Agency OK with race through Nevada desert; critics cry foul

RENO, Nev. – Conservationists are crying foul over U.S. land managers’ initial conclusion that there are no environmental concerns with an off-road race that will cross 650 miles of Nevada desert and cut through a new national monument.

They say the Bureau of Land Management delayed releasing a study of the Aug. 19-20 race until last week to prevent legal challenges.

About 350 trucks, dune buggies, motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles are expected to compete in this year’s Best in the Desert Vegas to Reno Race. It’s also expected to draw 5,000 spectators and 500 staff members.

The BLM issued its environmental assessment of the proposed race route July 1. Under the National Environmental Policy Act, the public has 30 days — or until Aug. 1 — to comment on it.

The agency then has until Aug. 14 to respond to comments and decide whether to issue a permit for the proposed route, which includes 37 miles of dirt roads inside the Basin and Range National Monument. That’s just five days before the race is to begin near Alamo, 100 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

“By rigging the calendar, BLM is trying to preclude any legal challenge because there will not be enough time,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of the non-profit Public Employees for Environmental Ethics.

“BLM has made a farce out of the entire process,” he said.

The BLM said President Obama’s monument proclamation allows for motorized vehicles on roads that existed when he created it last summer.

The monument stretches across more than 700,000 acres and is home to rare rock art from 4,000 years ago. It also is the site of “City,” an array of abstract sculptures artist Michael Heizer has created for more than four decades.

The agency said it assessed the potential effects on wildlife, vegetation, scenery and Native American cultural sites.

“These analyses each conclude that direct, indirect and cumulative impacts would be minor and/or temporary,” the BLM said in an email to The Associated Press.

The proposed route follows graded dirt roads, 4-wheel routes and dry sand and gravel washes. Within the national monument, travel is limited to existing dirt roads 12 to 16 feet wide. Racers must yield to wildlife. Discovery of any cultural resources or fossils would immediately suspend all operations within 100 yards.

“BLM will monitor the race to ensure participants and spectators are not harassing or harming wildlife or driving outside the approved race route on existing roads and trails,” the agency wrote.

Casey Folks, director of the Boulder City-based Best in the Desert Racing Association sponsoring the race for the 20th consecutive year, said he submitted proposed route maps in April 2015 — three months before Obama created the 1,100-square-mile monument northeast of Las Vegas. He said he paid the BLM $75,300 to cover the costs of a special recreation permit and for reviews of the same route last raced in 2006.

“I pride myself in running a safe and environmentally sound race,” he said.

Folks said the event generates more than $15 million annually for rural Nevada’s economy.

He described off-road recreation as a family-oriented sport that teaches children respect for the desert.

“We love nature,” Folks said. “We aren’t hooligans out destroying the desert.”

Ruch, of the public employees’ group, argued the BLM should conduct an environmental impact statement — much more extensive than an assessment — given the “potential loss or destruction of important natural resources.”

He said the agency devoted less than two pages of the 116-page assessment specifically to the monument, and didn’t adequately consider two alternate routes it identified outside the monument.