find out how exactly that happened,” said Rubeling.

“That would not have been our intention. It’s not the way we like to do business.”

The full list of trails that allow pedal assist e-bikes in Banff National Park can be found on Parks Canada’s website.