June 13, 2016

RENO, Nev. (AP) 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 U.S. 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 Ethics.

The move violates the National Environmental Policy Pact and threatens to circumvent President Obama's designation of the 1,100-square monument last June, Ruch said in a letter Friday to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who oversees BLM, and Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the White House CEQ.

Ruch also accused the BLM of ''engaging in bad faith, if not downright deceptive, public outreach'' by failing to provide proper notice or properly review the potential ecological effects of the 20th running of the two-day race scheduled Aug. 19-20.

The race sponsor, the Best in the Desert Racing Association based in Boulder City, bills the event as the longest off-highway vehicle race in the United States. Between 250 and 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.

Race officials said Monday they expect to receive formal approval from BLM in mid- to late-July for the route, which includes about 40 miles on existing dirt roads within the monument.

But BLM officials insist it's not a done deal.

''To be clear, BLM has not approved the application for the special permit for the 2016 event, nor have we signed any decision,'' said Alicia Styles, BLM's manager of the monument based in Caliente.

The preliminary environmental assessment is expected to be released for a 30-day public comment period sometime this week, Styles said. She said the agency then will review all the comments before making a decision. She said it's not clear how fast that could happen.

''Having not gone through the public comment period yet, it's hard to predict,'' she told The Associated Press on Monday. She confirmed the route is on existing dirt roads.

''There aren't any paved roads in the monument,'' she said.

Casey Folks, the race director, said it's the same route that has been run at least four times, most recently in 2006. He's confident BLM will approve it.

''Do we have the permit in our hands? No, not yet,'' Folks told AP on Monday. ''Have we been assured by BLM we will get the permit? Pretty much.''

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 news release on 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 announced in a statement that it had begun scoping work to develop a draft management plan for the overall 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.

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