A bill that would explicitly open much of Montana’s trail network to e-bikes is positioned to clear the House of Representatives following lawmakers’ 54-46 vote to advance the measure.
During a Thursday afternoon floor session, House Bill 261 sponsor Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, said his bill would help Montana catch up to other states by establishing a regulatory framework for electrically assisted bicycles, or e-bikes. It also gives land managers a “tool,” Gunderson said, to close some roads, pathways and trails to e-bikes in the absence of comprehensive state laws governing their use.
In his opening remarks, Gunderson said that current Montana law requires e-bikes to be treated the same as bicycles, but there are several issues surrounding their use that are unclear in state statute.
“This bill addresses those issues,” he said.
Barring prohibition by a local authority or state agency, HB 261 holds that e-bikes “may be ridden, with the motor in operation, in places where bicycles that are solely human powered are allowed, including but not limited to streets, highways, roadways, bicycle lanes and bicycle or shared-use paths.”
When HB 261 was heard by the House Transportation Committee on Feb. 3, a handful of opponents zeroed in on that language, calling it representative of an “open-until-closed” approach to trail administration that preempts local control.
Speaking on behalf of Wild Montana during the committee meeting, Noah Marion said HB 261 could confuse recreationists given that some land managers, including the U.S. Forest Service, treat e-bikes as motorized vehicles. Marion said the proposal could also jeopardize federal funding for non-motorized trails that are administered through programs like the Recreational Trails Program.
Other opponents argued that HB 261 could seed conflicts between user groups and lead to blanket closures for both human-powered and electrically assisted bicycles.
HB 261 proponent John Juras of Great Falls, who chairs the Montana Bike Walk Montana legislative committee, said he thinks HB 261 will serve one of his organization’s goals — to make bicycling accessible for older Montanans. Juras also said members of the Great Falls bicycling community appreciate that HB 261 specifies that an e-bike is not to be considered a motor vehicle. That could clear up confusion among some Great Falls cyclists about whether natural-surface trails containing an easement for public access are open to e-bikes, he said.
During floor debate on the bill Thursday, Gunderson introduced an amendment that would include public lands, “places administered by the state” and natural-surface trails to the list of places where e-bike use would be permitted unless closed by land managers concerned about safety or “other laws or legal obligations.”
Speaking in opposition to HB 261, Rep. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, said the proposal represents a significant departure from the current system, which holds that leased state land is closed to such uses until opened through a petition process.
“Now, you, as the leaseholder, are going to have to take action in order to keep [e-bikes] off,” she said. “I think that’s the wrong way to do it for our ag community and folks that run cows on state lands.”
Gunderson proposed a similar measure during the 2021 legislative session, but it failed in the Senate on a 25-25 vote after easily passing through the House.
HB 261 will go up for one more House floor vote — considered procedural, as lawmakers rarely change their votes between second and third reading — before it advances to the Senate.
As of Thursday afternoon, Legislative Services has tallied six comments in favor of HB 261 and 87 comments in opposition.
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