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Desert race through new Nevada monument under fire

RENO — Conservationists are asking the White House Council on Environmental Quality to put the brakes on plans to allow a popular off-road, desert race from near Las Vegas to Reno to run through a newly established national monument in Southern Nevada.

The critics say the Bureau of Land Management jumped the gun by at least tacitly approving a “massive off-road race course running directly through” the Basin and Range National Monument about 150 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

“BLM is playing fast and loose with its legal obligations in order to let hundreds of vehicles roar through the fragile desert before the monument’s protections can be solidified,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of the Washington-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

The move violates the National Environmental Policy Act and threatens to circumvent President Barack Obama’s designation of the 1,100-square-mile monument last July, he said in a letter Friday to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who oversees BLM, and Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Ruch also accused the BLM of “engaging in bad faith, if not downright deceptive, public outreach” by failing to provide proper notice and environmental review of the plans for the 20th running of the two-day race scheduled Aug. 19-20.

BLM spokesman Rudy Evenson confirmed Friday that BLM is conducting an environmental assessment of an application for a special recreation permit to run the race on BLM land, including a stretch through the monument. But he said they had not formally received the complaint from PEER and had no immediate response to the criticism.

Basin and Range National Monument manager Alicia Styles told the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Monday that a preliminary draft of the environmental assessment should be released “any day now.” She said that will trigger a public comment period, during which input will be collected, analyzed and included in the final version of the assessment.

Styles could not supply a map of the proposed route for the off-road race, but said it crosses about 40 miles of the monument, all of it on existing dirt roads.

“Basically it’s in the southern portion of the monument,” she said.

The race sponsor, the Boulder City-based Best in the Desert Racing Association, bills the event as the longest off-highway vehicle race in the United States. About 300 motorcycles, trucks, dune buggies and other all-terrain vehicles are expected to compete this year.

The route stretches 640 miles, starting in Alamo, about 100 miles north of Las Vegas, with an overnight stop in Tonopah before finishing near Dayton, about 40 miles southeast of Reno.

No association officials were immediately available to comment, spokesman Russ Turner said in a Friday email to The Associated Press.

Obama said in designating the monument it covers one of the “most undisturbed corners” and the “largest ecologically intact landscapes” in the Great Basin region stretching to Oregon, Idaho and into Utah.

Ruch said an environmental impact statement — more detailed and extensive than an environmental assessment — should be required given the “cumulative impact of individual race vehicles … and the potential loss or destruction of important natural resources.”

BLM said in a statement Aug. 4, 2015, that coordination between the agency and Best in the Desert Racing “is already in progress to ensure permitting is completed and the public is involved.”

On June 2, the agency posted notice in the Federal Register and said in a statement that it had begun scoping work to develop a draft management plan for the monument. But Ruch said it included “no information or notice regarding the upcoming race, which will have substantial impact on the monument’s preservation of undisturbed land.”

“Now, a mere two months before the 2016 race is set to begin and with more than 200 racers already registered, no public notice has been provided and no public comment has been sought in regard to the race,” Ruch said. “If this is any indication of how BLM intends to manage this monument, Lord help the Basin and Range.”

Las Vegas Review-Journal writer Henry Brean contributed to this report.

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