RENO, Nev. — Concerns about a controversial off-road race running through a new national monument in Nevada turned out to be much ado about nothing — sort of.
The “Vegas-to-Reno Best in the Desert Race” didn’t end up crossing into the Basin and Range National Monument on Aug. 19 as was planned and approved by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management over the objections of conservationists.
The 37-mile segment on existing dirt roads through the monument northeast of Las Vegas was rerouted because a military helicopter crashed and sparked a wildfire nearby the night before.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a suburban Washington D.C.-based government watchdog group representing past and present federal workers, had argued unsuccessfully for months that the two-day, 640-mile race dubbed the longest of its kind in the nation would cause ecological damage to the fragile desert lands in the monument President Obama designated last summer stretching across more than 1,000 square miles.
“Kind of a weird ending,” Jeff Ruch, the group’s executive director, told The Associated Press on Thursday. “Nobody is explicitly saying anything, but the race through the monument never happened.”
Ruch said he didn’t learn of the last-minute detour until he received a confidential call from a BLM employee earlier this week.
The agency’s failure to inform the public was further evidence of the secrecy surrounding the inappropriate approval of the route in the first place, he said.
BLM spokesman Chris Hanefeld confirmed Thursday agency officials informed race organizers hours before the start they had decided to reroute the course so the Air Force could secure the crash site. He said the detour was selected from alternatives studied as part of an environmental assessment conducted before approving the original route a week before the start.
“We didn’t issue a press release. Why would we?” Hanefeld said Thursday.
“The bottom line is the helicopter went down for whatever reason. They needed to secure the site. We needed to make a decision. We made a good decision, so the race went on. Everything went well,” he said.
The U.S. Air Force said in a statement the day after the helicopter crash that four crew members were treated for non-life threatening injuries after the HH-60G Pave Hawk from Nellis Air Force Base went down during a night training mission on the Nevada Test and Training Range near the monument.
Based in part on earlier criticism from PEER, BLM had set a 35 mph speed limit on the original route through the monument, and prohibitted any passing of vehicles so as to ensure the racers remained on the established dirt roads. More than 350 all-terrain vehicles, including trucks, cars, dune buggies and motorcycles competed in timed intervals in the two-day race that ended near Dayton on Aug. 20.
“The fact that BLM had already reduced this race to a glorified parade only underlined it should never have allowed racing inside the monument in the first place,” Ruch said. “Plotting this race through a national moment was conceived in secrecy, so it is only fitting that it ended in a mysterious fog.”