- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 20, 2016

RENO, Nev. (AP) - The U.S. Bureau of Land Management - accused of illegally rigging the process to approve the biggest off-road race in the nation - has extended the public comment period on plans to run part of the race through a national monument in Nevada over the objections of conservationists.

The agency announced this week it had pushed the comment deadline from July 31 to Aug. 3 on an environmental assessment it issued July 1 for the 20th annual “Best in the Desert Vegas to Reno Race.”

The proposed 650-mile route includes 37 miles on dirt roads within the Basin and Range Monument, which President Obama established last July across 1,100 square miles northeast of Las Vegas.

The agency will have until Aug. 17 to consider the comments and issue a decision. But that’s just two days before the two-day race is set to begin Aug. 19.

Conservationists claim it’s part of a ploy to prevent them from filing any legal challenges to try to keep 350 trucks, dune buggies, motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles from racing through the monument.

“The agency’s consideration of public comments is a fraud, merely a required pretense,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington D.C.-area watchdog group made up of past and present federal employees.

Race organizers applied for a special recreation permit on May 26, 2015, but the Bureau of Land Management didn’t release the environmental assessment for comment until three weeks ago. In the meantime, Ruch said race organizers “invested significant resources under assurances from the federal agency that the permit would be granted.”

“In other words, the fix is in,” he wrote in a formal objection he provided to The Associated Press and intends to submit to the Bureau of Land Management on Thursday.

Casey Folks, director of the Best in the Desert Racing Association that is sponsoring the race, said he has already paid the Bureau of Land Management $75,300 to cover the costs of the permit and associated reviews of the route. He said it’s the same route that has been run at least four times, most recently in 2006. He is confident the Bureau of Land Management will approve it.

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

Agency officials deny any wrongdoing and insist they are not predisposed to approve the route expected to be traveled by 350 trucks, dune buggies, motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles shortly after they depart in timed intervals from near Alamo, 100 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

“No decision has been made nor will one be made until all public comments have been received and addressed,” Bureau of Land Management spokesman Chris Hanefeld said.

“The BLM intends to make the decision available as soon as possible to provide sufficient time for the proponent time to plan for the event, and those with standing to appeal,” he said in a recent email to AP.

Ruch said the monument was “explicitly created to both preserve and protect the unique natural environment” and its prehistoric, historic and scientific value.

“The race serves no land conservation purpose,” he said. “The sight and sound of hundreds of vehicles tearing through the soft dirt roads at an average of 60 mph lies in harsh contrast to the values outlined in the proclamation.”

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